Race and New Leadership on Environment and Sustainability

I’ve just read an interview at Yale e360 with Aaron Mair, the new president of the Sierra Club. He’s the first African American leader of a national environmental organization. This marks the sea change at work in traditional environmentalism and one, I’d argue, that provides an opening for us to think about a two things: Who’s in the room and why? What does this mean for sustainability work?

Let me say, this is pretty off-the-cuff. I’ve thought about this before, hosted Reverened Lennox Yearwood on Sustainability Now Radio a few years ago, but it’s not often in the front of my mind. I’m a white guy working at a pretty white university in a pretty white town in the middle of a white part of the state.

Thinking about who’s been in the room I’m thinking about who holds power in the environmental movement. Minorities have called environmentalism a privileged white thing for years. For some satire, see Stuff White People Like and in particular Stuff Environmentalists Like. Guilty as charged. And while Stuff White People Like is satire, it points to something beneath the surface.

It’s easy to think there’s no race in environmentalism when you’re white. Why? Because everyone around you is white unless you live in a city. Even still, the history of whiteness and conservation and, the Teddy Roosevelt-ness and John Muir-ness of it…even the Rachel Carson-ness of it, has segregated it. And that homogeneity is attached to other things about whiteness like unstated and often unconscious notions of white superiority. And so minorities and probably especially African Americans disrupt that assumed conservation-minded narrative. That’s great.

If we want a healthy environment we need healthy people. And no one in the United States has been made more sick by the profligacy and negligence of our economy and politics than minorities, especially African Americans. Just follow the father of environmental justice, Robert Bullard’s Twitter feed for a few days and you’ll see what I mean. I’m of the mind that we aren’t just a part of nature but that we are nature. When nature is sick, we are sick. When we are sick, nature is sick. I suspect this means that the fiercest champions for healthy nature could be African Americans like Bullard, Mair, and Majora Carter. How excellent that they’re in the room with us now, leading us to see nature in a more inclusive way.

What does this mean for sustainability work? My office is white. The Sierra Club executive committee on which I serve is white. But the sustainability movement and the people working in the disciplines that feed it are more diverse. That’s heartening. There are and have been way more women minorities involved, women like Majora Carter, Vandana Shiva, Arundati Roy, Naomi Klein, and the deceased Wangari Maathai. I wonder what people like me–overeducated white guys–can do to open this space up for fresh, inclusive, and insightful leadership.

I guess the first step is to start looking around for people to meet, listen, and learn from.

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