Environmental Groups Seek To Attract Minorities

Nov 3, 2017
Originally published on November 3, 2017 2:41 pm

The Flint water crisis was a turning point for many environmental groups. It prompted a focus on issues like drinking water infrastructure as well as on the people left out of the movement. There are renewed efforts to better engage people of color to engage with the environmental movement.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Some of the country's worst environmental problems in recent years have happened in communities of color. Take the water crisis in Flint, Mich. It's a mostly African-American city. Traditionally, major environmental groups haven't attracted people from those communities. Now some are trying to change that. Elizabeth Miller of WCPN ideastream reports.

ELIZABETH MILLER, BYLINE: On Cleveland's east side in a majority black neighborhood is a small brick building. It houses the Garden Valley Neighborhood House, which operates as a community center. Inside the center today, some senior citizens are talking about environmental issues in their neighborhood. Sixty-eight-year-old Jan Ridgeway, who runs the center, says it was one specific incident that got her attention.

JAN RIDGEWAY: My awareness really hearkens back to the whole water issue in Flint.

MILLER: Ridgeway argues that water quality and lead contamination aren't just environmental issues. They're social justice ones, too. But until recently, few mainstream environmental groups embraced that message. Jumana Vasi has seen this firsthand. She worked at a foundation that funds environmental groups.

JUMANA VASI: The Mott Foundation, when I was there, primarily funded mainstream environmental organizations. And they worked on sort of traditional environmental issues.

MILLER: And most mainstream environmental groups were late to the table in addressing water issues in Flint. Most were involved in projects like cleaning up beaches or keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. But in the past three years, some of these mainstream groups have started taking a new approach. They're focusing on issues like drinking water quality and water shutoffs in an attempt to reach a wider audience. The Alliance for the Great Lakes is one example. President Joel Brammeier says they're now trying to ensure that their programs are focused on serving everyone in the region.

JOEL BRAMMEIER: We've got to move beyond the folks that are at the front of the line with their hands up saying, yes, the Great Lakes are great. Then the big question becomes, OK, who else is here in the region? And what is going to engage others?

MILLER: That's where people like Jocelyn Travis come in. She works for the Sierra Club, one of the nation's oldest environmental groups. She leads a campaign to get Cleveland to commit to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. But in some parts of the city, renewable energy isn't part of the daily conversation. Jocelyn Travis spends her time reaching out, trying to make environmental issues and terms more relatable.

JOCELYN TRAVIS: People in our communities don't understand what sustainability and what renewable energy and clean energy means. So you have to break it down so they understand we're talking about clean water and fresh air.

MILLER: Joel Brammeier says for environmental groups, it's not just about membership. It's about finding common ground with other activists.

BRAMMEIER: The public health advocacy community and the civil rights community have really stepped up on the drinking water issues and really is educating the environmental community on what's possible.

MILLER: But despite these efforts, significant challenges remain in making membership and environmental groups more diverse. In environmental meetings, Travis says she's usually the only person of color in the room. She says if the environmental movement really wants diversity, it has a long way to go.

TRAVIS: It's not going to work if it's just for the chosen few based on whether it's your race or your income.

MILLER: And as the environmental movement tries to embrace new themes, it's turning to the people and some of the issues that have historically been left behind. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Miller in Cleveland.

KELLY: And that story comes to us from the reporting collaborative Great Lakes Today.

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