The Lost Art of Environmentalism

We are on a ticking time bomb. By 2030 according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, a considerable number of today’s known animal and plant species are likely to be extinct, due to expanding infrastructure and agriculture, as well as climate change. Food and biofuel production together will require a 10% increase in farmland worldwide with a further loss of wildlife habitat, continued loss of biodiversity will limit the Earth’s capacity to provide the valuable ecosystem services that support economic growth and human well-being.

All these statistics are alarming, one of the largest problems greatly overlooked is involving the world’s populations in the fight to save the planet. This may come as a shock since people are under the assumption that countries and people are banding together to fight the threat of environmental destruction. Indeed, inroads have been made, by the media bringing the pending global environmental disaster to the attention of people through television, movies, online media outlets, and encouraging less consumer consumption of non-perishable goods. These simple ways to help the environment make a difference but, changing to a holistic mindset, is key when it comes to tackling massive environmental issues.

To explain what a holistic environmental mindset looks like I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Kristy Drutman, Environmentalist, Social Media Strategist, Activist and Founder of Brown Girl Green. Ms. Drutman is an Environmental Studies graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and an advocate of understanding how to involve everyone in the environmental challenge.

Surprisingly, Drutman did not grow up in a super environmentally conscious household, in fact, she grew up in a conservative town in Southern California that didn’t recycle and was not involved in environmental advocacy. In high school, she was part of a science club and an environmental club. Her passion did not grow until she was at Berkeley studying environmental policy and city planning.

“When I get passionate about something, I become fanatic about it. I was like, I need to find every environmental club on campus. I was looking for everyone who was doing environmental stuff.”

Drutman, who is originally from the central valley area in Southern California was sold that this was her path when she heard that fracking oil drilling was being proposed in the area, she grew up in. It became more visceral to her that climate change and environmental issues were already impacting the most marginalized.

Driven by passion and her desire to make a difference for people affected by changes in the environment and to educate the most marginalized populations, Drutman started her media brand Brown Girl Green. Her media brand Brown Girl Green is committed to changing the image of what it means to be an environmentalist in the 21st century. She interviews environmental leaders and advocates on workplace environmental member diversity and inclusion. Her goal is to produce creative media that is engaging a broader audience beyond the environmental mainstream. The brand works on creating an environment that allows people to bring their whole selves to the work as an environmentalist.

Drutman who has a Filipino mother and a Jewish American father admits she does not fit the stereotype people envision when they hear the word environmentalist but, she uses her uniqueness to fuel Brown Girl Green. She wants people to realize that you do not have to fit into one category or another, that the earth is our home and a commonplace we need to develop a relationship with based on where we are at.

Explaining her environmental journey, Drutman talks about her time in school where she was involved in different and exciting projects but, as she started to feel burnt out she explained that she could not handle all of the projects she was given and was not supported.

“When I looked around me, I started realizing, oh, I’m not supported because I don’t see anyone who looks like me in this room. I began to realize more and more that some of my “way environmentalist” colleagues did not face the same kinds of stresses or struggles that I was dealing with when it came to worrying about things like having a good-paying job after graduating from college, having a family who had sacrificed so much to get me to where I am. I’m not saying that my colleagues didn’t have that but, I think their perspective and their ability to understand why it was so much more stressful or emotionally taxing for me to be taking unpaid internships, or not having any mentors that I could look up to, and having people telling me that I need to live one specific of lifestyle to be an environmentalist. I didn’t fit into any of those boxes.

Whether that was me not being a vegan because I have chronic digestive issues or me not knowing how to compost. I didn’t grow up with that. The fact that I did not go backpacking or on hiking trips and don’t have all this language and understanding of plants and animals like my white environmentalists’ friends got access to since they were kids, it started becoming more apparent to me. I started feeling bad about myself to the point I didn’t want to be an environmentalist, I didn’t have anyone to look up to, how am I going to even be able to succeed here?”

This questioning and not being able to fit into the stereotypical role of an environmentalist led Drutman to almost two years of reevaluating her place in the environmental movement before realizing how important it is to have the representation of people of color.

“For me, when I took that break, I took about, I want to say a year and a half to two years to reevaluate my place in the environmental movement and that’s when I started realizing more and more how important it is that there’s representation of people of color, especially in environmental leadership and storytelling because a lot of people of color are left out of the environmental decision-making discussion. We’re left out of the mainstream image, and we’re left out of our ability to have pathways of communication to advocate for our communities. I didn’t personally grow up near a coal-burning power plant, I didn’t grow up near a fracking well. I grew up understanding the struggles of low-income communities and communities of color because that was what I was surrounded by, even though I am middle class. I understand experiencing the struggles of having an immigrant mother and having to explain to her what it meant to be an environmentalist and why I was doing this work. A lot of things getting lost in translation.”

The environmentalist stereotypes most people envision is the hippie, trippy, long-haired white person concerned with vegan food, recycling, carbon footprint reducing, exploring nature and fighting for the animals. This narrow perception according to Drutman, ignores the fact that most people of color came from ancestors who had been stewards of the earth for thousands of years.

“I can only speak on my perspective as a Filipino woman because I don’t want to group myself in with other people of color and speak for other people’s experiences but, I can say from a Filipino American perspective, my ancestors and my community have been stewards of the earth since the beginning of time. Due to colonization, being displaced and pushed from our land, it led to a huge disconnection with our lands and to the ability to teach future generations. I believe that people of color come from deep ancestral history of caring for the earth and that in general, we’ve been ripped from that due to imperialism, colonialism, toxic extractive industries that have tried to make us look like we are the problem when actually, we are the ones that were taking care of the planet and not causing these things. I think that a lot of the rhetoric that people of color don’t care about the environment is false.

I mean my parents were always on us about electricity because it would save money. We were always reusing plastic bags because we weren’t trying to waste plastic bags. We were always reusing containers. Zero waste was a term or something we did in our own house to save money, not because it was efficient. I think in general; people of color have been doing the work but, I think there’s been a lot of rhetoric that disconnected us especially when it comes to our relationship with the land.”

Drutman believes that diversity in environmentalism is important because it allows there to be more than a single image and story.

“Diversity is important in environmentalism because we can’t have the same homogeneous elite group controlling the decision-making about how these things are talked about and what the solutions are. If we don’t have diversity, as we see in nature we’ll die off. If we don’t have diversity in our leadership, we don’t have diversity in who is acting and who motivates big actions, we’re not going to make it.”

When confronted with the question do white people and people of color see environmentalism differently?

Drutman felt that the approach to the environmental issue was different.

“I think that the way we approach it is different. I think that from what I’ve seen, a lot of white people are focused on individualized actions. They’re focused on consumer culture buying that reusable mug or bringing your jar to the grocery store, biking to work … things like that. Yes, individual actions are important but, it’s not addressing the systemic changes and it’s also not addressing people at the bottom that are being most impacted. I understand why a lot of white people do that, because one it’s easier, second, they can make money from it and third it makes them look good.

For me, I feel like people of color from my experience, are focused on relationships. They are focused on collaboration; how can we build resource networks for each other to succeed? How do you have difficult conversations with your immigrant parents about X, Y, Z things? There’s more of an intersectional approach of talking about how your identity relates to your experience of environmentalism rather than, “I’m an environmentalist” and that’s it, white people don’t attach their white identity to the faction.”

After starting to understand the approach patterns of white people and people of color towards environmentalism I then asked Drutman about how the two approaches could merge to start working towards a solution.

“I can speak to this from the media perspective and from the activist perspective. I think a lot of white folks expect that people of color need to be the ones to educate them and I think that its wrong because they are expecting people to explain their trauma that’s been kind of clear for a while. I don’t think a lot of white people take the time to educate themselves about what are the issues that impact communities of color. I think they need to take time to understand what environmental justice is, what environmental racism means and how it’s been impacting communities of color. Then to actually go talk and listen to communities impacted, like Flint, Michigan, communities in Los Angeles, and even communities that they live near. Ask how this has been impacting how they operated in the world and how the issues were ignored. I think white people need to be doing that deeper work first. Then I think people of color need to also realize that there are obvious reasons to have distrust and to feel pain but, at the same time, recognizing that white folks who do have good interests, good hearts and good intentions, want to be sharing their resources and want to be given ally-ships. I think it’s good to want to have clear demands and figure out ways to be building with each other and figuring out what it can look like if those partnerships are imperfect. It’s a lot easier to do in person than on social media.

Figuring out how to build partnerships that are organic. I don’t think there’s a one size fits all. I think it’s more of like, how are you building authentic relationships with these people because they can’t just be used as a token. They can’t be used as a number for you to be like, Okay, we addressed people of color. We’re good. Put our toys away. We’re done for the day. No, this must be a long process. Relationship building takes a while and unfortunately, with an urgent climate crisis that we have on our hands, we need to be moving quickly on that. I think with social media, relationship building could happen a lot faster than, it happened in earlier movements or previous times in the world. I think we need to be stepping on it to be building those relationships and start unlearning past habits. That’s the way we’re going to be able to work together.”

A report done by Green 2.0 (formerly the Green Diversity Initiative) found that people of color are 36% of the U.S. population and makeup 29% of the science and engineering workforce, but they do not exceed 16% of the staff in any of the environmental organizations. For decades, environmental organizations have stressed the value of diversity however, the diversity composition has not broken the 16% green ceiling even though, people of color support environmental protection at a higher rate than whites.

“The green ceiling is the idea that even though our world, especially in the United States is diverse when it comes to the environmental field, people of color make up less than 20% of the environmental organizations’ leadership. Even though, people of color are most of the world’s population.”

I asked Drutman why aren’t people of color getting involved more in the environmental career field?

“If you are exiting college and thousands of dollars in debt and you must give that new check to your family, to their hospital bills or whatever they need, you’re not going to be taking a job in a field that doesn’t pay well. The environmental field is not equated with getting paid well. I had friends who left the environmental field at UC Berkeley because a lot of the classes that they were taking, were filled with all white students, and they didn’t read about or learn about anyone that looked like them or had any experiences that they could relate to.

Their professors or counselors were all white and were not culturally sensitive to their experiences or their needs that they were going through. Also, when they started researching internships and found out most were unpaid. I think people of color; they would love to study or care about these environmental problems but, it’s not realistic for their situation. I would say the financial block, lack of seeing people of color in the field as a mentor, or in thought leadership.”

How can universities encourage students of color to join the environmental career field?

“UC Berkeley’s a unique place. They have one of the best environmental programs in the country for sure. I took an amazing class, called International Rural Development. That went deep into structural inequality and how we got to this place of pushing people out in the global South.

I remember when I first started college, all those classes weren’t offered. I think it evolved a lot as time went by. I think the college itself started to realize that there was a bigger craving for that. I saw some dramatic shifts in how the college started realizing that there needed to be more of a focus on people of color. During my undergrad at UC Berkeley, my friends and I formed the Students of Color Environmental Collective where we protested at the college demanding that there needed to be more resource support in classrooms but, also mentorships.

I think it’s evolving a lot more, of course, and the school’s doing amazing things to shift that now in the past two years but, when I started, no way. It didn’t exist at all.”

The Top Three Things Universities and Organizations can do to attract and get minorities interested in environmentalism:

1) Give Access

“The reason that I’m in the job that I have, and my other friends aren’t is because I hustled. I wasn’t supported at all, I would say. If I was honest, I was supported by my professors of course, in terms of learning and programs but, for figuring out a career path and what I’m doing now; that was all on my own accord with my friends and network outside the university. I think that when we’re talking about the access young people of color have within universities it’s supposed to be a place for helping you get into the job market. Yes, it’s to learn but, it’s also a place where you’re supposed to be given tools that are allowing you to be secure in the job market. I think for a lot of people of color that went into environmental studies at that school, it was a struggle.”

2) Preparing the Recruitment Environment

“I think it’s also about your marketing, how you brand yourself. I think figuring out internally, as an organization, what training or consulting have you done to reevaluate your diversity and inclusion strategies and agenda. I think that’s a huge thing because, if you’re going out and trying to recruit people of color but, you don’t have any proper structures in place to support them succeeding at your organization, they’re a token. They’re someone you stuck in there because it looks good but, you’re not actually thinking about, “Hey, maybe I need to think about their accessibility needs. Maybe I should think about how they’re emotionally coping with X, Y and Z thing that’s happening in the news that I heard about and I’m going to check in with them.” Figure out how you can support their professional development uplift them into leadership and not treat them like an entry-level employee.”

3) Spoken and Unspoken Messages

“I would say three is figuring out what your end goal mission as an organization is. I think number three is more like the people you’re working with. Not internally but, the services you’re offering or the messaging you’re putting out. I think it also comes down to, how are you putting people of color in a position where they’re having the agency to be shifting some narratives around environmentalism. If you’re following the status quo, I know some bigger environmental organizations have a strict protocol on how they go about things because that’s how they’ve always gone about it. That’s how they’ve got media hits. That’s how they got attention.”

“It’s a traditional process. If you’re bringing more people of color in or a different diverse set of folks that are challenging and wanting to shift that, how are you being receptive and how are you going to actually put the plans in place to shift your organization because now it’s going to look different. If your organization is too rigid that’s still not going to make people of color feel supported because you’re too focused on the outcome and you’re not focused enough on like, working as a team.”

With over 7.7 billion people on the planet, getting everyone involved in the environmental crisis is paramount, the world is too big for any one group of people to lead the efforts alone.

“The Most important thing that anyone can do is to prepare their communities now. It’s not even a question of preventing climate change but, how do we prepare our communities. I think at this point we need to be educating as many people as possible, regardless of their background and activate people into transferring power to the people that need it the most. I think that it will come down to who is willing to do that and who’s not that will determine what communities are able to thrive and which ones aren’t. I think that’s important, that we’re able to educate people that they do have the power to ask for that while we’re still in a semi-buffer safe zone. I think it’s going to make the ultimate difference in what happens in the next century and future generations for sure.”

According to the United Nations meeting on climate and sustainable development, it’s estimated that we have 11 more years until the earth’s temperature rises another two degrees Celsius. At that point, everyone will be able to see the effects of this change from the seas rising to increased heatwaves.

“I feel like the climate movement and where it’s at, I am hoping that it becomes more of a decentralized thing even where people are not like, “Oh, It’s the climate movement”. Instead, everyone is taking ownership in their own communities to figure out what the heck is happening, how can they prepare for it and how can we be holding people accountable.

It can’t be in the shadows anymore. I think it needs to be a worldwide rebellion; this past year has been very eruptive, which has got me super stoked because I think it’s starting to wake people up.

I genuinely believe that when we all collectively come together to do that. I mean it’s never been done, we have Earth Day, some of the biggest environmental policy in the U.S., sure but, I think now we have a much more diverse community of people that want to come together to say something about this and stand up. I feel excited about that and I guess there’s a change in the wave of activism that could come about very soon and is already happening. I do genuinely believe that we can’t afford to wait 10 years and see what’s going to happen. At least for me, I know I’m going to be fighting to be able to limit it.”

Marketing Strategist and Content Developer focused on organizations and people leading the changing social landscape. More at https://www.projectgood.work/start

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