Friday, January 17, 2014

MLK Day and the Way to Win

We’re celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day again this year and I’m happy that Scott Miller, who runs the environmental communications consultant group Resource Media, addressed the issue of real diversity in the environmental movement in a thoughtful blog last week, Changing with the times.

Scott addresses the issue directly: "...[A]t the end of the day, even after genuine efforts and incremental changes in course and composition, the ‘mainstream’ environmental movement remains far too white, too old, too wealthy. This has plenty of moral implications. It is also not the way to win.”

His company, Scott says, is working on “new communications initiatives that eschew the common wisdom that a sharp strategy aligns only with a sharp policy goal. Instead, we are exploring content strategies that are focused on getting key audiences to talk with each other about shared values. It takes time, but that’s the thing about moving away from short-term, transactional relationships.”

He asks: “How do we become aware of blind spots when we can’t see them? How can we make sure our workplace and professional culture are truly welcoming for people from diverse backgrounds, present living conditions and lifestyles? How do we integrate their perspective and expertise into our approaches, and evolve the way we do the business of social change? How do ensure that people who join us from different perspectives and life experiences are heard, not just seen? How do we come to reflect the America of today and tomorrow not the environmental movement of the past?”

These are good questions and, for many years, I’ve sat on boards and in board and staff meetings where the same kind of concerns, maybe not so well articulated, have been posed, discussed, debated but seldom resolved.

The questions usually took the form of, “How can we get more people of color to sit on our board” or “How can we get more minorities to take part in our education/restoration events?” or “Why aren’t there any applicants from (ethnic group) applying for this job?”

The problem with asking those questions is that it’s looking through the wrong end of the telescope. We want “them” to join “our” group, to engage in “our” agenda.

When you work in the field doing conservation outreach, you get some cultural sensitivity training. Latinos don’t volunteer for Saturday restoration work parties weeding and planting as readily as Microsoft or Amazon dads and moms looking for a family activity. In fact, as an organizer, if you don’t learn that you first have to learn the culture before developing the strategy, you’ll screw up the same way this nation has screwed up in the world— Vietnam, Afghanistan, Libya...

But we usually don’t take or have that kind of time. A long time ago I asked a Latino organizer if he’d help me take my group’s message to the people he worked with. “That’s not the way it works,” he said. “First, you come to my house and then I come to your house. We get to know each other, then we can talk.”

I honestly didn’t have the time or the inclination. My group’s priorities were saving Puget Sound; his group’s priorities were farm worker rights. I’m sure we could have spent the time getting to know each other’s priorities, maybe even finding common ground. But neither of us had the resources or the time to take that time.

Saving the whales, the rain forest, the ozone layer are campaigns resting on specific cultural values not shared by all ethnicities or socio-economic levels. For those campaigns, I’ve advocated “skimming the cream,” in other words, go get the segments —white, monied, educated— who share those cultural values. That doesn’t mean you don’t care about Pacific Islanders whose main concerns are about access to health services; your organizing life’s just too short, that’s all.

Even if the environmental agenda remains the way it’s been framed these last 40 years since Earth Day, there will be more diversity in the movement by virtue of there being more affluent and educated non-white people to engage in the environmental agenda. It would be great if this new blood were to push the movement to focus more attention on achieving environmental justice for at-risk ethnic and/or lower economic populations.

Whether this is “the way to win,” so to speak, I don’t know.

But what Scott Miller is spurring with his questions and calling for discussion is a much more radical view of where the environmental movement might go: that of a new organizing model based on developing shared community goals of conservation, education, public health, public safety, housing, labor, commerce... Groups adopting these “new”goals or parts of these goals would have good reason to have boards and staffs that credibly reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

These goals might not even be “environmental” as we know them today and what’s exciting is how the culture— as well as the complexion-- of what we today know as the “environmental movement” might well change.

One other way of thinking about this kind of rethinking is to think of how the goals of the vast array of community groups working for good and for change can be unified under general goals and principles. I’ve always liked David Domke’s suggestion that reframing our individual group goals in terms of responsibility, legacy and opportunity would go a long way to show the commonality of our efforts.

Would that be “the way to win?”

The devil’s always in the details and it takes time and resources to do the hard thinking and hard talking. But it’s a heck of a lot more exciting than the old, familiar slog.

But before we run off and jump into this conversation, I’ll finish with what a tribal member who came to two meetings of the board of an environmental group said after resigning. “Your friends like to talk,” he said to me.

And for all of us, that’s something to keep in mind on this journey.

--Mike Sato


  1. OK - I'll go first! I am just finishing a quite new book called "The Genius of Earth Day" by Adam Rome. It is a detailed review of all the leading up to and various day-of events of the first Earth Day in 1970. Very broad and thorough.

    At the end he compares the big 20th anniversary Earth Day of 1990, which was led by Denis Hayes, who was also a lead organizer of the 1970 event and is now the Exec. Director of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle - of the big new incredibly green building.

    The 1990 campaign was quite different and no where near as successful, for a variety of reasons.

    At the end he says (of existing environmental organizations) - "... But they seldom inspire the deep reflection that might make the environmental movement dramatically bigger and stronger. That sort of reflection begins with questions. What are the most important reasons why we have environmental problems? What environments do we value most? Who should decide how best to use the resources of the earth? What are the most effective ways to build a more sustainable future? As Earth Day 1970 demonstrated, these questions really can change the world. We need to ask them more often."

    So some more food for thought.

    PS -

    In my personal experience, some Hispanics here do not go to environmental events and especially parks because they are nervous of anyone in any kind of uniform.

    Next? ...

  2. Thanks for the comment. Narrowing the frame of "environmental" issues narrows the potential constituencies working for those issues; when they can be credibly framed as public health and safety issues, we can organize along many more different dimensions. Can't always credibly do that but think about how we'd deal with a community disaster like a chemical spill in West Virginia or an oil spill in Puget Sound.

  3. It's always a good idea to "follow the money." In this case, it calls for examining the complexion and cultures of funding organizations.


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