For environmental groups to be anti-racist, we must come to terms with the past

Until recently, I had a habit whenever I found myself in a conversation about race with a person of color. Not long into the discussion, I would tell the story of how my best friend growing up was Black and how I went to a “minority-white” church outside of Boston. I didn’t realize until later that I was speaking in code - essentially trying to show that I was one of the “good white people.” That I was on their side. Most importantly, that I was “not a racist.” 

I thought that racism was a wrong-headed belief system that racists held and perpetuated by sharing racist ideas. I was taught to be “color-blind.” Taught that things used to be really bad in this country for people of color (especially Black people), but then Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King - and other known and unknown people - demanded change, and everything is mostly good now and getting better. 

As a teenager, I held onto this belief despite spending time with my Black and Latinx friends and seeing how much harder their lives were than mine. And I’ve sadly come to realize that as a result of the belief that “things are good and getting better,” I thought just continuing to “not be  racist” was good enough.

It sounds so naive now when I write it - especially as someone who runs a change-making organization and who should have known better (a long time ago) and acted differently in the world as a privileged white leader. 

But the outcome of the 2016 election and the years that have followed have forced more white people - including me - to acknowledge and wrestle with our white privilege and with white supremacy in our society and institutions. I started to take a hard look at how much of my opportunities and advancement have come because of the legacy wealth of my forebears and the structural racism that has supported their and my success at the expense of people of color - including my own friends and colleagues. 

I’ve spent the last three and a half years slowly exploring that privilege and the structural racism that permeates daily life in America. Part of that has involved looking at white privilege and white bias at UPSTREAM – and in the environmental movement and plastics space where we work. 

“Your organizations are the way they are because of your white networks and because you are content to stay within them.”

For our organization, things came to a head in 2018. We looked around the room at our staff retreat and found that we were basically still an all-white organization after 15 years of being in business (one person of color on our then seven-person team, and zero on our eight-person board). When I attended an equity and inclusion training several months later, I started to see why. 

At the training, which was designed for white-led environmental groups, the facilitator said, “Your organizations are the way they are because of your white networks and because you are content to stay within them.” And as I thought about my experience with UPSTREAM over the previous seven years, the problems started to come into focus. 

We were founded by leaders in the US and Canadian Zero Waste movements who were inspiring, accomplished people, but they all came from similar backgrounds - white, college-educated, relatively affluent, politically progressive, and passionate about saving the environment. For years, when we wanted a new board member or were looking to fill a position or find a contractor, someone on the team or board would say, “Hey, I know someone who would be great for that!” Nearly 100% of the time, it would be a person who looked a lot like everyone else in the organization, with all the same attributes - white, affluent, progressive, educated, environmentalist. 

The other thing I realized at the training was that we knew we wanted to become a multicultural organization representing a diversity of people, backgrounds, and experiences, but we didn’t have a plan. And we didn’t have the right policies or even a shared sense of “why” it was important to do so. 

So we hired a consultant, and the very first thing she said was, “You have to articulate what kind of diversity you want in your organization (e.g., what’s the adjective that goes before diversity?) and why that’s important to your mission.” She called this our rationale statement, and it was one of the best exercises we engaged in as a team and board. As the principal drafter, I was forced to look at my own experience of 20 years working in various parts of the environmental movement and to do more research into the history. What I saw and reflected on was disturbing, to say the least.

Many mainstream environmental groups have moved forward without environmental justice representation and, in some cases, actively excluded them from powerful tables.

My experience has largely been with the modern US environmental movement, which was primarily established for the protection of air, water, wildlife and land in the 1970s. It has focused on a number of strategies - law, science, and policy being the most prominent - which has drawn on a largely white professionalized set of actors. 

At the same time, the environmental justice movement has grown to support people living on the front lines of our unjust production and consumption systems - representing communities of color and marginalized communities, among others. These organizations have been at the forefront of pushing back against environmental racism - where powerful corporate and political interests site polluting factories, landfills, and other industrial facilities in and around communities of color. 

The really brief (glossed-over) history* is that for decades, many mainstream environmental groups have moved forward without environmental justice representation and, in some cases, actively excluded them from powerful tables. 

The results show we’ve not been able to make the environment a top-of-mind issue for most Americans, nor build the kind of movement that can create change at a scale commensurate with the scale of the problems we face.

It’s also taken far too long for us to realize that it’s not enough to “not be racist.” We must become “anti-racist.” 

But this appears to be changing. Many of our friends and allies are way ahead of UPSTREAM and have been showing the way for years. The incredible outpouring of solidarity from virtually every major US environmental organization for Black Lives Matter, and the renewed or new commitments from environmental groups for greater solidarity across movements and authentic racial equity and inclusion, is heartening. 

At UPSTREAM, we are still very much in this journey, and I don’t want to have anything I’ve written come across as saying we’ve got this figured out or that we’re a model for other groups - because we’re really only just beginning to get where we need to be. We still have a lot of work to do. We know that to authentically become an anti-racist organization, we must first become a multicultural organization.

I’m humbled to say that we - and I - should have made this a priority much sooner. We should have taken the time to go beyond our predominantly white networks to post job and board openings and other opportunities. And we should have actively built relationships and welcomed more people of color into this organization much earlier than we did. 

It’s also taken far too long for us to realize that it’s not enough to “not be racist.” We must become “anti-racist.” And we need to act in our communities and use our voices, platforms, and funding to undo the often silent, well-hidden, and insidious structures that advance white supremacy at the expense of our BIPOC friends, neighbors, and colleagues. 

For more of the journey toward anti-racism, check out our latest episode on the Indisposable Podcast: From White Environmentalism to Anti-Racism 


*I’m intentionally leaving aside the well-documented historical racism of the 19th and 20th century conservation movements - where much of the initial focus was on locking up and locking out Indigenous people and other people of color from wild and scenic places.