Jeff took a break from the PUA grind, and ventured to a farm in Vermont to attend the 2042 Today retreat, a meeting of young environmental leaders working to engage and recruit more diversity into the movement.
I left “work” with Pick Up America for a week to attend a retreat in Vermont. The bus I live in was broken – it still is. Our financial situation wasn’t good – it still isn’t. And my team of 12 volunteers in the Colorado Rockies seemed lost (figuratively) – things are looking a little better now. But I left anyway to seek refuge at Knoll Farm in Vermont, home to the 2042 Today retreat. Now in its third year, the idea behind the retreat is to help young environmental leaders re-imagine the conservation movement to be more inclusive and representative of our diverse communities.
The year 2042 is significant because it’s the year in which it’s projected that people of color, collectively, will make up more than 50 percent of the U.S. population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, our country is currently 36.3 percent people of color. The problem is this: it’s not reflected in our environmental movement. The website for Center for Diversity & the Environment (CDE) states that only 11 percent of staff and 9 percent of board members for natural resource organizations are people of color. And the last staggering fact I discovered on the CDE website: 33 percent of environmental organizations and 22 percent of government agencies have no people of color on staff.
As a leader in the youth conservation movement, it was seriously bad timing for me to leave my gaggle of trash gypsies in Colorado with a broken bus and a less than ideal financial situation. But I went to Knoll Farm for something far more challenging. The current environmental movement doesn’t look like me, my friends, my family, or the multitudes of diverse people we have in this country. And to be frank, that ain’t fair!
I think it’s safe to say that everybody – regardless of politics, status, ethnicity, gender, etc. – values clean water and clean air. So why are their entire regions of our country where people endure a lower standard of air and water quality? How is it fair that certain communities suffer from more disease and pollution? And why does the conservation movement not reflect the people and places that struggle most?
In the USA, we supposedly have a “level playing field” – where every citizen or citizen-to-be is given the same chance to participate in our democracy. I’m challenging that notion today, because I know that the level playing field is a myth. Otherwise, my new colleagues and I wouldn’t have felt the urgency to come to Vermont seeking out equality in the movement. If there was a level playing field, there wouldn’t have been an open letter written in 1990 from the Southwest Organizing Party scolding the Top 10 environmental organizations essentially for having racist practices. If there was a level playing field, I wouldn’t have sat in a story circle this summer in tears hearing how the “movement” has broken each us down. If there was a level playing field, this country wouldn’t have an environmental justice movement.
Last week in Vermont was a mixed bag of intense conversation, local food, and relaxation up on the hillside – all shared with some new insta-friends (you know, people that become friends immediately because of intense bonding and/or dependency on each other). My new commitment to the conservation movement is to help create a workforce and a movement that not only looks like all of us, but feels like all of us – complete with warmth, comfort, and strength.
I hate to say it, but almost all of us went to the retreat feeling burnt out from our work. We all left feeling empowered though. I don’t think we left with the specific metrics and power point slides that our workplaces asked us to come back with; I think processing our learning experience will take some time. But for once, there were names like Karim, Dubose, Hsia, and Martinez at the table, equity and access were a part of the conservation conversation, and at last, there were R&B tunes sung at the campfire.
Jeff Chen serves on the SCA Alumni Council. He’s the co-founder of Pick Up America – the nation’s first coast-to-coast litter pick-up, a youth movement walking toward a future without resource waste. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Retreat participation made possible by SCA and 2042 Today.