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The unsustainable whiteness of green

Aaron Mair’s story starts out all too familiar to people of color who have encountered any of the big green groups: He asked one for help dealing with an issue of critical importance to the health of his family and community — and was turned away.

This was back in the 1990s, when — as has been well-documented — large environmental organizations were mostly run by well-off white people concerned about conserving critters and our country’s natural beauty, not the health and welfare of its people.

After his initial setback, Mair became one of the leaders in an effort to change that paradigm. (Spoiler: It’s been a slow process.) His story started with a choice between raising his daughters in the suburbs of Albany, New York, or in the city, and his decision to go with the latter — while building his house next to an urban nature preserve. He thought he had gotten the best of both worlds.

But then he started to notice the soot. Black flakes coated his car, the house, “everything,” he remembers. The air was acrid. Paint peeled from outside surfaces, like street signs and his deck door. Five or more years of chronic exposure caused both his daughters to develop asthma symptoms.

His dream home was in the prevailing wind pattern of a state-run garbage incinerator.

Mair worked in social services for the state government. “I had to sue my boss, so you can imagine how I was received by my coworkers,” he recalls. “When your children are injured, you have no choice.”

A coworker, Roger Gray, thought the Sierra Club could help. Gray was president of the local outpost of the green group, but directed Mair to the deeper pockets of the Atlantic Chapter based in New York City. The two drove to a meeting in New York, where Mair — a 6-foot-7-inch-tall black man — presented his case.

“One of the questions was, ‘Did you check with the NAACP?’” Mair remembers. “Right then and there, it was clear that the perception of race mattered. We were voted down.”

Gray was appalled. So he took up a collection among his local chapter and, several weeks later, presented Mair with a check to the “Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Fund.” Mair went on to win his battle with the state, shutting down the incinerator.

Then he decided to become a double agent, joining the Sierra Club in 1999, assuming leadership roles and, in 2015, being elected its first black president. All the while, he remained active in environmental justice causes. His friends in the grassroots would often ask why he bothered with what they considered an out-of-touch mainstream environmental group.

“That’s where the internalized racism and oppression is, and if I can help shift that Mount Everest and change its direction,” Mair would say, “it becomes harder for other environmental organizations to maintain their way.”’

Aaron Mair (left) and his former colleague Roger Gray, who introduced him to the Sierra Club. Courtesy of Aaron Mair

According to the latest research from the advocacy group Green 2.0, however, Mount Everest hasn’t moved much. (The recent report follows up on a significant study done by Green 2.0 in 2014, which put firm numbers behind an already obvious problem.) Simply put, NGOs and foundations in the green space are still overwhelmingly white at all levels, especially top leadership — and that’s limiting their effectiveness, especially in addressing issues that affect frontline communities.

Most large environmental organizations started in conservation, which left them largely tone deaf to the concerns of communities that live in the shadow of chemical and power plants, don’t have access to clean drinking water, and live compromised lives due to the impacts and aftereffects of industrialization.

Green groups traditionally saw those plights as issues for social justice warriors. They also labored under a misconception that communities of color don’t care about the environment. But according to Vien Truong, director of Green for All, a 2015 survey done by her organization suggests exactly the opposite.

“Communities of color overwhelmingly care about the environment — more than their white counterparts,” Truong says. “They’re willing to pay more for the cost of the energy. They know that they will save costs later on in health care and in improved quality of life.”

At a time when the nation’s leadership seeks to gut and abandon all forms of environmental protection, there are very real drawbacks to the fact that mainstream environmentalists and grassroots community activists still operate largely in separate worlds, rather than creating a united front.

“We aren’t keeping up with climate change because the environmental movement is allowing a legacy of implicit bias to constrict its leadership and strategy,” wrote Green 2.0 Executive Director Whitney Tome in a recent piece for Fusion. “It silences the very people who often feel the greatest impact of a warming planet, even though activists of color could make or break success for this work.”

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