Cultural Diversity in the Environmental Movement

A few months ago I gave a talk entitled Earth, Water, Wind, and Fire ~ The Missing Thread in the Environmental Movement, the thread itself being that of spirituality. The question I was (and am still) holding was this: if we could come to understand the spiritual and sacred dimensions of this astonishing planet, would we behave differently? I offered spiritual giants in the environmental movement such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, and am suggesting strongly that we would behave differently.

More recently, I participated in a tele-conference sponsored by Orion Magazine, Bringing Cultural Diversity to the Environmental Movement. Then, just several days ago, I read a blog post by a colleague, Courtney Martin, who serves on the board of The Center for Courage and Renewal, Nine Learnings on Privilege and Diversity. (Whew! I think I have broken my own record for the number of links loaded onto the front end of a post.)

So today I want to offer an additional dimension to “the missing thread”, and maybe begin a conversation about the spiritual cost to what many feel is a homogenous movement, as well as the political, policy, and activist cost. Finally, I want to add a dimension to an earlier post on this website concerning human privilege and entitlement.

In the Orion Magazine tele-conference, Marcelo Bonta, director of the Center for Diversity and the Environment, and a conservation biologist, speaks to the efforts of others in the movement to silence his voice, dismiss his education and experience, and his having to deal in general with racist comments and ignorance around people of color as they engage the environmental movement. He speaks of his own isolation in the work, and identifies the root cause of the movement itself as “the homogenous environmental culture.” Without diversity of leadership and opportunity, the work won’t be sustainable. “Linking the environmental movement to equity, diversity, and inclusion,” he challenges, “leads to creative solutions to environmental problems.”

As I listened to Marcelo on the conference call, I am chagrinned to confess that it’s not occurred to me until now that the environmental movement could suffer just as any other organized movement from the effects of white power and privilege. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was. One of Courtney Martin’s “nine learnings” and one that attracts me personally, is the charge to shut up and listen.

If you have power and privilege, of whatever kind, sometimes the most important thing you can do is stop talking and start listening. Privileged people are used to taking up space, being heard, contributing their stories and opinions. Don’t silence yourself, but consider the gift that your silence can be if offered in a spirit of true self-awareness and re-balancing.

Monica Smiley, of Oregon’s Tualatin Riverkeepers shares the experience of an all white board of directors under her leadership, serving a population in the Tualatin watershed which is 80% latino. She speaks of the shock of being turned down for a grant to partner with the latino community to develop watershed programs. It was a wake-up call to her that the granting organization insisted the board and staff reflect the diverse community their organization was trying to serve.

Courtney’s learning number two suggests that those of privilege and entitlement make our mistakes in public.

You will screw up. You will hurt people. You are human. The most courageous thing you can do is not to try to never hurt anyone, but to acknowledge the hurt you cause and try to learn from it.

Ginny McGuinn of Vermont’s Center for Whole Communities calls us back to basic principles of ecology. It’s always surprising, she says with some measure of irony, that the environmental movement thinks it can function and find solutions while neglecting the most important and obvious ecological principle – diversity – a “slap your forehead” moment certainly.

Courtney’s learning number five suggests we learn to embrace the paradox.

I have to be constantly aware of the unearned privileges that I have been afforded because of my whiteness, my membership in the middle-class, my heterosexuality, etc. I also need to know that when I hurt someone else with my ignorance, I am not a terrible monster, but a person shaped by my racist, classist, heterosexist environment. It is my fault, and I am also a product of my environment. Both are true at the same time.

This weaving of voices has been powerful for me. It reminds me yet again – a reminder for which I am grateful and humbled – of the vigilance required particularly on the part of white people of privilege, unearned privilege based on whiteness. And it’s not just about looking around the table of a board room and seeing a diversity of color and culture. It’s about spiritual integrity and wholeness.

If we’re going to posit a sacred universe (regardless of to whom or to what dynamic we attribute creative agency) then we have to acknowledge and celebrate a sacred diversity. This is so very obvious that we obviously need to remind ourselves over and over. And over again. And . . . this sacred diversity includes the humans.

For me, the joy of being alive at this time, as the whole world groans in the throes of unparalleled greed and destruction, of fear and anxiety, of self-centeredness and self-paralysis, alive in a time of unconsciousness, blindness, and ignorance, is the reality that this particular moment, on what Carl Sagan referred to as “the pale blue dot” holds the possibility for unparalleled learning, unparalleled awakening, unparalleled generosity and kindness, unparalleled systemic transformation of selves, of institutions, of behaviors, of economies, of values.

Witness this short video clip of an interview from Courtney’s book Do It Anyway!

Hope abounds! My heart is dancing as I load my bottles and cans and paper into their respective bins and attempt to speed my way to the recycle station before closing.

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