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Activists Of Color In St. Louis Find It Hard To Fit Into The Environmental Movement

Tosha and Alim Phonix at their family farm in Spanish Village on June 18, 2020.
Eli Chen
St. Louis Public Radio
Tosha Phonix, food justice organizer for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, has been growing food at home and helping others in St. Louis access healthy food for several years. Her son Alim, 9, often helps her at their family farm in Spanish Village.

When Tosha Phonix saw an online job posting two years ago for a food justice organizer at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, she immediately thought she could do the job. But she didn’t think the group would hire someone like her, a Black woman from north St. Louis.

Phonix had just lost her social services job and was desperate for work to support her 7-year-old son. She applied, and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment hired her.

But like other people of color who work for mainstream environmental advocacy organizations, Phonix struggled to fit in and make her ideas heard. She was well qualified for her position, but it was not designed for her.

“I’m already in the community, growing food with people and building community and doing justice,” Phonix said. “But it’s nonprofit. When positions like [food justice organizer] are created, it’s often filled by someone who is white. They don’t make positions for us unless it’s a way to get to the community.”

Hiring people of color isn’t enough

Since 1990, the percentage of environmental organizations in the U.S. that employ people of color has grown from 2.9% to 16%, according to research by Dorceta Taylor, an environmental justice professor at Yale University. Environmental groups in the St. Louis region employ few or no people of color, even though Black people and other minorities make up about a quarter of the St. Louis metro area’s population.

Studies also have shown that Black communities in the St. Louis region suffer from worse air pollution, deal with more illegally dumped trash and are more burdened by utility bills than white communities.

While environmental groups need to hire more people of color, they also need to make their work cultures more inclusive, said Maisah Khan, river policy director at the Mississippi River Network.

“Just because you bring people of color into these spaces doesn’t mean you are enabling an environment for those people of color to thrive, especially given that these organizations and the mainstream environmental movement has been white for so long,” said Khan, former water policy director at the Missouri Coalition.

Leah Clyburn, an organizer for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, near the River Des Peres on August 9, 2020.
Eli Chen
St. Louis Public Radio
Before joining the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, organizer Leah Clyburn asked her organization how it would address its racism.

Some people of color are wary of historically white organizations that recruit them. For example, the Sierra Club’s founder, John Muir, made racist remarks in the early 20th century about Black and indigenous people, and the organization recently began calling out his racism and pledged to hire more people of color. The organization employs two Black organizers in the St. Louis area for its national Beyond Coal campaign, which advocates for renewable energy. One of them is Leah Clyburn, who recalled what she told Sierra Club staffers when they tried to recruit her two years ago.

“If you want me, you need to be ready for me,” Clyburn said. “I need to ask you some questions. What’s the organization’s plan on addressing racism within its ranks or within the volunteer structure?”

Soon after Clyburn joined the organization, she experienced microaggressions from people she met while doing advocacy work. Some would tell her that she isn’t like other Black people, alluding to how well spoken she is, Clyburn said.

“They’ll be like, ‘You know what I mean, you’re not like that. You’re not like them. We’re not talking about you,’” she said. “But it’s like, no, you are.”

Clyburn told her white colleagues that they need to help defend her in those moments and since then, they do so without her asking, she said.

Maurice Muia, climate adviser for the Natural Resources Defense Council, at his home in Richmond Heights on August 10, 2020.
Eli Chen
St. Louis Public Radio
Maurice Muia is a St. Louis-based climate adviser for the Natural Resources Defense Council who works on local programs to increase access to renewable energy and electric vehicles.

Struggling to be heard

But for some people of color who work in largely white organizations, it can be difficult to challenge colleagues, said Maurice Muia, a St. Louis-based climate adviser for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“I’ve dealt with this personally,” Muia said. “Especially if you’re a person of color and you’re a Black male or Black female and you speak up, it seems as if you’re being disrespectful, in some cases.”

At the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, staff members of color would try to propose ways to conduct more outreach to Black communities, but the ideas were often not taken seriously, said Emmaline Giles, who worked on agriculture and food access initiatives at the organization. Giles had suggested that the group organize some fundraising and other public events in predominantly Black areas of St. Louis.

“I even tried to find potential spots in Old North, where they kept choosing more affluent areas, like in Maplewood or breweries,” said Giles, who is Asian. “As much as we would question, we wouldn’t be acknowledged. Things would happen without our two cents, I guess.”

Emmaline Giles, environmental justice organizer at the United Congregations of Metro East, at the New Northside Conference Center in Jennings, Missouri on August 6, 2020.
Eli Chen
St. Louis Public Radio
Emmaline Giles, environmental justice organizer at Metropolitan Congregations United, works with Black churches to help St. Louis area residents access energy efficiency programs.

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment is trying to make the organization a more inclusive place, said Executive Director Heather Navarro. It formed an anti-racism committee in July with its board members and also recently hired diversity consultants to improve the organization’s culture.

Beyond bringing in consultants and forming committees to address racism, white environmentalists need to understand why Black communities have been stuck for years with environmental problems, like illegal dumping, said Phonix of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

“Say people on a block start picking up trash, but then there’s a vacant lot there and someone from St. Charles comes and dumps on it,” Phonix said. “People get tired of doing things over and over. What do you think is going to happen? Environmental movement needs to get off of its high horse and address its racist history and stop making it like everyone pollutes willingly.”

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

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