These past few weeks, people across the United States have been horrified by the continuing violence against people of color. Resources for the Future has been working toward contributing energy and thoughtful work—not just words and statements—to support and incorporate diversity in our environmental mission. Toward that end, we are rebroadcasting this Resources Radio episode from last July with Dorceta Taylor.
In this episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Professor Dorceta E. Taylor of the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability (soon to be moving to the faculty at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies). Raimi asks Taylor about her research on the history of the environmental movement, focusing on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion within environmental groups—both historically and today. While some progress has happened over the years, major challenges remain, and the field has plenty of room for improvement.
In addition, Taylor has contributed a piece from her perspective, which she has written to serve as an extension of this episode's conversation. We're publishing the piece here, below.
Listen to the Podcast
- Diversity in the environmental field has fallen behind diversity of the nation: “In 1990, when we looked at the major environmental organizations, less than 2 percent of the staff were people of color. If we look at it today, we're around 16 percent … That's the good news. Bad news is, people of color in the United States are about 38 percent of the population. They are the fastest-growing sector if you look at the educational pipeline … By the year 2050, the United States will be a majority-minority country.” (12:15)
- Learning to notice racial disparities: “In 1990, when we had the first People of Color Environmental [Leadership] Summit, there was a white environmental leader there. And he said, ‘I had just not noticed that everybody in my organization was white.’ It's not that he's a racist; it's not that he necessarily intended to be racist. It's a question of what you see and what you don't see.” (14:43)
- Implications of recent events on environmentalists: Taylor writes in the accompanying piece, “Recent events should erase all doubts that race—blackness in particular—is inextricably connected with racism, violence, and gross inequalities in the home, on the street, in the park, and elsewhere in the outdoors. The events ... make it impossible for environmentalists to concern themselves only with the trees, flowers, wildlife, fresh air—and not the people and their experiences in the natural and built environment.”
Top of the Stack
- The Rise of the American Conservation Movement by Dorceta E. Taylor
- The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations by Dorceta E. Taylor
Thoughts on Being in the Environment While Black
by Dorceta E. Taylor
Since the emergence of environmental activism in the United States, white environmentalists have struggled to see how race is connected to the environment. For a long time, many environmentalists have ignored the connections, but in recent years, concepts like justice and equity have seeped into the environmental discourse as grassroots, people-of-color-led groups have stressed those interconnections. Recent events should erase all doubts that race—blackness in particular—is inextricably connected with racism, violence, and gross inequalities in the home, on the street, in the park, and elsewhere in the outdoors. The events, a few of which I will highlight below, make it impossible for environmentalists to concern themselves only with the trees, flowers, wildlife, fresh air—and not the people and their experiences in the natural and built environment.
Environmentalists urge citizens to take a walk or a jog without contemplating for one second the fate of:
went for a jog.
He was spotted by white supremacists and segregationists,
chased down in a vehicle,
cornered by three armed men.
In the confines of the Ramble in Central Park, Harvard graduate and member of the Board of Directors of the New York Audubon Society, Christian Cooper, is doing something he enjoys:
Frederick Law Olmsted designed the park with this activity in mind.
For Chris: right activity, wrong skin color.
Amy Cooper: right skin color.
Olmsted wanted (white) females to get fresh air and exercise and take contemplative walks in the park.
Amy’s dog capers, unleashed in the park.
Olmsted would have a conniption over this—wrong activity for the park.
A police station and police patrols were installed in the park during the nineteenth century to prevent activities like the one Amy was engaging in.
Amy has the skin color combined with the power and privilege to ignore park rules.
Chris asks Amy to put her dog on a leash.
Amy, incensed by the hubris of a black man to make such a request,
asserts her white power and privilege,
draws on stereotypical and racist tropes,
with fear and trembling in her voice, calls the police to report that
an African American male is threatening her.
George Floyd could not have imagined dying in front of the store he walked out of and sat in a car with a friend. In the last minutes of his life:
George felt his face being pressed into the asphalt.
Black shoes, shiny shoes visible all around.
Pushed into the earth.
“Mother,” he calls out.
Mother. Earth. Earth. Mother.
The unspeakable violence of a white knee.
Pressed into his throat.
Forced into the earth.
“I can’t breathe,” he says.
“Let him breathe,” cry the bystanders.
The white knee remains.
It does not let up.
Air is forced from him.
Eight minutes and forty-six seconds.
No more air in George.
These cases, as well as the case of Breonna Taylor who died in a hail of bullets while asleep in her bed and countless others, highlight the violence that blacks encounter in America every day. Environmentalists can no longer turn a blind eye to the structural factors that give rise to and perpetuate these inequalities. Environmentalists have to embrace diversity and incorporate activities aimed at reducing and eliminating racism, classism, sexism, homophobia into their everyday activities.
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: This week, as we all reflect on our society's long history of racism, inequity, and injustice, we thought it was a good time to re-air our 2019 interview with Professor Dorceta Taylor of the University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability. In this conversation, I ask Professor Taylor about her research on the history of environmental movements and her focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion within those groups. As you'll hear, there's been some progress over the years, but there are still big challenges and plenty of room for improvement.
Daniel Raimi: Dr. Dorceta Taylor, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Dorceta Taylor: Thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to this conversation.
Daniel Raimi: Me, too. I know many of my colleagues are really anxious to hear this conversation as well. I've been soliciting questions from them and trying to incorporate them into our conversation, so we're going to get into that in a moment and talk about, sort of diversity or the lack of diversity in the environmental movement over time. But before we talk about those things, we'd like to ask all our guests how they got interested in environmental issues or energy issues, or kind of what brought you into this field in the first place?
Dorceta Taylor: I think of myself as someone who was kind of genetically hardwired to do this. From the time I was a very young girl growing up in Jamaica, five, six years old. I was always happier outside in the rose garden. Of all the tedious tasks that they give young girls in developing countries in the '60s, one of mine was to tend to the rose garden and I realized, "Oh my God, this is so cool. All the adults are inside making a nuisance of themselves. I am outside looking at all these roses, looking at the hillsides, looking at the waterfalls. This is really, really neat.”
So I followed it up by doing a lot of zoology and botany while I studied in Jamaica. When I migrated to the US, I shifted out of straight biology. By then I realized I did not want to be a medical doctor. So I started to think more about doing environment, and I went that route because I realized I was more interested in kind of that human-environment interaction. And so when I went out to Yale to look at my, to do my graduate work, I did my Master's, then went on to do two PhDs. One in sociology, one in forestry and environmental studies. And that's where it all began.
Daniel Raimi: And you've had many years of incredibly productive time since then, looking at all sorts of issues. And unfortunately we were not going to be able to talk about all of them today, but, I do want to talk with you about these issues of diversity inequity in the environmental movement. Before we do that, I think it'd be useful to lay a little bit of groundwork, a little bit of history, which I know you have worked extensively on. When most people think about the roots of the modern environmental movement, they often think about the late '60s and early '70s, and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring or of the first Earth Day, which I believe was in 1970. When you think about the history of the modern environment movement, where would you kind of place its beginnings and where would you trace its origins from?
Dorceta Taylor: So like a lot of other folks, definitely that 1962 Silent Spring publication and going into 1970 were very critical moments, because what we see happening there was the creation of a mass movement. So not as much a modern movement but taking environment and environmentalism away from just the white, Western European, upper and upper-middle class to having ordinary people, ordinary Americans, ordinary people around the world think about environment and start connecting with it. I was a 12 year old or something like that in high school in Jamaica in 1970, and to this day I remember us getting out of devotion and worship because in many parts of the world nobody cares about separation of church and state. And if you go to school, you go to devotion, you go to prayers first thing in the morning, and you'd better not try to miss it. But this particular morning, the principle says, "We won't have our regular worship, it's Earth Day."
And they brought in these speakers and I'm thinking, "Yeah, about 20 to 30 minutes, no prayers." However this idea really captured my imagination. So it's something that really transcended, even America, to a kid in a very small rundown school in Jamaica experiencing Earth Day on Earth Day in 1970. That's how big and profound it was. We, however, we can move it back about another couple of decades where if we come out of the Great Depression in 1930s, the Dust Bowl era, environmentalism was really in a down swing where you could see, if you look at the data on most of the clubs, their memberships were going down.
Daniel Raimi: Conservation clubs, and that?
Dorceta Taylor: Right. But as you look at the post-World War II era, as people are earning more, and making more money, you see those clubs by the '50s, especially coming out of their big conservation fight around Echo Park. But Carson's book, Rachel Carson's book, definitely as you'd say in modern language, blew it up. People started to pay attention to pesticides and spraying, and then Earth Day was just kind of the icing on the cake.
Daniel Raimi: So when we think about those relatively early days of the mass environmental movement, and you think about the leadership, people who were doing the organizing and doing the coordination, was that a fairly diverse set of people? Or was it-
Dorceta Taylor: By no means.
Daniel Raimi: Okay.
Dorceta Taylor: I'll stop you there. And there are interesting challenges with that. And I've written about this before, because ironically some of those early young students. So the other thing that's different about the '60s also was the infusion of youth. Youth energy set, made some of those folks went and got their training in the civil rights movement, or in the women's movement. However, if some of them come out of civil rights, they come out of the women's movement and what do they do? Set up organizations that were, again, predominantly white or all white. Some of those organizations, in many organizations, if you were black, you could not join these organizations as late as the 1970s. As late as the 1930s and '40s if you're a woman, you couldn't join some of these organizations.
Daniel Raimi: Just by way of example, are there any organizations that come to mind? Not to cast blame, but just so people have a frame of reference.
Dorceta Taylor: Yeah. So for instance, the Sierra Club had meetings and they took votes on whether or not they were going to admit the first African-American or the first Jewish member. Well into the late '60s they were, people were resigning over the idea of Jews and blacks coming into these organizations. Most of the organizations, up until the turn of the 20th century, women couldn't join them, period. These were all male, upper, upper, middle class, upper class men, retreats.
So we have this basis, if we think of someone like Audubon, John James Audubon, one of the main icons of the movement, he was a slave owner. So environment kind of grew up in this way where no one was asking questions about race, about class, about gender very much. Even though these things were very egregious in the way they played out and I do write a fair bit about that. Part of why I wrote The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection was to show how very interconnected racism, classism, sexism was in not only the rise of the early movement, but the perpetuation and the growth of the movement, and that's why the '60s are so different in a way.
Still it was still, the movements were not fully inclusive about people of color and certainly also the white working class, but they broadened out a bit. It really wasn't until we get to the 1990s and the advent of the environmental justice movement that, really very openly articulate a racial frame, a class frame, and a gender frame that questioned the assumptions, and the structures, and the hiring practices. That we really get to this, now modern post-1990 movement, where organizations are really realizing that they have to look at how they organize, how they, how they're structured, what's there in institutional kind of backing and how do we change that, because we do have to change it.
Daniel Raimi: Right. And so you mentioned a book he wrote just a moment ago and I want to make sure people have a good reference for it. So the title of the book is The Rise of the American Conservation Movement. It's by our guest, Dorceta, E. Taylor, Duke University Press, so people can check that out if they want to understand that history a little bit better. So you're bringing us up to the modern day. Let's go there and talk about a report that you authored that came out in 2014, that's still I think a touchstone for a lot of people on these issues. The report is called The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations, Mainstream NGOs, Foundations and Government Agencies. The report chronicles the largely lack of diversity among these groups. Can you talk a little bit about some of the key findings of that report?
Dorceta Taylor: Yes, so that report done in 2014, I am right now in the midst of doing a series of updates, so a new set of data. In 2014, we looked at around 200 organizations. Right now my students and I, we're in the process of looking at about 12,000.
Daniel Raimi: Wow. Great.
Dorceta Taylor: Yes. We're going big, very big. In 2014, some of the key things I always say to students in particular, who get a little upset because millennials are very different than the older folks. They don't want to sit around and work in organizations, go to environmental programs, go to spaces where everybody sounds like them, looks like them, talk like them, is from the same social class and went to the same private school. Those days are kind of past. So millennials will often in my class say, "Well, why can't we get diversity to the level that it should be?" And they get very upset. And I always say to them, "It's a good news, bad news story."
Good news is if we look at the state of diversity, it has increased. So there has been some movement. In 1990 when we looked at the major environmental organizations, less than 2 percent of the staff were people of color. If we look at it today, we're around 16 percent, so we have to give credit for that movement from 2 percent to around 16 percent. That's the good news. Bad news is, people of color in the US are about 38 percent of the population. They are the fastest growing sector if you look at the educational pipeline. The other really big piece of demographic information that people should have is that by the year 2050, I think 2042, the US will be a majority-minority country. That demographic clock is not going to be turned back.
Big question to environmental organizations that have only white staff or workers, or predominantly white workers, only hire white workers, what are you going to do for your workforce in the next decade to a decade and a half? And that's why diversity is not only a no-brainer, it is an imperative. The environmental field will not be able to have effective ways of doing policy hiring, finding the best talent, getting buy-in for environmental activities if they do not engage people of color. If they do not hire people of color, if they do not educate people of color.
Daniel Raimi: Right. And I want to ask you specifically about what are some of the steps that organizations can take to implement that. But before I ask you about that, I kind of want to step back just a little and ask about what you see as some of the roots of the lack of diversity within the environmental movements. We talked about the history. I wonder if, are there dynamics that are specific to the environmental movement that create these challenges? Or is it just kind of reflecting society as a whole or other problems that society has?
Dorceta Taylor: Root causes?
Daniel Raimi: Yeah.
Dorceta Taylor: First and foremost, racism, racism, racism and racism. Biases. So we can think about it in terms of, some of it is unconscious. I remember in 1990, when we had the first People of Color Environmental Summit, there was a white environmental leader there. And he said, "I had just not noticed that everybody in my organization was white." It's not that he's a racist, it's not that he necessarily intended to be racist. It's a question of what you see and what you don't see. And in his case, he was just like, "This conference opened my eyes. I was simply blind to the fact that we hired just the same people over and over, and we never talked about it. It wasn't obvious." So that form of unconscious bias that, it's not to label people or castigate. It's to say, "Open your eyes and be aware."
Daniel Raimi: Sure.
Dorceta Taylor: The second piece is, some of it is overt racism. I have done research where in the surveys and it's in the Green 2.0 report, in the surveys, I ask specifically what are the reasons why individuals ask about, when I asked them about their organizations. What are the reasons why you don't hire people of color, and some actually I think they forget they're doing a survey. They say, "We do not hire black people," or, "We do not hire minorities." They openly state that.
Daniel Raimi: Wow.
Dorceta Taylor: Again, good news, bad news. Bad news is people actually still say that and believe that. Good news is the percentage who say that is declining over time. So there is some race, racial, so unconscious bias, but there's also some racial bias. Recruitment. So they do recruit, but they recruit from informal internal networks. So a job opens up at “X Organization” and everybody in that organization send the ad out to their friends. Or if they go to a conference, they pass it on, or they send it to organizations in their network. That's an informal style of recruitment. It's not just environmental organizations that do that. Corporations use it because what it does, it pre-screens for the organization and whoever is going to recommend someone, they recommend someone who's a good fit.
However, regardless of our race, we tend to recommend people who are like us in the way we were educated, where we were educated, how we think, how we socialize. So that's what I call homo-social reproduction. What that does not get you is the person who is not tied into that network. So the students of color who tend not to be very well tied into those networks, working class whites, rural people, people who did not go to the elite environmental programs, you don't get those folks.
You have to go and find that talent. So you need to go to the conferences, the places where those people are going. I just finished a New Horizons conference in Chicago in April. I had over 240 people. Most of those were students and most were students of color. Where are the environmental organizations? I've done the work. I've found them. You keep telling me they don't exist, because a common refrain you hear from environmental organizations is, "We didn't get any applicants of color. We can't find them. They don't exist. They're not interested in the environment." And that's just absurd. So there's a mismatched then between the people of color who want jobs, who would work in these organizations. And the organizations on the other hand, either not knowing how to find them, where to find them, or unwilling or unable to put in the effort to find them.
Daniel Raimi: So that makes a lot of sense. And one question that I have is when you look across the sector as you're updating this research that you've done, do you see any trends that you can point to where you see, where environmental groups are doing a better job on some of these metrics, and where they have kind of the most room to improve?
Dorceta Taylor: So we're seeing some hiring at the top or second to the top tier of the organizations. So we're seeing at the VP level, several major big greens are hiring people of color in the VP, but they tend to hire them as diversity. And they tend not to provide enough resources for them to do the job of diversifying these organizations, because the environmental organizations think they can do diversity on zero budget. These are the same organizations, some founded in the mid-1800s, so they've had 150 years of homogeneity that they've invested in.
Now they want to do diversity and I often say, "What's your budget?" Zero, 10,000, 5,000. So we do see some level of diversity programs or pathway programs to help identify students early. So students for instance, who would not even think of environment. To identify them early and start providing opportunities that they can see. Career pathways, career development programs. We're seeing some of that happening. Where they can, where there definitely needs to be more improvement is just a better understanding of how intractable the problems are.
Dorceta Taylor: So once you hire someone, can you retain? And so my research shows that many of the environmental organizations, they do a really poor job of retention because, for instance, they don't do counter offers. So if you have a person that's very good, they are going to be recruitable because your best talent usually is. Do you have a mechanism if that person gets an offer elsewhere to make a counter offer? Usually they don't. One place in one of the surveys says, "We throw them an office party and wish them well, if somebody, a person of color comes in and say, I have another job offer." They don't do this for white males, they make counter offers to white males.
The other thing that they can do is the culture within the organization. So for instance, in Green 2.0, we interviewed people and they talk about how alienating the culture is.
Daniel Raimi: And just so people, Green 2.0, that's the 2014 that we talked about.
Dorceta Taylor: It's the 2014 report. Sometimes it's labeled the Taylor Report, but that alienating culture is really very hard to get through. Where, I was going to an environmental professional conference a couple years ago and I transferred through Chicago and I thought to myself, because I was just too lazy to pull out my ticket. "I bet you I will know which gate in the airport when I get there."
Daniel Raimi: I can see where this is going.
Dorceta Taylor: And sure enough, everybody had on faded Khakis, like faded green clothes, Khakis, L.L. Bean. Just a Patagucci lineup of clothing. Everybody had on a Patagonia jacket or an L.L. Bean, or something like that. And I mean the gate was very distinct, because everybody looked the same. The Cruiser vests and it's because they know what the environmental uniform is. The women had on their Birkenstocks and the younger people, their Doc Martens. But for a lot of folks that, they are not used to that as kind of the unofficial uniform in many places, and they certainly can't afford, the three or four or five different Patagonia vests at $200 a pop. They don't know what REI is to go find these things. And so people feel very, very alienated by some of that.
Daniel Raimi: So sort of like unconscious signaling.
Dorceta Taylor: It's signaling, it's unconscious and it's also the subtle racism and the subtle kinds of things that people say or do in the environmental space.
Daniel Raimi: Do you have any examples come to mind?
Dorceta Taylor: Yeah, I'm a full professor at University of Michigan with two PhDs. There is no other faculty member in this department that has two PhDs to their name, done in five years at one of the top environmental program. Yet every September, I guarantee you a first year student will see me thinking I'm the janitor, "Can I help you?" Or I'll be invited to come in and give a keynote at a conference and I'm really good at testing and playing this game also. So I will not wear my name tag. I had one kid at a conference, she asked me four times, "Can I help you? Are you lost?" Instead of registering me.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah.
Dorceta Taylor: And it was, there was one of my students behind me who, because I could play this game for a long time, who finally stepped in because she was now fuming out ears and said, "Do you have any idea who this is? This is your keynote speaker. This is Dr. Taylor." Which, "Oh, hey, I like your book." "Too late, sister. Give me my registration form." And, but I still get that. I get that all the time. And it's, again, it's gendering, it's race, it's age that people are kind of flowing those pieces all together, and they're thinking older white woman, older black woman with gray hair, she couldn't possibly know anything about the environment.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Well that's quite a story. Disheartening in a way. But I'm glad you're sharing it with us. So our audience can, can know that these types of things are still happening out there.
Dorceta Taylor: Oh, they still happen, they absolutely still happen. Students still will put on my evaluation. She's articulate. What exactly is that supposed to mean? If I weren't articulate, if anyone isn't articulate, they should not be teaching at University of Michigan School for the Environment.
Daniel Raimi: And for the record, I've taught for four years here. I'm articulate, has definitely never appeared on my evaluations. That might be because you're more articulate than me, but we'll set that aside for the moment. And so Dr. Taylor, we've been talking for a while now. There are so many more questions that I would love to ask you but we're running short on time, and so are there any final thoughts you want to share on this topic that I haven't asked you about, before we go into our final segment where we ask you about kind of what you're reading and enjoying right now?
Dorceta Taylor: Yes. One of the things that we're really excited about doing in terms of trying to take a new reassessment of where we are with diversity in the environmental field in 2019, other really kind of interesting and disturbing things that we found in our preliminary data. One of the things coming out of 2014 was we collaborated with GuideStar to have environmental organization be more transparent, and to put up their diversity data. Because if you're not putting up your diversity data, that lack of transparency is problematic. We won't be able to do good baselines.
So since 2014, organizations, environmental organizations have been doing it. What we saw, what I thought I'd find would be an upward trajectory constant between 2014 through 2018. But surprisingly what we, what I found was we saw an increase in 2014-15 peaking in 2016, and since 2016 a dramatic decline in the percentage of environmental organizations that's reporting gender and race data. So it peaked at around 6 percent of the organizations that we looked at, putting up their diversity data. It's dropped down to below I think 3 percent right, in 2018. So that's kind of stunning and it really should give the whole field something to reflect on.
The second piece we're looking at is wages. And so we will really come out with the first big study on the wage gap. And all I can think of is, getting on the British subway and it says, "Mind the gap. Mind the gap. Mind the gap." So that wage gap is real. We are seeing a very big gender gap in wages and a big racial gap. So if we look at it, we see white males followed by Asian males in terms of wages and then white females and women of color way at the bottom in those wages. So we're hoping to be able to get some of that coming out, so that some of what I'm reading and thinking about and just realizing these massive differences in salary. At first, many people think, especially whites think, "Oh, are you going to take my job away and give it to a person, an undeserving person of color?"
That's not what diversity is about. If done properly, diversity benefits everyone, because diversity opens this space to talk about wage inequality. If you're not talking about institutional diversity, no one's paying attention to that issue. And the last piece I have is the fact that for the first time ever, I think in American environmental organization history, we have two top 10 organizations searching for presidents, the CEO. Because Rhea Sue has left NRDC and now we have Mark Tercek leaving TNC. So who are they going to pick?
So I know, that's the kind of stuff my students, the millennials, my lab staff, the young folks, that's what we are talking about and we're looking at. That's generated a lot of interest certainly amongst environmental professionals and everybody is looking at these two cases.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, definitely high profile cases. Well we'll make sure to keep an eye on them as well, and really appreciate you taking the time today to talk to us about your work on diversity and so much else. And I'm sorry we can't talk longer about more things, but I know you have a lot to do, so we'll let you get back to it and say thank you again, Dr. Dorceta Taylor for joining us on Resources Radio.
Dorceta Taylor: Thank you. Thanks for having me. It was fun.
Daniel Raimi: You've been listening to Resources Radio. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.