American Environmental Organizations Need to Stand Up Against Racism

June 5th, 2020- A statement from TerraCorps Leadership

Amid recent events, TerraCorps stands up against the continuing racial violence perpetrated against Black people in the US. As an environmental organization rooted in efforts to advance the wellbeing of communities through equitable access to healthy food, clean water, and land, TerraCorps is committed to making lands and public spaces safe and accessible to all. We call upon environmental conservation organizations—big and small—to stand with us against the acts of systemic racism that are eroding the very community bonds we have been trying to strengthen through our collective work.

The death of George Floyd—a Black man—at the hands of local police is just the most recent example of blatant institutional racism and violence toward Black Americans that stops our nation from living up to the ideals of liberty, justice, equality, and patriotism that we claim as our foundational values. The justice system’s repeated failures to act swiftly for Ahmaud Arbery—a Black man murdered while jogging by white vigilantes—or Breonna Taylor—a Black woman killed while sleeping in her home during a botched raid by plain-clothed police officers—are abhorrent and unacceptable. But responsibility does not lie solely in the hands of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, or politicians. Environmentalists and conservationists like us have an important role to play in supporting the Black community’s longstanding calls for support and action. Changing systemic racism begins with causing structural change to our institutions and organizations.

As environmental leaders we must first acknowledge that Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) justifiably feel unsafe while going about ordinary activities that White people have the privilege of taking for granted. The most recent attempt by a White woman to weaponize the police against a Black man bird watching in Central Park—Christian Cooper—who had simply asked her to leash her dog in accordance with park regulations is just one example of a systemic problem.

This is the question to ask ourselves: how can we become allies for Black communities in outdoor spaces? If we refuse to stand up with Black people when they cry out for communities where they can live safely, then we have failed to act on our missions. Before the environmental movement can become more diverse and inclusive, Boards of environmental nonprofits must recognize the environmental movement historically benefits those with White privilege and our organizations are experienced as majority White spaces. If we again fail to stand up as allies, environmental leadership must admit that protecting land for future generations really means for future White generations.

To move beyond the diversity and inclusion rhetoric, we must take concrete structural action to dismantle racism in our own organizations and communities. Here are several examples of best practices that TerraCorps has implemented that we invite others to share with your boards and emulate:

  • Distribute organizational power equitably by amending your corporate bylaws to mandate proportional representation of BIPOC communities on boards and committees, set metrics, and measure performance
  • Amend your corporate bylaws to mandate the establishment of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee that is tasked with making policy recommendations to the board
  • Amend your corporate bylaws to empower the DEI Committee with sole authority to nominate new Board Directors
  • Prioritize DEI work across the organization by ensuring the allocation of sufficient organizational time and resources to learn
  • Engage communities of color in an open and ongoing dialogue.

We acknowledge our own learning curve and room for growth with this work and are committed to holding a learner’s posture to continue engaging and educating ourselves on what we can do better. TerraCorps pledges to provide support and resources to partner organizations that want to work with us to ensure that BIPOC communities have access to and enjoy equal benefits from the land and environment.

In Partnership,

The TerraCorps Leadership Team