9 october 2014

Is the green movement finally becoming less overwhelmingly white?

A high percentage of environmental activists are white, but minorities and the poor also have plenty at stake.

Jennifer Kho and Greg Harman,, Thursday 9 October 2014

When Nikki Silvestri, executive director of Green for All in Oakland, California, was growing up, she struggled with the idea that she had to choose between fighting for the environment and fighting for “my people” – in other words, combating social problems traditionally considered to be key African American issues, like police brutality.

After all, while the environment has historically been considered a white issue, plenty of studies – such as this 2010 research from Yale and George Mason universities (pdf) – have found that ethnic minorities are likely to be among the hardest hit by climate change. It’s increasingly clear that the environment is a social-justice issue.

“There is the assumption that folks have the day-to-day survival mode to deal with and whale-saving just ain’t our shit,” Silvestri said, speaking at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, on Monday. “It couldn’t be more wrong.”

There’s still a long way to go: a University of Michigan survey in May found that leaders of environmental groups are overwhelmingly white males, with ethnic minorities occupying fewer than 12% of leadership positions.

But things have been changing in a big way, Silvestri said. She pointed to last month’s People’s Climate March in New York, in which the lead marchers were people of color, as one example.

“I’ve been able to see all of these people of color really take on environmentalism and take on this issue as their own,” Silvestri said at the conference. “It’s been beautiful and it’s been trying.”
SXSW Eco conference Nikki Silvestri on Monday spoke at the SXSW Eco conference, throughout which Guardian Sustainable Business livestreamed selected sessions. Photograph: Diego Donamaria/SXSW

In a survey of African Americans, Latin Americans and Asians in swing states, Green for All found that the majority of respondents said they actively sought out news and information about the environment.

According to the survey, 75% of people of color think carbon emissions standards will create, not kill, jobs in the long-term, even though 50% think we will lose jobs in the short-term, Silvestri said. Meanwhile, 70% of the respondents said they would vote differently on a candidate who held a bad position on climate change.

The findings echo a Pew Research Center survey last month found that nonwhites are 20% more likely than whites to think climate change should be a top priority for the government, and 2010 research from Yale and George Mason universities (pdf), which also found that ethnic minorities “were often the strongest supporters of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even when informed that some of these policies would entail individual costs”.

What can be done to bring more people of color into the environmental movement? “Do not reinvent the wheel,” she said.

When her organization aimed to get people of color involved in the sharing economy, it didn’t try to create a sharing platform on Android. Instead, it turned to a network that already fosters sharing inside the African American communities – the churches, she said.

She reminded the audience that people who are in breakdown mode – struggling to make ends meet – need some lightness in their lives too.

“I often think one of the reasons we don’t have civil disobedience now is because we don’t have a soundtrack,” she said. “The role of music and song is to confront things that can’t be confronted directly. Sometimes you have to go around the side or the back.”

>>> Back to list