Big Green Groups Struggle to Retain Staff of Color

High turnover keeps people of color from moving up the career ladder, widens the movement’s already significant diversity gap.

Environmental nonprofits in the United States have skewed white since, well, the beginning of the modern environmental movement. The founding — ahem — fathers of the movement were, unsurprisingly, mostly white men: John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, followed later by David Brower, Edward Abbey, and so on. (One of the notable exceptions, of course, being Rachel Carson of Silent Spring fame.) This legacy has followed the movement well into the twenty-first century, and to the major environmental groups carrying the torch today.

photo of UN climate conference panel
The big green groups are still overwhelmingly white. High turnover of staff of color is contributing to the problem. (Photo of panelists at the 2018 United Nations climate change talks in Katowice, Poland.) Photo by UNclimatechange / Flickr.

Roughly 80 percent of the staff at 40 biggest environmental nonprofits, foundations, and government organizations in the US is white. According to a new report, a big part of the problem is retention — environmental organizations are struggling to keep people of color on staff once they have hired them.

The report, released by Green 2.0, an advocacy group campaigning to improve diversity in the environmental movement, notes that many green groups have made significant pushes to improve internal diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice as of late. In some ways, these efforts are paying off. Since just last year, the percentage of senior staff positions held by people of color at the 40 largest environmental groups has increased from 14 percent to a moderately better 21 percent. (Certain sectors have not fared as well: The number of people of color holding senior staff positions at green foundations, for example, saw a drastic drop from 33 percent to 4 percent between 2017 and 2018.)

But hiring diverse candidates is just one part of the puzzle — in order to make real gains, and in order to build a pipeline to top-level positions, these new hires must be retained. The report found that due to a sense of persistent inequity, people of color have lower intent to remain in their jobs than their white colleagues.

“Higher turnover rates among people of color widen the environmental movement’s already dismal racial diversity gap,” Stefanie Johnson, a University of Colorado professor and leader author of the report, said in a statement. “This report shows that people of color perceive lower levels of fairness in development, evaluation, and promotion practices and lower levels of intent to stay, and found that top-level leadership emerged as a critical factor impacting those perceptions.”  

The report was based on interviews with nearly 50 people — the majority of whom were people of color — in leadership roles with environmental organizations, as well on survey responses from employees at the largest environmental nonprofits, government organizations, and foundations.

Interview responses painted a vivid picture about the challenges staff of color can face. As one interviewee, a black woman, said: “Have I had second thoughts about going into environmental conservation? Yes. If I knew it would be like this, that some of the organizations would be so exclusive, then I would not have done it. I think I would have gone more in the direction of human rights, or I would have just done something else entirely. I didn’t really understand the landscape, if you will, when it comes to diversity and when it comes to authenticity until I got in it.”

Some clear factors emerged as impacting “intent-to-stay” among staff of color. The practices and values of top-level leaders — who at big environmental organizations are overwhelmingly white men— are important. The existence — or lack of — organizational goals and concrete metrics around improving diversity, equity, and inclusion also impact turnover. Human resources-related polices — like transparency around promotion practices, and professional development opportunities for staff — are another factor.

That means there are some fairly easy adjustments environmental groups can adopt to improve retention. Several interviewees noted that unconscious bias training for staff, for example, could improve workplace environments. Increased transparency around HR practices, and adjusting these practices if necessary to improve equity — for example, to close pay gaps — can also increase intent to stay. Creating a diversity committee, as well as establishing long-term diversity and equity goals, were also cited as valuable approaches.

Given that people of color are still in the minority at most big environmental groups, respondents also noted the value of creating opportunities for mentorship and networking for staff outside the organization. One interviewee cited the PGM One Summit, which convenes professional of color in the environmental and outdoor movement every year to share, learn, collaborate, and heal. (PGM One is a project of Earth Island Institute, which publishes the Journal.) “We sponsored and sent staff of color to the PGM One Summit … It was amazing. Being in a space like that was just so refreshing. I think the more that we can provide opportunities for our staff of color to participate in things like that, be mentored, and be in safe and supportive spaces, the better.”

Improving diversity, increasing equity, and supporting inclusion within the environmental movement can only strengthen it — and the research backs that up. Thankfully, the big green groups seem to finally be getting more people of color in the door. Now it’s up to these same organizations and their top leadership to honestly assess internal values and practices, and to take concrete steps to show staff of color that they belong, that they are valued, and that they can grow in their roles within the movement.  

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