The question left me dumbstruck. “If you leaders of the big Green groups hadn’t been a bunch of northeastern white folks for the past 40 years, what issues would you have worked on that would have been different?”
I was, in fact, a Californian, and new to the environmental movement. The event, held in Detroit in 2006, forced me to look at choices made by the environmental community. The question had an unmistakable ring of truth to it.
But it will take real commitment, money, and effort to set new priorities. Why should we? Because exclusion is a path to extinction in an America that will have no ethnic majority by 2050. And it’s important because it will make our on-the-ground conservation more effective (see “Facing the Future”).
An employee-driven group at Audubon is making great strides. We’re ensuring we get diverse applicant pools. We’re creating an Audubon Fellowship program to bring new perspectives to our work and a broad new internship program that will give young people from all backgrounds opportunities to gain skills in conservation.
In Los Angeles, the Audubon Center at Debs Park—led by a mostly Latina staff—invites Latino families to take part in hands-on restoration of a neighborhood green space. In the Twin Cities, Audubon Minnesota is working with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe to help Native American kids build towers for chimney swifts. We’re partnering with historically black colleges and universities in the Gulf region to develop new courses focused on the environmental and social challenges on the lower Mississippi River.
Our Audubon Centers had more than a million visitors last year, many of them kids and families of color from underserved communities. But we won’t be truly inclusive until we broaden the cultural perspectives in the rooms where our decisions are made.
This leads me to my other “aha” moment. I spent a morning in Harlem with a team at WE ACT, one of the nation’s leading environmental justice groups. After a couple of hours of spirited conversation, it became clear we were talking past one another.
“You keep using the word sustainable,” I said (thinking about my Prius, locally grown vegetables, and affordable solar panels), “and you bring a lot of heat with it.”
“We want the lead out of the paint in our apartment walls, we want the oil and the glass out of the empty lot on the corner, and we don’t want you putting your damn diesel bus yard in our neighborhood to make our kids sick just because we’re not rich enough to keep those buses out,” a woman responded. “That’s what sustainable means to me.”
Her perspective and the question in Detroit made the same point. For Audubon to thrive, we not only want to be the place where people of all backgrounds choose to work, we also want to make sure all of our practices—from how we hire to whom we choose as partners to how we present ourselves—are based on respect, openness, and inclusion.