Just after Hurricane Katrina hit, Burt Edwards recalls how co-workers at his Washington, D.C., environmental nonprofit thought it was a great opportunity to send out messages about climate change.
As the only person of color in the room, he had to disagree.
"At that point, people were still on their roofs (after the flooding), waiting for help," says Edwards, who is African-American. "This was the wrong time to be talking about it. If we pushed this out, this to me would reinforce a lot of the worst stereotypes of the environmental community."
His co-workers held off. "It just didn't occur to them," says Edwards, who moved to Oregon two months ago to become communications director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
The staffs of environmental nonprofits still aren't very diverse, and not just in Portland.
Fast Company magazine recently spotlighted the issue, citing a national survey of 4,000 U.S. nonprofit workers by the New York nonprofit Building Movement Project.
"There's an intense lack of racial diversity among nonprofit and foundation leaders, an issue that remains unaddressed despite having been well-documented for at least 15 years," the magazine wrote, a trend it called "perplexing."
Sustainable Life reached out to two dozen of Portland's green groups to see how they stack up, and most welcomed the conversation.
Some had statistics ready; others don't collect such information.
Most admit their staff and boards don't mirror the larger population, a problem they're aggressively trying to tackle. It's especially critical for environmental groups, as the lack of clean air, water, land and energy disproportionately impact communities of color, and considering that Oregon is growing increasingly diverse.
Here's what we found local groups are doing about the challenge:
Talking about race, paid internships
"You can't just address the choir and the people who already feel comfortable in nature," says Nick Hardigg, executive director of the The Audubon Society of Portland. "You have to recognize what the barriers are."
Audubon is focusing on staff recruitment and retention, and addressing the culture of the organization. It holds active talks about race and color, which aren't easy.
"It's worth uncomfortable moments to educate ourselves to our privileged position and how that dynamic often separates us," Hardigg says.
Audubon created an initiative to increase leadership for people of color — 13 paid internships that teach young people the skills they need to work in conservation, from education to advocacy.
Tapping emerging leaders
"I think one of the barriers we face is not having enough deep and meaningful relationships with communities of color from which to recruit new staff," says Melody Martinez, the recently hired equity director for Oregon Environmental Council. That's typical of many environmental nonprofits, Martinez says.
OEC is working to improve and strengthen its relationships with these communities, and revising its recruitment and hiring processes to eliminate potential barriers to employment. OEC has an Emerging Leaders Board of people under age 40 who advise the board and support its mission. Fifty-nine percent are people of color.
The Nature Conservancy mandates that its 90-plus Oregon employees attend a two-day training focused on "Engaging Across Difference," says Jim Desmond, state director of the Oregon operation.
Some senior leaders, including himself, also have attended a national three-day training called White Men as Full Diversity Partners. They're focusing on efforts to engage diverse youth, like Spanish-language guided hikes and partnerships with local schoolchildren of color.
"I think all of us in the environmental movement are certainly conscious of the path not being as strong as it could be, and desire to improve," Desmond says.
Auditing policies, practices
Friends of Trees is working on an internal equity audit to highlight policies and practices that need tweaking, to ensure a safe and welcoming space for all, says Whitney Dorer, deputy director. Having a diverse staff "is very important to demonstrate to youth that they, too, can have a future in the environmental field," she says.
Although the current staff makeup is 29 percent people of color, Friends of Trees recognizes it faces a challenge with language barriers and recruitment.
"More languages spoken among our staff mean that we're able to reach even more communities to ensure everyone feels welcome at our public planting events," Dorer says.
Partnering with community groups
Tualatin Riverkeepers, whose mission is to protect and restore the Tualatin River, serves one of the most diverse parts of the state, a population in Washington County that's more than 30 percent nonwhite.
Their recreation program works to help immigrants and refugees connect to nature and the river as a place of healing. Their environmental education program works with low-income, highly diverse schools; and their Watershed Watch program is partnering with Centro Cultural in Cornelius and Muslim Educational Trust in Tigard to train the next generation of advocates.
"We are working to make equity a value within our institution and are particularly excited to be rolling out a cultural competency tour for our volunteer trip leaders this year, who guide hundreds of members of the public on the river each summer," says Mike Skuja, Tualatin Riverkeepers director.
"The staff is often the face of an organization, but the culture and long-term direction happens through the board," says Kevin Gorman, executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge. "If you're not thinking about your board and having diversity on the board, it's probably never going to trickle down through to the staff."
He sees diversity as representing the cultures and natural resources of the unique geography they serve — and the gorge is a melting pot for Latino and Native American residents, especially. Adding a Native person to the board recently, whose ancestors built their way of life in the gorge, was a boon for the organization, Gorman says. "I think it's much more valuable to have a bigger discussion of diversity when people in the room can speak to it, rather than have a group of white people saying 'This is what I think.' "
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