Climate change and environmental pollution can take a disproportionate toll on people of color. Yet the environmental organizations and foundations working on these issues are overwhelmingly staffed and led by white people. In 2014, the nonprofit Green 2.0 surveyed almost 200 environmental nonprofits and 28 environmental foundations and found that only about 12% of staff are people of color – and that most positions of power are held by white people.

Green 2.0 is working to change that. Each year, it produces report cards showing how well environmental groups are – or aren’t – hiring, retaining, and promoting people of color, based on data collected from the organizations. By pressuring organizations and foundations to make this data public, Green 2.0 encourages them to address the environmental movement’s lack of diversity head-on.

Yale Climate Connections talked with Executive Director Andrés Jimenez to learn more about this work.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Yale Climate Connections: Tell me about racial diversity among environmental groups and foundations. What is your organization working to change?

Andrés Jimenez: When we look at climate change, what comes out in the reports is that communities of color are the most impacted by climate change. But when you look around the table at the decision-makers, what we’re seeing is that these decision-makers are not coming from those communities.

And what we need is for those folks, those very communities, to actually be sitting at the table saying, “This is what’s happening with our communities. This is how we’re being impacted. And here are the things we’d like to see to help make sure that our communities and our country can do much better.” What we need to bring to the table is different backgrounds, different experiences, so that we can accelerate change.

Green 2.0’s annual transparency report cards on the largest NGOs and foundations include data on the number of full-time employees, senior staff, and board members who identify as women or people of color. The report card for each organization shows whether they were transparent about their data and whether they are increasing in diversity over time.

YCC: Tell me a little bit about how long you’ve been putting out the report cards. Are there any trends that you can see?

Andrés Jimenez: We are looking to see, are these organizations and these foundations being transparent? And by that I mean, are they reporting whether or not they’re actually hiring people of color and putting them on their boards?

Our report cards started coming out in 2014, and over the years, we’ve seen lots of trends, not all of them good. But one thing I will say is that over the last couple of years, more environmental groups are now submitting their information and being transparent when it comes to hiring people of color and putting people of color on boards. But foundations are really falling behind when it comes to being transparent and reporting yearly to show their hiring practices and what their boards are looking like.

One of the things, though, that I always look at when I when I look at the report card is, yes, organizations are doing better at being transparent, but are they actually being better year to year when it comes to their hiring practices? Are they actually changing their culture? Are the roles in which they are hiring, are they diverse in what they do? And are they giving people of color an actual opportunity to be a leader and to have a voice for their organization?

Because it is not a success if organizations, for example, are hiring people of color but leaving them in those roles where they actually don’t have a voice. We need to make sure that people of color are hired, that the culture is changing, and that they do have a voice and a seat at the table.

YCC: Who is using the report cards and how? Are the report cards really prompting self-reflection among these organizations, or is it more for others to use to pressure them to change?

Andrés Jimenez: Well, one of the exciting things is that the report card is serving an amazing purpose to organizations and foundations. The report card, from what I’ve seen, is very exciting because folks aren’t just putting this in a file folder and throwing it and leaving it there. Organizations and foundations are actually looking at them and they’re going through what the data is saying.

What I’m hoping for is that as every year goes on, and we continue to work with these organizations and with these foundations, more and more folks will be coming on, being transparent, which will then lead to a self-assessment saying, “Oh, wow, we’re not doing as well as we should be doing. We are far behind and we could be doing better. How can we internally take a look in the mirror and change between now and the following report card?” And so that’s where we really are looking to have an impact.

In its “Diversity Derailed” report, Green 2.0 examines the obstacles that can hinder diversity when an organization is recruiting candidates for senior level positions. When hiring for these high-level positions, organizations often turn to executive search firms. The report examines whether these firms and organizations have discussed prioritizing diversity and the barriers to creating a diverse candidate pool.

According to the report, fewer than half of NGOs and foundations require diversity on their short lists of candidates, and 87% of search consultants say that bias has been a problem in past searches. It also finds that organizations can hinder diversity by seeking a specific cultural fit within the organization and by not allowing enough time to find strong diverse candidates.

YCC: Can you talk a little bit more about what hinders diversity in these searches, and what this report identifies that can help organizations do a better job?

Andrés Jimenez: One of the things that’s most frustrating is when you talk to a recruiter or someone in an organization who says, “We’d love to hire a person of color, but we just can’t find anyone,” because that’s false. Our organization is saying that the talent is out there. It’s about talking to different communities and going to different colleges and different areas and talking to current staff and saying, “There are these opportunities out there. Perhaps you didn’t know about them.”

It’s up to organizations, it’s up to foundations, and it’s up to recruiters to not just go back to the same talent pool. It’s up to everyone to cast a wider net, and understand and know that there are plenty of people of color out there to take all sorts of roles – not just your staff assistant and diversity inclusion positions, but positions all throughout the organization and foundation, whether it’s communication, vice president, research, scientist, you name it.

I really believe that it’s better to try and stumble when it comes to these issues than to not try at all. With some of the organizations, in talking with them and their leaders, sometimes you’ll come across an organization that you can just tell that they’re very worried about saying the wrong thing, or what happens if we try and we fail? How will we look? And I always say, “You’re going to look a lot worse if you just avoid these issues than if you tackle them head on.”

No one is perfect. No organization is perfect. But as long as you are at least trying to work on these issues, you’re showing that there is a commitment and a dedication to working on diversity. When you refuse or turn your back on it, that’s when you’ve given up and that hurts your organization, that hurts you, and that hurts your staff and employees.

YCC: What about retaining diverse employees and promoting them? What are some of the things that can hinder that and ways organizations are overcoming those barriers?

Andrés Jimenez: At the end of the day, what we want to see is a change in culture and a change in the structure and mission of organizations, and that absolutely includes the current staff.

And so we need to make sure that the current staff in the environmental movement feels like they have a voice, are given leadership roles in the voice for the organization, and that they’re able to be in different roles all throughout.

I think that when you see that people of color have different roles all throughout the organization, that’s when you see a big culture change. When you have an African American scientist on your team, when you have an Asian American manager or director, someone from the Latino community as your vice president or president, that’s when you really start to see a culture shift, a culture change.

When you have an organization that only hires people of color when it comes to one specific role, you’re not changing the culture or changing the organization, you’re checking a box. We need to make sure that there’s diversity throughout the organization or foundation. And we need to make sure that those in current roles are being given opportunities to be successful within these organizations and foundations, given leadership roles and a seat at the table.

YCC: What is the one message you would like people to understand about addressing this issue?

Andrés Jimenez: If we are to change our environmental movement, it cannot be done with just one organization or foundation alone. It needs to be an effort made by the entire movement to actually bring about this change.

We need each other. We need to be networking and connecting and talking with one another so that we’re able to see exactly what is happening within each organization and foundation.

And what you find is that the more there is a network, the bigger voice there is. Folks stop feeling like they’re the only ones going through this, and people of color can come together and talk about their experiences, help future generations come into the environmental movement, help current people of color who are working in the environmental movement, and really come together to change who is at the table.

Related: Leah Thomas harnesses Instagram to promote a vision of anti-racist environmentalism


Erika Street Hopman

Erika Street Hopman is co-founder of ChavoBart Digital Media, an audio and video production firm with a focus on scientific and environmental media. ChavoBart Digital Media contributes original reporting,...