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Environmental Groups Say They Support Black People But Struggle To Advocate For Them

A anti-coal protest organized by The Sierra Club.
File Photo | Sarah Skiold-Hanlin
St. Louis Public Radio & The Beacon
Largely white organizations like the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment have historically not advocated for issues that directly impact Black communities.

At least twice a week, Donna Washington tends a 15,000-square-foot garden of native flowers, fruit trees and several rows of vegetables at Jubilee Community Church in north St. Louis.

The church has received nearly $40,000 from The Nature Conservancy since 2018 to build the garden, which provides produce to local restaurants and nearby residents. But largely white mainstream environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club often are not present in predominantly Black neighborhoods and spend most of their time advocating for policies and outdoor recreation programs that do not address the needs of Black communities.

Washington, 63, has lived in the area near Jubilee Community Church for her entire life and grew up gardening with her mother and neighbors. Before working on the church’s garden, she was not aware of the conservancy. Environmental groups likely avoided Black neighborhoods like hers for decades, she said.

“They probably think we are not interested,” Washington said. “That’s because of the crime and the stereotype that Blacks don’t want anything. I think that’s mainly what it is.”

North St. Louis resident Donna Washington, 63, stands at next to the Jubilee Community Church on July 29, 2020.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Donna Washington, a north St. Louis native, works regularly at a Nature Conservancy-funded garden at her local church.

Environmental activists find it hard to show they care

Environmental activists often cite research that shows that Black communities experience more severe environmental problems than white communities. A report from Washington University’s Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic last year found that Black people in St. Louis are more exposed to air pollution from demolition activities, live in neighborhoods that receive the most illegally dumped trash and have more limited access to healthy food than white people.

But St. Louis-area environmental groups have tried recently to express solidarity with Black communities. Earlier this summer, they released statements in support of Black Lives Matter after a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“The same people who are on the front lines of climate change are the same people who are on the front lines of racism and police brutality,” said Gretchen Waddell-Barwick, interim director of the Sierra Club’s Missouri chapter.

The local Sierra Club chapter, which has six white staff members, has largely focused on protecting natural areas from being developed, calling for updated building codes and advocating for renewable energy. The group lacks experience engaging with Black communities and is working on changing its approach, Waddell-Barwick said.

“Rather than come into a community and say, ‘Here’s what we think you need,' we’re trying to listen more,” she said. “We’re not perfect, and we’re grappling with it.”

The attendees of the climate strike marched in downtown St. Louis and called for world leaders to stop burning fossil fuels.
File Photo | Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Environmental organizations historically have had a weak connection with communities of color.

Environmental groups tend to have few or no people of color on staff. Dorceta Taylor, an environmental justice professor at Yale University, found in a 2014 study that only 16% of environmental organizations had any people of color on staff. As minority populations continue to increase in the U.S., environmental groups need to hire people who reflect the communities around them, Taylor said.

“The country is becoming more and more diverse. Within the next two to three decades, we will be a majority minority country,” Taylor said.

Especially after the killing of George Floyd, the public wants to see groups like the Sierra Club adopt a racial equity lens to their work, Taylor said.

“Environmental groups have to face the question: How do we make a connection?” she said. “If you’ve never in your entire history done anything in a community of color, if you’ve never engaged young people in those communities, if you don’t have internships, you don’t hire, does it sound hollow or does it sound genuine?”

Some environmental activists of color believe that their white colleagues need to simply show up more in Black communities, and to go beyond work on the environment. Maurice Muia, a St. Louis-based climate adviser for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he regularly supports businesses and schools in Black neighborhoods.

“If there’s an opportunity to work with kids, to get my hair cut, I go, right? I find ways that I can show up, be present or even go eat at a restaurant,” Muia said. “Stop thinking of this as charity. This is what you should just be doing.”

Grants don’t prioritize racial equity

Environmental nonprofits largely focus on work that they receive funding for. But a large portion of funding does not address racial equity, said Maisah Khan, river policy director at the Mississippi River Network. Between 2007 and 2013, U.S. foundations only spent 12% of their funds on issues that affect communities of color, according to the Environmental Grantmakers Association.

Maisah Khan, river policy director at the Mississippi River Network, stands in her backyard garden in St. Louis.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Maisah Khan used to work as a water policy director at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and was one of three women of color at the organization earlier this year.

Khan served as water policy director at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment for about two years. The group received a McKnight Foundation grant that funded her work to advocate for policies to reduce flooding and agricultural runoff in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Because that work was time-consuming, she could not fully respond to local residents’ concerns about drinking water.

“The best that I could do was share the resources for how to engage with local decision makers on the issues that were happening,” Khan said. “I would not say I am working in a space that’s connected to local communities.”

But recently, there has been a shift in the type of advocacy work that the Missouri Foundation for Health, Health Forward in Kansas City and other foundations want to fund, Waddell-Barwick said.

“Funders want us to work more on community collaboration. They also ask for demographics on staff and board,” she said. “They want to fund those that are really walking the walk than talking the talk.”

Environmental groups question their focus

The 50-year-old Missouri Coalition for the Environment primarily works on urban agriculture programs and demanding cleanup of the West Lake Landfill Superfund site and other hazardous waste sites. But the group has struggled to settle on a strategy for its advocacy, and that’s made it challenging to fit communities of color into its work, said Heather Navarro, the group’s executive director.

“We’re at a point where we’re asking ourselves, ‘Are we a grassroots-based organization or a policy organization?’” said Navarro, who is leaving her job in September. “Because if you look what our staff has done in the last 10 years, most of it is sitting in front of a computer, researching, writing, going to Jefferson City.”

Alderwoman Heather Navarro, D-28th Ward
File Photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Coalition for the Environment has struggled to find its focus in the last decade, said Executive Director Heather Navarro.

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment has only one person of color on staff. Tosha Phonix, its food justice organizer, said that white environmentalists have a tendency to prioritize improving nature for recreational purposes. But if they want to engage with Black communities, they need to be advocating for access to healthy food, stable housing and safe neighborhoods, Phonix said.

“I’m never going to fight for recreation environment over the built environment that people have been put into,” she said. “I’m fighting for people, then people will fight for the environment.”

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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