What If Environmental Organizations Were College Campuses?

What If Environmental Organizations Were College Campuses?

image from image from rastifari.tv

Earlier this month a social revolution was hatched on the campus of the University of Missouri that led to swift changes and will hopefully open a path to greater equality, representation and shared power. And the best part about it is that it was led by our future leaders, students and youth, in a demonstration of grassroots activism and civil disobedience at its best. This month I got a taste of what our young folks are demanding and the steps they’re willing to take for their voices to be heard at the Our Generation, Our Choice event in D.C. organized by my friends at 350.0rg, Million Hoodies and Divestment Student Network. That event turned out to be more prescient than anyone could have expected, as the news surrounding Mizzou broke just hours after it.

But the revolution did not stop at Missouri; quite to the contrary it spread and is spreading like a wildfire. Youth are on a mission to highlight and scorch any injustice they finds in their path. Following the ouster of the University of Missouri’s president, leaders of student groups on various campuses across the country saw an opening to press their own university administrators for better treatment of students, professors and administrators of color.

At schools like Yale, Ithaca, Hunter, SUNY and Michigan, students used the protests that led to the resignation of Missouri President Tim Wolfe as inspiration to take a harder line for racial equality and shared power on their campuses. One student from the University of Michigan, where students have been pressing for greater racial representation among instructors and administrative personnel remarked, “We will look to organize like Missouri students if the administration is not keeping their end of the bargain … we’re not afraid to organize.”

It appears that this student-led revolution is efficacious. In addition to the removal of President Timothy Wolfe in Missouri, Ithaca University just announced they will create a position of Chief Diversity Officer. According to Ithaca’s President, Thomas Rochon, this position will “provide clear leadership and ownership over the implementation of our ongoing work to improve our campus’s racial climate and build a culture that lives up to its values of civility, mutual respect, and justice.”

Reading and learning about all of these amazing events got me thinking about the environmental movement and its perpetual struggle to address and solve a legacy of racial homogeneity. It’s no secret that our movement has in many cases ostracized people of color. This week my good friend and mentor Elizabeth Yeampierre discussed the impacts of mainstream environmental groups’ continued exclusion of people of colorin a Think Progress article where she called for this to be solved sooner than later.


Uprose Brooklyn Executive Director Elizabeth Yeampierre addresses participants ahead of People’s Climate March

On this issue she remarked, “by sidelining local advocates in communities of color, these organizations dedicated to positive change are alienating potential supporters they will need to win larger fights on health and climate.” She went on to discuss that the changing demographics of our country alone warrants a shift in how mainstream groups approach their lack of diversity adding, “By 2042, racial and ethnic minorities will outnumber non-Hispanic whites in the United States, according to the Census Bureau. This shift poses a challenge for the environmental movement, which must expand its reach if it is to remain politically relevant in the years ahead. The demographics are changing and so is the weather.”


Sierra Club President Aaron Mair with 350.org founder Bill McKibben at Katrina 10 Solidarity Second Line March in New Orleans

To be fair we have seen some advances in diversity. Sierra Club recently made Aaron Mair the first African American President of the organization. Aaron, who I am also lucky to consider a friend, has been using his elevation to highlight many of the issues associated with “black and brownouts” in the movement. Additionally, Sierra Club announced a new senior level position dedicated to addressing the organization’s lack of diversity. Both are encouraging steps, but not enough to solve a problem nearly half a century in the making. Recent reports on the state of diversity in environmental organizations paint a very clear picture; much, much more needs to be done and quickly. And we must also not lose sight of the fact that diversity is not just an issue of numbers, but one of power as well.

I have many friends who are Caucasian in this movement who acknowledge both that a problem exists and that something should be done about it. They are all dedicated activists and talented people, but none have really been able to offer a solution for our movement’s outdated homogeneity. I would argue that we do have solutions and have used similar tactics for change in other scenarios. But we must ask ourselves if we are willing to use the same tactics that we implement to make our planet, climate and environment better to make our movement better.

In his latest book, What we are fighting for right now is each other, Wen Stephenson quotes the great Quaker activist Jay O’Hara who said, “If we aren’t willing to put our lives behind the words we speak, then those words are worthless. The world does not change just because we say things. Just like politics in Washington doesn’t change when someone writes a well-reasoned, perfectly footnoted argument about global climate policy. Because it doesn’t have power.” Are the people of the environmental movement ready to use this paradigm calling for change against our own institutions that serve as a vehicle for navigating systematic social and political changes?

In the end, it was a football team’s decision to support a student on a hunger strike that catalyzed Mizzou’s revolution. Environmental organizations do not have football teams, but we do have employees that could illicit the same type of financial clout that Mizzou’s football team would have by refusing to play anymore games. Our organizations have some the best and most talented organizers, planners, policy analysts and canvassers in the business. I am not suggesting that we all walk out until our organizations do what students are now forcing their universities to do. But I am saying that if employees of mainstream environmental organizations showed the same temerity as Mizzou’s football team, the outcome could be a game changer. 

To this end, I would ask all of my Caucasian allies in this movement if they are ready to follow the lead of our nation’s university students, many who will be succeeding us one day and carrying on the fights for climate, racial and economic justice. And while considering this, maybe we should not be asking ourselves “What IF environmental organizations were college campuses,” but instead, “Why AREN’T environmental organizations more like college campuses.”