By Karin Meyer
Catchy chants and a cornucopia of signs made their way down Market Street in San Francisco on Saturday September 24, 2011, during a world wide 24 hour “day of action” for climate solutions. Spearheaded by 350.org, the “Moving Planet” event drew many hundreds of people. The demonstrators behind the chants and under the signs came from a large contingency of environmental, peace, green energy, social justice, women’s rights, and many other groups. What the vast majority of them had in common, however, was their Caucasian background.
From my position at the front of the march, I looked around at the accidental spectators and I saw some smiles and encouraging waves, but mostly they just seemed to be trying to figure out what was going on. Tourists in the shopping area around Powell Street might have figured it was just a San Francisco thing and went their merry way. San Franciscans waiting by the bus stops might have just been hoping that this wouldn’t delay their bus. The homeless population clearly enjoyed the festivities, but they seemed equally clue-less as to the purpose of the event. While I can only speculate about how these bystanders might have perceived us, what was immediately evident, however, was the ethnic diversity among them.
My observation of this particular march raised a question that I could not stop contemplating even while chanting: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, fossil fuels have got to go!” On the one hand, “Moving Planet” was taking a stand, sending a message, and creating a worldwide movement. By virtue of being one of over 2000 events in more than 180 countries, with the resulting global media coverage, we were showing our political and economic leaders how convinced we are of the urgent need to move our planet to a more sustainable future. However, it seemed clear that we were in some ways part of a celebration, and that we were not trying to engage more people. A friend said to me recently: “Yes, we might be preaching to the choir, but it is important that this choir keeps on singing loudly!” So yes, celebrations are necessary (and I firmly believe that), yet somehow it seemed like such a wasted opportunity!
The environmental movement is, and has been, well aware of the fact that it needs to work on increasing ethnic, age, and income diversity. Mark Tercek, the CEO of The Nature Conservancy, contemplates in his April 7th Huffington Post Green article a study in which EPA officials challenge the movement to become more racially diverse. This study focuses on the importance of increasing the number of students of color graduating from college-level environmental programs. As a student of Presidio Graduate School, a school established to meet the rising demand of sustainability professionals who are able to navigate the complexity of our economic, ecological, and social systems and provide effective solutions to its many problems, I feel strongly this is something that needs to be taken to heart.
Why has the environmental movement made so few inroads into the lives of African American, Hispanic, and Asian communities in the United States while these communities are already making up 30% of our population?
The 350.org movement has been extraordinarily successful in uniting a plethora of organizations under its mission of cutting CO2 emissions. It has been reaching many non-affiliated people with its savvy social media skills. Its grassroots efforts have energized people all over the world. Yet even 350.org seems to be lacking substantial participation from America’s minority groups. Why? Trying to find an answer to this question shows that hardly anybody tackles this problem head-on. Part of the answer, however, can be found in the proposals for solutions. Julian Agyeman, Chair of the Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Department at Tufts University, argues that it is time to develop strategies for greater ethnic inclusion now that it is no longer only a moral issue, but one of necessity. An article featured by The Center for Diversity and the Environment argues the same. The strategies all come down to active listening and meeting people where they are. What emerges is that so far almost no systemic and systematic outreach to minority communities has been implemented or even developed. This might be because it seems too simple, maybe those of us who have secured a reasonably safe place in the white middle class have assumed that because the problems are so self-evident everybody should see them, discounting the very different reality of other people.
Alongside the protection of natural capital then needs to come a strategic, comprehensive, and collaborative approach to develop the incredible social capital that can be found across age, ethnicity, and class. It remains to be seen if translating this commitment into policy will be advisable, or even possible, but if environmental leaders and college-level environmental programs were to start viewing diversity as a top priority, we will have made considerable headway towards our mission of reducing carbon emissions, creating a more sustainable and democratic world, and increasing quality of life for all life!
Karin Meyer is pursuing an MPA in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School. Her main focus is on figuring out what successful sustainable communities look like. She would like to applaud 350.org for joining the protesters of Occupy Wall Street.
(Photograph by Judi Brown.)