“We Are the Original Conservationists”

Reclaiming the Black and Brown roots of environmental justice

A series of photos of people of color recreating in the outdoors

For more than a century, the conservation movement in the United States has been framed through a White lens. In a 2015 New Yorker article, “Environmentalism’s Racist History,” Jedediah Purdy recounts the origins of this movement. Purdy notes that reformers like Madison Grant, Irving Fisher, and Gifford Pinchot—who oversaw or helped to establish national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges under President Theodore Roosevelt—also authored treatises that advocated for White supremacy and eugenics. This notion of an environment preserved only for White people continued throughout the twentieth century, as members of major organizations like the Sierra Club chose not to concern themselves with the “conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities.”

As a result, environmental priorities have reflected a narrow worldview and often explicitly excluded people of color. In the last decade, as a countermeasure to this history, organizations throughout the green sector have committed to increasing racial diversity among their staff. Still, people of color remain drastically underrepresented in environmental organizations and foundations. A 2018 Diverse Green report found that among the forty largest green nongovernmental organizations, “only 20% of the staff and 21% of the senior staff identified as People of Color.” In comparison, people of color make up 43 percent of the US population. In Oregon, a number of programs—recognizing the urgency of both environmental crisis and the need for racial justice—are reclaiming space for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color in environmental advocacy.

These programs are often led by people who did not initially see their own experiences as connected to environmental justice. Candace Avalos, executive director of Verde, a Portland organization that works at the intersection of racial, economic, and environmental justice, describes her own journey toward recognizing her place in environmental advocacy. “I definitely for the longest time felt that climate work was very White,” says Avalos. “I didn’t see myself in there. I didn’t see my people represented in it. I didn’t see my issues being raised by those groups.”

Despite robust experience in leadership development, Avalos felt uncertain about whether she belonged in environmental advocacy spaces until a colleague introduced her to the book From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement by Luke W. Cole and Sheila R. Foster. Cole and Foster frame the environmental justice movement not as a monolithic campaign, but as a river “fed over time by many tributaries.” One of these tributaries stems from work done by Black civil rights leaders of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s who “recognized that the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards was not random or the result of ‘neutral’ decisions but a product of the same social and economic structure which had produced de jure and de facto segregation and other racial oppression.” Another tributary stems from Native American organizing that began with land use decisions during their first encounters with Europeans and that continues today. “Native American activists brought to the Environmental Justice Movement the experiences of centuries of struggle for selfdetermination and resistance to resourceextractive land use,” write Cole and Foster. Yet another tributary is an outgrowth of the migrant farmworker movement of the 1960s, which organized to ban the use of dangerous pesticides, including DDT.

For Avalos, it’s important to share this history with other people of color who might feel removed from environmental justice. “[We need] to educate people about how this is actually our movement,” says Avalos. “White people co-opted our movement. They erased the fact that the environmental movement was built by communities who were impacted by the changing environment for a long time.”

The communities that Verde serves have advocated for racial justice for decades, and the organization is now helping those communities make connections between this long-standing advocacy work and the goals of environmental justice. “[Environmental justice is about] your actual physical environment,” says Avalos. “How does that affect you? How does it affect your health? How does it affect your economic opportunities? Things like living in food deserts, living in places that don’t have access to transportation, places that lack tree canopy or green spaces. As I’ve learned more about this movement, [I understand] how connected it is to all of the other work I had done around poverty and working with communities of color, working on housing justice, even things like police accountability, how we build community and keep each other safe.”

For other leaders, connection to the green sector emerged from recreational activities that gave them direct experience with the more-than-human world. Jason Stroman, program director at the Blueprint Foundation, a Portland nonprofit that provides resources and mentoring to support the career development of Black-identified youth, found solace in nature at an early age. “I got involved in Scouts, which took us camping and did a lot of outdoor activities,” says Stroman. “I eventually lived in a house that had a few acres of forest in our backyard, so that became my refuge space to get away from all the racism and feelings of being ‘other’ in school and other spaces growing up.”

Part of Stroman’s goal with Blueprint’s programs is to create more opportunities for Black youth to enjoy natural spaces, so that they see environmental careers as not only viable but also personally beneficial. “We see that when we take students out,” says Stroman, “whether it’s to the coast or even to parks around the city or on the river, these are spaces they never actually explore on their own or have access to. Just reestablishing that connection and relationship with nature opens them up and helps them realize why it’s important to be a good steward and how those impacts disproportionately affect our communities.”

Greg Wolley, a longtime environmental educator and founder of Creating Tomorrow’s Workforce, a consultancy that works with natural resource agencies, nonprofit organizations, and environmental firms to support efforts to diversify their workforces, suggests that community science can also be a powerful avenue for connecting people of color with environmental justice. Wolley describes a recent experience leading a youth conservation corps program: “We went out to a place called Muddy Creek, which is in the Forest Grove area in western Washington County, where there’s an ongoing turtle research project. [High school students] were able to actually handle the turtles and measure them and weigh them and do data collection.”

These hands-on opportunities benefit both people and the environments in which they live. Sristi Kamal, deputy director of the Western Environmental Law Center, serves as a member of the advisory committee for the Oregon Conservation and Recreation Fund, which was formed in 2019 to promote both species conservation efforts and equitable outdoor recreation opportunities. “The value of a community science project,” says Kamal, “is that it brings in information generated by community members that adds value to the conservation of a species or habitat. The way the community members do that is by going out on a hike, or on a trail looking at trail cameras, or identifying bird species. You can see the conservation value and the recreation value come together very easily.”

For people of color, the chance to be in affinity with people of similar racial identities and cultural backgrounds while recreating, volunteering, and learning about the environment is often key to seeing the green sector as a sustainable career path. “There’s a sense of urgency to really empower our community members,” says Stroman. “An important part of that process is creating affinity spaces where our kids and even older adults can explore these areas surrounded by people from their community.”

Affinity spaces are also valuable for the mentorship opportunities they can provide, where young people can learn from professionals in environmental fields in ways that affirm their cultural values. “Most dominantculture organizations still operate in a linear worldview,” says Stroman. “Communities of color typically come from cultures with more of a relational view of how we connect with nature. We really try to instill and reinforce those values in both the students and adults that we work with, who don’t realize that that’s authentic and legitimate and it comes from their heritage.”

Young people who experience connection to conservation through mentorship often become mentors themselves. “We have students who started in our program four, five, six years ago [who have] taken advantage of opportunities with other partners to educate younger youth about things like salmon, water quality, riparian zones,” says Stroman. “They get to experience that confidence-building and empowerment that comes from taking what they’ve learned and educating people in their community and seeing the reaction and response they get.”

Wild Diversity, a nonprofit organization that hosts outdoor adventures and provides outdoor education for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC), has created an affinity space for people in Oregon who are already working in the green sector. Dez Ramirez, who directs the program, says that BIPOC-led learning is one of the most important outcomes of the monthly meetings. Ramirez notes the power of having consistent spaces where BIPOC can “share what they do for their job, share their expertise and knowledge, teach us about what they’re doing, and help us understand their work and help us see solutions.”

The program can be a lifeline for BIPOC, whose perspectives are often undervalued within White-led organizations. “There are a lot of hardworking BIPOC people that have been doing this work a long time across the state of Oregon,” says Ramirez. “That perspective and expertise and knowledge doesn’t have a big enough home and space right now. It needs to be more expansive, and we’re here for that.”

Having a reliable space where their knowledge and values can be affirmed mitigates burnout and attrition from green careers. “We’re really striving to figure out how to keep BIPOC working, engaging with the environment on a professional level and a personal level, and [how to] really cultivate deep integrity and feel agency in that practice,” says Ramirez.

When people have opportunities to share knowledge among people with similar identities, it makes it easier to do so later in multicultural spaces, where they can change the values and systems of the industry. “We are the original conservationists,” says Derron Coles, the executive director of the Blueprint Foundation. “We are the original stewards. These Western strategies to do this work—they need to get schooled, and who’s going to do it?”

To shift systems, though, means recognizing that representation of people of color in the green sector isn’t enough. Mauricio Valadrian, vice-chair of the Oregon Conservation and Recreation Advisory Committee, notes that without changing the culture of environmental organizations, people of color are pushed to fit into White cultural norms, which does a disservice both to people and to environmental movements. “Instead of using their energy to bring new perspectives and new ways of looking at the same issue, they become tasked with assimilating and acculturating and ultimately giving the answers [the organization is] already accustomed to receive.”

This is exacerbated when there are only a few people of color in an organization, where they are frequently expected to represent entire cultures. “It’s a lot of weight to carry,” says Valadrian, “that whatever we do is how my people will be seen. And so that is also a kind of undue pressure that tends to push these folks that are just starting to make their way in uncharted waters to move toward assimilation.”

Coles notes that providing opportunities for Black youth to practice cross-cultural discourse can be key in helping them resist the push to assimilate. “It’s sort of twofold,” says Coles. “Being in affinity so that they can really learn without having to deal with all the pressures that come with being Black, and then practicing being themselves—their true selves—in spaces where they aren’t in affinity because inevitably, they’re going to have to do it.”

Ultimately, the goal is to change environmental organizations so that White values are not at the center of the work. Part of that happens through creating opportunities for affinity within organizations as they hire people of color. “What I talk about with companies is the need to be a welcoming environment,” says Wolley. “It may not be mentorship within the company—it could be someone outside the company—but [there need to be people who can address] little questions like ‘Where do you get your hair cut?’ or ‘Where do you worship?’”

White affinity spaces can also be an important tool. “At the end of the day,” says Stroman, “the people holding all the power in our power structure really have to redo things and deconstruct systems that were meant to benefit them, and that’s not instinctual. Nobody’s going to just do that on their own.” These spaces provide opportunities for White people in environmental organizations to understand their racial privilege and how they can leverage it to benefit communities of color.

White people also need to practice being their true selves in multicultural settings. Valadrian stresses the need for White people to move beyond thinking about diversity and inclusion as intellectual exercises and to practice them as relational acts instead. “We need to exercise the same muscle that we had when we were in preschool,” says Valadrian. “[When] we went into recess and we just reached out to anybody. When you come with that innocence and transparency of intention, then folks are more open to share who they really are as well. Educate yourself, absolutely. Learn about history, absolutely. But we need you to be you in order to build authentic relationships with people across difference.”

Convincing White conservationists to engage in this work is often the biggest hurdle to change. “They don’t see the need to do that because there’s no pressing deficit that they feel like they have to overcome,” says Stroman.

Valadrian asserts that White people need to recognize the benefits that come from crosscultural discourse. “When we meet someone who’s different from us, we’re also learning about ourselves, and there is so much value there. This is a symbiotic relationship. It is not charity. It is not ‘doing the nice thing.’ This is a huge treasure for your own desire to become the best human you can be.”

Cross-cultural discourse also benefits the environment. As more people of color hold the power to make decisions within organizations, understandings of conservation shift. “The traditional North American model of conservation is based on the fact that we protect wildlife so that we can sustainably hunt or fish them,” says Kamal. “But when we go beyond the traditional model—and that comes more as other communities and other cultures come together on these issues—we start valuing more and more the nonconsumptive use of wildlife, whether it’s through recreation, the spiritual value that cultures associate with wildlife or natural spaces, or the bequest value, which is that you want to see this survive for your next generation so that they can enjoy it too.”

When organizations actively engage in cross-cultural discourse, people of color in decision-making roles can bring innovative approaches to the forefront. For instance, in watershed restoration projects, diverse teams can move organizations beyond simply considering what’s best from an engineering standpoint, says Coles. “They would also have to take a community-centered approach and find out how it’s impacting the surrounding communities because there are people on the team that may have family and friends in those communities. […] What is going to happen to both the ecosystem in this area and the people that are attached to that ecosystem in this area if we go forward with this project? Maybe in the past they were putting all these small dams in throughout one river. Maybe if we had that conversation then someone would have said, ‘Wait a minute, this is Indigenous ground that’s going to be inundated by water when we put this dam in. What’s happening to their culture?’ If there were people on the team that were Indigenous, they certainly would bring that up. Well, they certainly would bring that up if the culture allowed for it, if they knew they weren’t going to be retaliated against or put out of the project team for bringing up these issues.”

Verde provides a tangible case study for what can happen when communities of color complicate White-centered notions of conservation. Verde’s program, Líderes Verdes, works with residents of the Cully neighborhood in Northeast Portland to teach them about environmental justice and advocacy. Residents repeatedly noted the effects on their health of air pollutants emitted by Owens-Brockway, a glass recycling plant based in Cully. Residents then connected with Verde’s policy advocacy program, says Avalos. “We were able to have the people who are affected by Owens-Brockway go to decisionmaking spaces […] and we were successful in DEQ telling them either you need to shut down—you cannot exist as a company—or you need to severely cut your pollution to the air.”

Part of the effectiveness of residents’ advocacy came from their ability and willingness to share their personal stories and the ways that racial justice and environmental justice intersect in those stories. “We try to teach them [that] when you speak, it’s powerful,” says Avalos. “Cully is the most diverse neighborhood in Portland and also the largest neighborhood in Portland, and it’s [situated] next to industry. It was important to say, this is all a product of historic racist redlining. It’s a product of gentrification. It’s a product of pushing communities out into neighborhoods that are undesirable because they’re [located] next to industry but [that are] most affordable for our communities.”

Because community-led approaches are so effective, Stroman advocates for supporting organizations that are rooted in communities of color. He says, “We know how to set people up for success [and] mitigate environmental impacts that we know are affecting us at a greater rate. […] Instead of diversifying companies, we want to diversify the industry with Black- and Brownrun organizations that then move the needle a lot quicker as far as centering those relational worldview values. [Those organizations can model] how to do conservation the responsible and respectful way, to the point that the rest of the industry has no choice but to follow suit.”

Verde recently created an advocacy group, Verde Action, to support their work electing community members to state legislature. “We know that gap of time to make big structural change to protect our environment is continuing to shrink at a rapid pace,” says Avalos, “so there is no time to waste in getting people to make the right decisions, and we think we’re situationally in a good place as an organization to help. We’ve cultivated these relationships with community. We’ve cultivated leaders, and now they’re showing up in spaces where they can make actual legitimate change.”

This sense of urgency, says Valadrian, should drive the twin goals of environmental and racial justice. “If we’re not addressing relevance for [young people] now as to why it matters to save this planet, there won’t be any planet to save when we get there.”

Racial diversity and inclusion are not only moral issues but imperatives for the survival of our species. “We absolutely need the greatest number of different perspectives in order to create adaptive solutions,” says Valadrian. “Otherwise, we’re leaving the door open for the uninspired, for the greedy, for those who have no scope of future thinking to be the ones to make decisions about how we protect this planet. So, for me, [diversity] is not a Hallmark postcard. For me, it is a call to action, because we have no choice but to address the world that is coming to us.”


This article is presented as part of Oregon Humanities’ Community Storytelling Fellowship. You can find more stories and interviews here.


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Community, Environment, Equity, Race


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