Why Racial Equity? Why Now?

Keecha Harris

In my work with foundations on environmental issues and organizational change, a question I’ve heard with increased volume over the years is: “Why should we focus on racial equity now?

My response? We cannot afford not to focus on racial equity — politically, socially, economically, or environmentally. If we want our sector to be relevant and impactful, we must become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

When we look at racial and ethnic data in the environmental sector, we see that we are missing the mark by sidestepping critical opportunities to anchor our work in the capabilities, skills, and interests of a substantial proportion of the population. Dr. Dorceta Taylor’s 2014 report, “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations,” contextualized why this sector must take action to diversify its board and staff. Although people of color currently make up 38 percent of the U.S. population — and will reach 53 percent by 2050 — people of color currently hold less than 16 percent of jobs in the environmental sector, and less than 12 percent of leadership roles among green groups.

These numbers crystallize what those of us in the environmental sector have all spoken of in hushed tones: “These meetings are so white,” or, “Why are there only a handful of people of color here?” Our recognition of the sector’s lack of diversity, substantiated by Taylor’s research, necessitate that the philanthropic resources supporting the environmental movement be situated in 21st-century realities. It is time to crack the green ceiling.

Why This Matters

You might wonder why any of this matters in terms of lowering metric tons of carbon, ensuring clean waterways, protecting marine life, or transitioning from dependence on extractive industries.

From Capitol Hill losses on climate change to land tenure laws that threaten protected spaces to increased food costs associated with labor, we have an unprecedented opportunity to link what we value to those disproportionately harmed by environmental degradation. For example, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization has fought for over a decade to close two of the dirtiest and oldest coal plants in America — “cloud factories” that spew toxic fumes connected to the neighboring community’s high rates of respiratory morbidities. Moreover, the egregiously avoidable Flint water crisis and the ensuing delayed public response highlight why we need a sector prepared to invest equitably. We are poised to support sustainable strategies that appeal to an increasingly diverse set of elected officials at the local, state, and national levels.

Environmental Funders Begin to Advance DEI

While great need remains, several funders are taking action to support the advancement of prioritizing DEI in the environmental sector.

At the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Conservation Scholars Program provides an opportunity for students to participate in an experiential learning program that focuses on environmental issues in the Pacific Northwest. Approximately 100 scholars — 90 percent of them students of color — participate in this program, which aims to increase diversity in environmental work by connecting conservation to cultural identity, biodiversity, and environmental justice.

The Energy Foundation has shifted its focus and now has an emphasis on promoting equity, labor, and workforce development, with a focus on connecting local climate campaigns to state policy action in their California program. By working with other funders and partners that are collaborating with communities of color on the ground, California equity and justice advocates have recently won landmark policy victories. For example, one notable victory was the establishment of greenhouse gas reduction targets, which prioritize direct emission reductions and increased public investments from California’s cap and trade program to spur public health, job creation, and economic development opportunities in low-income communities of color throughout California.

The Schmidt Family Foundation’s 11th Hour Project has also heard the call to create more racially equitable practices. Moved by the findings of Taylor’s research, the staff and board at the 11th Hour Project have taken steps to learn more about the successes of others committed to improving racial equity, be a part of collective actions, and build upon the current core of the environmental movement while creating substantial space for organizations led by people of color. In early 2016, the executive director dedicated 40 percent of his discretionary budget to incentivize grantmaking to organizations led by people of color: for every two dollars a program officer invests in such organizations, he matches with one dollar from his discretionary budget. Over two-thirds of the funds were exhausted in the first three months.

Coming Together

In addition to making changes to its grantmaking, the 11th Hour Project also wanted to share what they were learning with others — and learn from what their peers were doing, as well. To this end, my firm, KHA Inc., has been working with the 11th Hour Project over the past year to facilitate two DEI Peer Learning Exchanges (PLEs), through which about 25 funders took part in meetings to explore the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in grantmaking organizations and discuss steps the sector can take to rectify its current status.

Given the widespread need for and interests in racial equity and social justice — and the stimulating discussions we saw at these PLEs — it became clear that a sector-wide effort could be of great benefit. With support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the Schmidt Family Foundation, we are facilitating a professional development series for the sector called InDEEP (Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in Environmental Philanthropy). Part professional development series and part learning community, InDEEP seeks to be a resource for funders that are dedicated to shifting the tide of environmental philanthropy toward a diversified, equitable, and inclusive giving community.

InDEEP formally launched in January with a PLE, as well as a convening of People of Color grantmakers, both held at the Hewlett Foundation. Future PLEs will focus on grantmaking, leadership development, pipeline development, and equity as impact.

These stories of funders taking meaningful steps toward committing to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the environmental sector are encouraging. But this is only the beginning of the journey. I invite you to walk this road with us, share your experiences, and deepen your organization’s commitment to a more racially equitable and socially just sector. Feel free to email me to learn more, or comment below to share your story and continue the conversation. Together, we can create real change.

Dr. Keecha Harris is president of Keecha Harris and Associates Inc. (KHA Inc.) and director of InDEEP (Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in Environmental Philanthropy). She received her doctorate of public health from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Reach her at kharris@khandassociates.com.

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