Although environmental issues affect everyone, they do not affect everyone equally: research shows that the most pernicious consequences of climate change will be suffered disproportionately by people of color and less wealthy people.
Yet, despite the long history of people of color advocating for environmental causes, the mainstream environmental movement still suffers from a striking lack of diversity. A 2014 survey of U.S. environmental government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and foundations found that people of color were significantly underrepresented.
What explains this gap, and how can it be overcome? Those are two of the questions Ivuoma N. Onyeador, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, explores in a recent paper about building ethnically and economically diverse environmental coalitions. The paper—which was coauthored with Neil A. Lewis Jr. of Cornell University, Dorainne J. Green of Indiana University, and Ajua Duker of Yale University—draws on previously published research about the environmental movement in the U.S.
She and her colleagues aim to remind readers that “on environmental issues, there are points of connection amongst different groups that we should identify, and we have a better chance of actually addressing the issue if we find those points of connection and work together.”
Here, Onyeador outlines several ways people and organizations who care about environmental issues can unite a more diverse group of stakeholders.
Expand the Definition of What Counts as an Environmental Issue
There’s a notable divergence in how white and nonwhite Americans think about environmental concerns. A 2020 study found that white Americans tend to take a narrower, more ecological view of what constitutes an “environmental issue,” while people of color see human-centered issues such as racism and poverty as interwoven with the environment.
These diverging perspectives, Onyeador and her coauthors write, stem from how different groups experience the consequences of environmental policy. Nonwhite and lower-income people are more likely to live near landfills, experience poor air quality, have few parks and green spaces in their neighborhoods, and so on—environmental issues that are directly tied to social inequities. (The environmental-justice movement, which emerged alongside the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, has long sought to highlight the connections between inadequate environmental protection and racism and poverty.) White and wealthier Americans are less likely to experience these burdens directly, which may explain why they tend to see environmental destruction as bad for the planet rather than bad for specific groups of people.
By broadening their portfolio to include human-centered issues alongside ecological issues, environmental advocates have a better chance of mobilizing a wider audience that includes those traditionally underrepresented in environmental coalitions.
“If I’m concerned about whether I can survive in this neighborhood, and people are saying we need to care about the environment because of trees, I may tap out,” Onyeador says. “But if you connect environmental issues to my lived experience—like whether my child will have clean water—then I might feel more motivated.”
Recognize That More People Care about Environmental Issues Than You May Realize
A 2018 study identified a curious paradox: Americans of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds believe that the groups most concerned about the environment are white people, young people, and women, and that racial minorities and low-income people are the least concerned. But public opinion surveys reveal that just the opposite is true: minorities and low-income people are actually the most concerned about the environment.
This misperception, which is likely fueled in part by media representation, may explain much of the lack of diversity in mainstream environmental groups. As Onyeador and her coauthors write, “it is difficult to muster the motivation to work toward a common goal with people you misperceive as not caring about the issue.”
Broadening both our idea of what counts as an environmental issue and our sense of who is a potential environmental advocate “allows [us] to recruit from a broader audience, which brings more attention and more support,” Onyeador says.
Unite Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Justice Efforts
It’s increasingly common to see companies highlight their environmental-sustainability measures. These efforts typically take a strictly ecological focus—carbon offsets, recycling programs, and the like.
In Onyeador’s view, that’s a missed opportunity: “Companies need to think about broadening the suite of environmental organizations that they’re supporting to include environmental-justice organizations.” For example, instead of simply planting a tree for every item sold, an organization could focus on creating green spaces in neighborhoods that lack them.
Companies also have a self-interest in supporting environmental-justice efforts. Consider the impact that poor air quality or contaminated drinking water can have on an entire region well into the future. As Onyeador points out, “if people have lead in their water and are unable to do well in school, they may never be able to work in your organization.”
Learn from Recent Successes
Amid a sea of disheartening environmental news, Onyeador and her colleagues see encouraging signs that the movement is beginning to succeed at uniting a more diverse coalition. Recent events such as the March for Science and People’s Climate March succeeded in drawing diverse audiences; the youth-led Sunrise Movement has made environmental justice a central component of its advocacy efforts.
The researchers also cite the Flint water crisis as a key moment for the convergence of mainstream environmentalism and environmental justice. The crisis garnered a national outcry—much of which focused on the racial inequality that contributed to the environmental catastrophe. Years of sustained advocacy have resulted in the replacement of some 10,000 lead pipes in 2021 and a $641 million settlement deal for city residents.
It’s not enough to erase the damage done, but it still serves to show the power of a more unified environmental movement.