Why Environmentalists Must Make More Space For BIPOC, And How We Should Do It - The Years Project

Why Environmentalists Must Make More Space For BIPOC, And How We Should Do It

By Leesa Ko

“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.”  — Dr. Angela Davis

As unprecedented uprisings against systemic racism continue, more people are committing themselves to anti-racism—myself included. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when doing this work, because it requires us to critically examine and challenge deeply internalized power systems. But we must. Without it, the murders of Black people will continue as one of many symptoms of the disease that is systemic racism.

In embracing anti-racism, I’ve asked myself how I could create more space for BIPOC voices. As a Korean-American woman, I’ve often been lumped together with other people who look like me under the Asian model minority myth. Consequentially, some of my anti-racist work has been holding myself accountable, and not allowing my relative proximity to whiteness to overcast my solidarity with other BIPOC. But I will not stop there. 

Real allyship—as opposed to one that is merely performative—is a life-long and gradual commitment that incites greater action as we take a given struggle on as our own. At this point of my allyship journey,  I can already challenge racism in the spaces I find myself in most often.

As a current intern at The YEARS Project, Sustainable Development major, and aspiring climate lawyer/journalist, much of my headspace and time is dedicated to climate and environmental spheres. And it’s no news that these movements have been and continue to be dominated by white people. The most recent survey of environmental NGOs showed that no more than 16 percent of employees in surveyed organizations were BIPOC, and a mere 12 percent were in leadership positions. 

Nor is it news that these movements have intentionally marginalized Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities in particular—though white environmentalists often deny this truth. After all, it took two months of national protests after George Floyd’s murder for the Sierra Club to finally even acknowledge the anti-Black and Indigenous racism engraved into the Club’s history and its founders. 

BIPOC deserve to be at the forefront of these movements because they are the ones living at the frontline and in sacrifice zones, whether in the Global South or in the US. It’s these communities that will be impacted both the first and the worst by climate change. Furthermore, BlPOC-lived experiences and historic triumphs are tangible testaments to their knowledge on how we can equitably address the climate crisis. Elizabeth Yeampierre, co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance, explains that “[racial justice] has to be at the center” because, among other ethical reasons, “everyone benefits” when the most vulnerable get the help they need. 

Not to mention the pervasiveness of environmental racism. Even Trump’s EPA confirmed that low-income BIPOC are far more likely to live near polluting facilities that emit deadly pollution. It’s no accident either. It’s another form of the racial and economic redlining that especially targets Black Americans. Beyond scientific studies, let us not forget the ongoing Flint water crisis, nor the forced relocation of climate refugees from their native Isle de Jean Charles, nor any of the other countless instances of environmental racism. 

Despite these truths, BIPOC voices are side-lined and turned away. We are excluded from decision-making and vilified for “making everything about race.” Yet it’s important to remember that the real loss is not for these activists; it’s the movements who lose. As Mary Annaïse Heglar put it, “Every person of color who walks away from the climate movement takes with them pages of the playbooks from almost every successful social movement in recent memory. Immeasurable generational wisdom.”

So to break this down for myself and others—because I know I am not the only ally who needs to do the work—let’s split it up into the Why and the How: Why environmentalists must make more space for BIPOC, and how we should do it. 

The Why 

As national uprisings have made clear, racism is omnipresent, from policing to health outcomes to activist spheres. Especially as our climate movement centers on the idea of an existential threat to all, shouldn’t we really be making space for everyone? 

In reality, BIPOC often don’t have a seat at environmentalist tables. Actually these tables were never created with us in mind. In a nutshell, mainstream American environmentalism has its roots in white supremacy—consequentially giving rise to the BIPOC-led environmental justice movement in the 1980s. Conservationist leaders like John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Madison Grant all held fundamentally racist views, manifesting in BIPOC exclusion from their movement’s outcomes, like the national park system. The parks are widely hailed as “America’s greatest idea,” without any recognition of the ethnic cleansing and mass expulsion of Native Americans necessary to seize these lands

Today, BIPOC in the mainstream environmental and climate movements continue to suffer from exclusion and disparagement. In my own experience in these spheres, I have been doubted and silenced, to the point that I often question if my efforts to create space for BIPOC are in vain. I’m not the only one. Other BIPOC environmentalists I’ve spoken to and have read attest to the same marginalization. How else could Intersectional Environmentalist’s inclusivity-centered platform have resonated with 100,000 followers in less than two months

Not to mention that such a shift would be incredibly rejuvenating and invaluable for the movements themselves! Oftentimes, BIPOC knowledge and relationships to nature are markedly different from mainstream Western lines of thought. When I read Potawatomi scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, I was struck by how differently Indigenous people consider their role in nature as one that is symbiotic, rather than extractive. It was a stark contrast from what I learned in my college classes, and made me wonder how much the climate movement could benefit from this way of thinking. 

Moreover, as Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson brilliantly teaches us, “if we want to successfully address climate change, we need people of color. Not just because pursuing diversity is a good thing to do, and not even because diversity leads to better decision-making and more effective strategies, but because, black people are significantly more concerned about climate change than white people (57 percent vs. 49 percent), and Latinx people are even more concerned (70 percent).” 

The How 

So because the very roots of environmentalism are tied to racial erasure and exclusion, we cannot expect to achieve the diversity that big organizations love talking about, unless we radically recalibrate our movements in line with intersectionality and social justice. 

To begin, anti-racism does not start nor end with putting out statements of solidarity, or echoing basic truths like “Black Lives Matter.” That should really not be a revolutionary idea to anyone—that Black people deserve to live. No, that should just be the external manifestation of all the internal work you have done to dismantle internalized racism in your own mind and actions. 

Because we all have distinct lived experiences and are likely on different paths as allies, I cannot say what precise steps an individual should do to be anti-racist. For me, it has meant months of constant reflection, regularly giving as much money as I can to Black people and organizations, being accountable to my missteps, and changing accordingly. I imagine other allies would benefit from the same efforts too. 

However when it comes to environmentalists and their organizations, I can say with certainty that there are some long-existing inequities that must be addressed as a starting point. Here’s my To-Do List for the Anti-Racist Environmentalist:

  1. Hire BIPOC. I’ve explained how BIPOC have valuable skills and knowledge to bring to the environmentalist and climate tables, but it’s also essential that we are compensated for our work. Otherwise, an organization reinforces the racial wealth gap by exploiting BIPOC labor. And as Rhiana Gunn-Wright points out, this doesn’t mean “just hiring people of color from the Ivy League. Hire people who have been activists for a long time and have learned about a topic from being in it.”
  2. Ensure a non-hostile and supportive space. It’s not only hiring BIPOC but also making sure that they will feel safe enough to stay and voice themselves. I cannot tell you how many white-dominated spaces I’ve been in or heard of where BIPOC are made to feel that someone was doing us a favor by letting us in. To amplify BIPOC voices and allow us to thrive as leaders, we need to feel welcome and wanted, not marginalized or tokenized as a diverse face. Nor can diversity and inclusion work be dumped onto our backs; it must be a mutual effort. 
  3. Prioritize climate justice. Nothing irks an environmentalist like a climate denier. So why do so many environmentalists deny that environmental racism is real and that climate justice is essential? It’s not about politics; it’s about BIPOC around the world surviving the climate crisis. A crisis, I remind you, that they did not create yet are suffering the most from. As such, we can’t talk about climate change without recognizing it as an economic and racial justice issue. A human rights issue. 
  4. Be accountable for your mistakes. Though it’s only a starting point, the Sierra Club’s statement on its racist history is important and consequential. However, let it be known that accountability is not just saying you were wrong. It involves acknowledging the harm you inflicted, proportionately redressing these harms, and committing to transformation. Mistakes are expected, but these are opportunities for positive growth so long as accountability is maintained, and business is not carried on as usual. 
  5. Decenter mainstream climate narratives. “Eco-friendly” has long had an image of reusable water bottles and organic produce. Not only is this classist, but it also fails to acknowledge vulnerability gaps to climate change. To someone in the Global North who is not suffering immediately from climate change, recycling may feel like a good way to contribute. That’s a great step, but it’s important to recognize that to someone, say, from a small island nation whose country is going underwater, “eco-friendly” has far more weight. So long as we center high-income perspectives on climate change, we sideline the needs of those who are most vulnerable. 
  6. Spread anti-racism around you. Racial justice is a social movement and moral commitment, not an opinion that you should keep to yourself. Our anti-racist work cannot be limited to reflection; it must show in our actions. We must speak out against the rampant racism in environmental spheres, act to create more equitable spaces and support those we stand in solidarity with. 
  7. Listen to BIPOC. Because this work is a continuous project and act of solidarity, we cannot expect to know or understand everything. So to learn, we must listen to the communities we strive to uplift. We cannot speak for them, but we can speak with them. We can use whatever privileges we have—be it racial, economic, gender and so on—to amplify those who do not benefit from the same systems we do. A real ally should listen far more than they speak. For environmental organizations, that also means ensuring that BIPOC members are listened to and publicly represented, rather than allowing their white bosses to speak on “diversity,” as has been the norm. 

As the ongoing movement for Black Lives has made clear, our systems are broken and they are not going to fix themselves. We cannot wait for racism to go away somehow, because it clearly didn’t go away after the 13th Amendment, nor the Civil Rights Act, nor attempts at police reform, nor the election of a Black president. 

It’s on us to do the work. 

_________________________

Some further readings on anti-racist environmentalism:

“We Don’t Have to Halt Climate Action To Fight Racism” by Mary Annaïse Heglar

“If you care about the planet, you must dismantle white supremacy” by Tamara Toles O’Laughlin 

“When Black Men Go into the Forest, They Don’t Come Back out” by A. Breeze Harper

“Why the Larger Climate Movement Is Finally Embracing the Fight Against Environmental Racism” by Justin Worland