The lack of representation of people of color in recognized student environmental groups (which most people will associate with predominantly white campuses) can be attributed to many factors, including recruitment and publicity. Who does the campus environmental group reach out to or work with in coalition? Like often attracts like, and so if the group begins as predominantly of a specific race, the tendency to remain racially homogeneous is great.
As an individual, woman and a person of color, my experience in working with a predominantly white campus educational organization was one of discomfort. My frustration was not only due to my minority standing, but also to the group’s tendency to address issues of “cultural diversity” rhetorically while conspicuously leaving out the issues programmatically.
I view cultural diversity programs that seek to turn an organization into the colors of the rainbow without understanding the need to diversify the larger movement as tokenistic at best. It’s not enough for organizations to have diversified membership, if their issues do not reflect a range of approaches and points of view. I have had an easier time working with SEAC because the group’s national structure has incorporated an integrated understanding of global environmental justice problems. This integration of ideas and people is what inspires and motivates me.
How can traditional campus environmental groups that tend to focus on issues such as recycling, waste management, land use, conservation or deforestation integrate their campaigns to be more inclusive of people of color and to create common agendas with people of color organizations and concerns on campus?
To attract a diversity of people, we must take a diversity of approaches and understand where issues are interrelated. We must then integrate environmental issues in a variety of arenas. Environmental groups must be willing to support efforts on campus lead by people of color organizations.
Engendering trust is important if we are to work for social change productively with a variety of groups. One of the biggest mistakes made by many white environmental groups is the tendency to explain to people of color what their own environmental problems are and how they should address them. Not only is this approach patronizing, but it imposes an agenda in which people of color had no input.
A delicate balance must be maintained when discussing diversity. On one hand, it is important to make sure that people of color have voices in the agenda-making process. But it is also important to recognize that all people of color do not share a universal soul that promotes a monolithic point of view or absolute agreement. There is nothing more frustrating than to be the only person of color present at a meeting and be pointed to every time cultural diversity is mentioned. Also frustrating is the assumption that any one person of color can speak for or understand all people of color.
In the end, we must all recognize that significant environmental change requires massive mobilization. Issues are no longer just local. Any structural change requires a rethinking of our place in the world. Until we all find a way to work together, our fragmented efforts can have little consequence. A predominantly white environmental movement can gain little ground internationally in a world that is predominantly people of color. And a narrowly focused environmental movement can gain little ground in a world in which poverty and inequity cause much of the environmental degradation.
Ultimately, it is in the interest of this planet’s future to begin dealing with issues of race and learning to integrate a diversity of perspectives. As the future of the world rests in the hands of its youth, we must learn how to work together. Solidarity rests in our ability to overcome the barriers of racial exclusivism, gender hierarchy and tunnel vision. Solidarity is what cultural diversity is an about.