Barriers to experience: Understanding race in professional environmentalism

Woman experiencing the wilderness

(Photo courtesy Ambreen Tariq, founder of Brown People Camping.)

When Kellie Walker started looking for work at a nonprofit, she scrolled past an online listing from The Wilderness Society three or four times.

“Wilderness, nope. Wilderness Society, nope,” she remembers thinking.

Walker, who is black, grew up in the Maryland suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., and spent her childhood summers visiting family in Detroit. Though her grandmother always insisted she spend time outside each day, her childhood didn’t give her much experience with the wilderness.

“When you are in the lower socioeconomic bracket, you’re not thinking about going to a park. Not one that isn’t close,” Walker said. “It’s not even on your radar because you can’t get there.”

Eventually, Walker realized she wanted to pursue working for The Wilderness Society based on the merits of the position itself, not because she had a great passion for environmentalism. And the barriers that discouraged her from cultivating an interest in environmental issues are far from unique.

People of color are underrepresented in environmentalism and in the outdoor recreation industry. Green 2.0, a research group that analyzes data on diversity in environmental organizations, found that as of April 2017, the full-time staffs of the top 40 environmental non-governmental organizations are on average 73% white.

Only one in five visitors to national parks is nonwhite, and since The Wilderness Society focuses on public land conservation and access, this is something of a damning trend in the organization’s homogeneity, too. At The Wilderness Society, 86% of the staff is white. Of the senior staff, 96% is white.

When Walker first began working for The Wilderness Society as an operations specialist a year ago, there were only three other black women in the organization, which employs about 150 people total.

“It was that disconnect — the fact that all four of us looked different... and people still called us the other’s name, which was a little rough,” she said. “I was the newbie, how could you possibly get me confused as Heather?”

In environmentalism, and especially in land conservation, there’s an unspoken expectation that the people who do this work care about the environment, and that they care because they’ve had direct experiences with the outdoors. Many people who work at The Wilderness Society spend their free time kayaking, camping, and hiking in the backcountry. For people like Walker who haven’t had those experiences, the motivation to work in environmentalism may not be there because of a lack of exposure.

Though Anastasia Greene, communications manager for The Wilderness Society for the Northwest region, enjoys spending time outdoors, she believes it shouldn’t be a prerequisite for working in environmentalism. Greene said anecdotally that she thinks it has been in the past.

“There’s all these little mentalities around what it means to be an advocate for the environment,” the Seattle-based Greene said in an interview at The Wilderness Society’s D.C. office. She is a woman of color leading regional communications strategies for the Pacific Northwest.

“It is an environmental organization, so there are people who are just gonna love like getting outside and extreme sports... But I think part of the culture that we really have to address is the expectation that if you don’t like these things or if you can’t do these things that you’re somehow less.”

Opening mainstream environmentalism up to more diversity is encouraged by a blossoming of smaller organizations such as Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Green for All, Adventures for Hopi, the Greening Youth Foundation, Big City Mountaineers and the Center for Diversity and the Environment. The Wilderness Society has joined with its Urban to Wild campaign, which helps connect urban and low-income communities to public lands that might otherwise be inaccessible.

Urban to Wild (U2W) is an effort to reduce the barriers to outdoor spaces faced by our country’s rapidly growing and diversifying urban populations. Over the next year, U2W will be working in the Los Angeles, Puget Sound, and Albuquerque metro areas to enact new policies and practices. According to The Wilderness Society, the U2W model focuses on “protecting local parks and open space, creating new transit to trail opportunities and working with public land managers to ensure they are inclusive of local community needs.” The organization also plans to develop a U2W coalition on the national level.

Community-building for people of color in environmentalism, with specialized conferences and social and professional networking opportunities, helps people feel more comfortable and supported in their work. The People of the Global Majority in the Outdoors, Nature, and Environment (PGM ONE) summit brings together environmental and outdoor recreation industry professionals who identify as nonwhite to share their experiences. Outside of the professional environmentalism world, Instagram accounts like Brown People Camping and Women of Color in Nature highlight the recreational experiences of people of color and inspire others.

Walker is hopeful about the The Wilderness Society’s capacity for change. She says that the organization, spurred by changing views on the importance of diversity in environmentalism, is enacting policies designed to recruit people of color. For example, the policy sets a goal that a certain percentage of qualified applicants who are chosen to be interviewed should be people of color depending on the location of the position.

In D.C., where the population is majority non-white, that goal is 25%. The goal is less ambitious for the more rural offices out west, where the candidate pool includes fewer people of color. In Wyoming, where the population is over 90% white, the target proportion is only 10%.

“They’ve acknowledged it, and I think that was the biggest step ever, because once you acknowledge it, you have to do something about it,” Walker said.

“The Wilderness Society is truly committed to becoming a better organization every day by investing in a welcoming workplace culture, building a stronger recruitment network to diversify our staff, and challenging ourselves to make sure that public lands benefit us all,” said Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society.  “The experiences of our staff should be a constant reminder of both what we have accomplished so far and how much we have yet to do—as an organization and within the conservation community as a whole.”

Recruiting interns and employees from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) is a new step The Wilderness Society is taking, due in part to the enthusiastic outreach of recruiters like Shaw-Walker.

“I did have a lot of people pass, just glancing like, ‘No, I don’t stand outside,’ and I had to say, ‘Hey, we don’t just stand outside,’” Walker said of recruiting at HBCUs. “While they didn’t know they were looking for me, I knew I was looking for them.”

But recruiting employees of color is only the beginning of the battle toward equity. Environmental professionals of color often face tokenization and microaggressions in the workplace, like being assigned to work on justice and diversity campaigns because of their identities.

Heather Davis served as the assistant director of The Wilderness Society’s Urban to Wild campaign until October 2017, when she took a management position at the National Wildlife Federation. In an October email to The Wilderness Society’s staff, Davis wrote that she was tired of being pigeonholed into certain positions because she is a black woman.

“I am realizing that as young as I am, I am tired,” she wrote. “I am tired of the burden of feeling like I must and I need to work on justice issues in the conservation and environmental community simply because this is baggage that I carry and bring as a woman of color.”

“This is why our diversity, equity and inclusion work as an organization and as a community is so imperative and important because there are other Heathers out there with the skills, desire, and passion to work on conservation and environmental issues, but we need the conservation community to see us as professional conservationists first and people of color second and not assume that because we are passionate about something that we necessarily want to make a career out of it,” she wrote.

Walker admits she, too, fears being pigeonholed. But Greene views it differently.

“To me, it doesn’t feel like being pigeonholed,” she said. “I feel like I need to be there.”

“I value speaking up and knowing that, OK, I don’t speak for all black women, I don’t speak for all people of color, but if I’m in the room, I’m gonna be heard,” Greene said.

The hope is that environmental work will one day be an appealing and welcoming field of work for more diverse communities. Although the organization is still in the middle of fully diversifying all of its offices, including those in the intermountain west, Walker has a good feeling about where The Wilderness Society is headed.

“From what I gather... it was a lot of kumbaya stuff at first,” she said. “But I think since we’ve officially introduced policies that directly affect how we bring new people into the organization, it’s working.”

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