On this installment of the Green Line Series we will be bringing you something a little different. We recently had the opportunity to interview two of our speakers on the session What’s Next? The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations. We are excited to provide perspectives and a glimpse into the session from Matias Valenzuela, Director, Office of Equity and Social Justice, King County and Sudha Nandagopal, Strategic Policy Advisor, Environmental Justice & Service Equity Division, Seattle Public Utilities.
GoGreen Conference: The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations report is billed as “the most comprehensive report on diversity in the environmental movement”. Compiled by a working group of environment and equity thought leaders, Green 2.0. investigates the disconnect between green activism and social equity at NGO’s foundations and Government Agencies across the country.
In your opinion – what does the Green 2.0 report mean to the state of diversity in environmental organizations? What are the top things businesses can do to improve?
Sudha Nandagopal: The Green 2.0 report was an important marker to report on what many of us have observed. The environmental movement, especially our leadership, has to change in order to better reflect the communities most-impacted by environmental injustices and to engage the rising American electorate: a population of people who are incredibly racially diverse and facing huge issues of income inequality, rapid globalization, and a changing climate. We are all seeing the stark differences in racial outcomes throughout all levels of our society and this report’s findings are relevant for organizations, government, and businesses as we consider our leadership and services
Businesses and organizations have an important role to help address these disparities and strengthen communities. Both businesses and organizations must assess who is and isn’t benefiting from their services and create opportunities for people of color to lead sustainability efforts. From that assessment, businesses can begin to understand how to shift their products, services, and hiring/retention practices to better reflect and grow their customer base now and into the future. Additionally, businesses can bring a strong social responsibility lens to their programs and build partnerships with people of color, immigrant, refugee, and low-income communities through focused, community-led, culturally relevant efforts. Through these focused efforts we can shift not only who is in the room, but who has the power to shape and influence decisions, programs, and policy.
Matías Valenzuela: The Green 2.0 report is an urgent call to action for environmental organizations. In short, there is a “green ceiling” for people of color, and this should be of great concern to environmental organizations. Nationally we will be majority “minority,” or majority people of color, by approximately 2043. We will reach this number in our King County region about 10 years sooner than that. So we have a diversity explosion in our hands. At the same time, only 12-16% of those in environmental organizations are people of color.
There are a number of steps that organizations can take to make changes. Organizations need to track their numbers and do internal assessments, then develop plans and goals that make the organization accountable and move the organization towards greater diversity.
Importantly, it’s not just about increasing diversity in the workforce, but also workplace inclusion – this means creating a culture within the organization that encourages respect and trust for all individuals, and creates a workplace that is open and welcoming of new and different points of view. Differences in backgrounds and perspectives within organizations are assets, and organizations need to be able to have these discussions. Diversity and racial equity trainings and discussions are key in advancing an organization’s culture, and need to accompany the plans to increase workforce diversity.
GoGreen Conference: Can you describe what programs Environmental Justice & Service Equity (EJSE) has been working on? What are the challenges in implementing these programs? What are the successes?
Sudha Nandagopal: Our work in the Environmental Justice and Service Equity Division spans a huge range of issues. We work directly with people of color, immigrant, refugee, and low-income communities to build partnerships and address historic inequities in service delivery. We also work internally to coach our colleagues to embed racial equity in strategic business plans, decision-making, project design, and delivery.
For instance, right now we are working in partnership with people-of-color led community organizations to design programs that will engage our communities in the new food waste requirement that Seattle adopted in 2014.
Some of your businesses may experience challenges when the city rolls out new requirements – you may need to let your staff know how to operate differently, change how you work with customers and create new ways of doing business. Imagine if you were of limited-English proficiency or that you had only recently moved to the area or imagine that you have had a historic pattern of having the negative impacts of policy fall more heavily on your community. These are the kinds of barriers many in our communities face every day.
We know there’s a huge opportunity to support people of color, immigrant, refugee, and low-income communities in participating in composting and recycling. We also know that these communities are eager to work with Seattle Public Utilities to figure out ways to lift up existing cultural practices, build their skills, and create opportunities for long-term community environmental stewardship.
By working with community groups to design the projects, we can create relevant programs, unearth and utilize existing practices, create connections between community leaders to coach and support one-another and refine our programs to better connect with and build capacity in communities. We have to take an active learning role, start where people are at rather than making assumptions, increase capacity, and build upon existing resources.
GoGreen Conference: King County recently released the Equity and Social Justice Annual Report. What are the most important takeaways and what does this report mean for the future?
Matías Valenzuela: The report reveals that disturbing inequities persists in King County and that a person’s quality of life is greatly impacted by where they live, and by their race. For example: average household income in one ZIP code can be $100,000 less than in another just a few miles away; average life expectancy can be 10 years shorter in one place than another; and unemployment among African Americans is twice what it is for whites.
We know that we can take some concerted steps to make changes and increase opportunity for our residents.
As an example, we increased access to affordable health care, led by our Executive Dow Constantine, with an all-hands-on-deck approach that mobilized County agencies and community organizations to help nearly 200,000 people in King County sign up for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, cutting the uninsured rate by more than one-third. The enrollment outreach targeted uninsured populations with the greatest needs, such as Latinos, African Americans, and limited-English speakers in South King County—creating greater access to critical preventative services such as vaccinations, screenings for cancer or mental-health issues, and treatment for chronic conditions.
And we are working to expand opportunity where people live. Based upon research which shows the place where one lives has a dramatic impact on his or her trajectory in life, King County and The Seattle Foundation launched Communities of Opportunity—an initiative to improve health, racial, and socioeconomic equity in communities, building on community assets and know-how.
More recently, we created a nationally-recognized low-income bus fare for our lower-income Metro Transit riders.
In our workforce, we are working to ensure greater equity, diversity, and opportunity in our changing workplace.
Event Details: GoGreen Seattle 2015, brought to you by King County, will take place Thursday, April 30, 2015 at the Conference Center located at Eighth Avenue and Pike Street in Seattle, Washington. Tickets are available at seattle.gogreenconference.net or via phone at 206.459.0595. Early Bird rates are good through Friday, March 27, 2015. Single Admission Early Bird Tickets are $175 and Group Rate Early Bird Tickets are $150 (groups of two or more). Special registration rates for student, government and non-profits are available.