Beyond “Checking the Box”

December 16, 2020

In July, Andrés Jimenez took the helm at Green 2.0, an independent advocacy campaign to increase racial diversity among environmental organizations. Previously, Jimenez served as senior director of government affairs at Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), and as associate director of government relations at Ocean Conservancy. The timing was right, as the nation engaged in a long-overdue reckoning with racism that prompted considerable soul-searching within the (very white) mainstream environmental movement. Here, Jimenez talks with Laurie Mazur of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project about progress made, challenges unmet, and reasons for hope.

Laurie Mazur: Tell me a little about your journey how you came to be doing this work.

Andrés Jimenez: I grew up in West Virginia in a generation where you could go outside and play in the woods, by the creeks. We wouldn’t come in until mom called us in for dinner. It really gave me a passion for environmental work.

I have also experienced what it is to be a person of color in this movement. I’ve seen firsthand organizations that are doing the right thing and organizations that are not. For example, a few months ago, I sat in a room with 40 organizations, looked around the room, and I was one of two people of color represented. I was disgusted. So it’s experiences like that — and there’s plenty more I could share with you — that made me decide that Green 2.0 was where I wanted to be.

How did Green 2.0 come about, and what are you working on now?

Green 2.0 was launched in 2014 as a working group of thought leaders at the intersection of environment and race. We commissioned a report that found that the mainstream environmental movement had failed to diversify their staff despite decades of promises to do so.

So we started to publish an annual report card that looks at the top 40 foundations and environmental groups when it comes to hiring people of color and putting people of color on boards.

And in 2019 we decided to shift our focus towards accountability through transparent analysis, praise, and exposure of the collective work of individual NGOs, foundations, and government agencies. We’re elevating public attention on the racial demographics of environmental leadership, and the degree to which leaders are positioned to prioritize equity in organizational strategies, programs, and operations.

You became president of Green 2.0 at a moment when many Americans are reckoning with racism in all of its forms. How is that playing out in the environmental movement?

We’re seeing some organizations step up and say, “We need to put this into our strategic plan; we need to make sure that we’re changing, culturally and at the foundation of who we are.”

Unfortunately, other groups think they can issue a statement of support for Black Lives Matter, or have one organization-wide conversation about race and then call it a day. They say, “We’ve checked that box.”

What does it look like to move beyond checking the box, to really change the culture?

It means being proactive. Organizations need to say this isn’t just something we’re going to put in the corner and kind of work on when we have time, or we’ll hire one person and that is the only person that needs to deal with this.

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There needs to be an understanding that organizations need to change from bottom to top. They need to change how they’re working, their hiring practices, who they’re giving a voice to within their organization, who they’re giving leadership responsibilities to. They need to be putting strategic plans together. They need to be working with staff, because staff is demanding it.

peoples climate march Photo by JBecker1999 /Flickr.

Lots of groups are looking in the mirror and saying, “We’re not doing the best we can. We’re not where we want to be or should be.” When we see that, it gives us hope. Even though it’s late in the game, these organizations are coming to the table.

We see organizations like the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, and Ocean Conservancy, to name a few, that are stepping up. They are saying, “We may fail, we may stumble,” but at least they’re putting the effort into trying.

The worst case scenario is an organization that says, “This isn’t for us, I’m not stepping out of my comfort zone, I’m scared of what funders may think, I’m scared of what volunteers and members may think, so I’m not going to try.”

Diversity has become an end goal for a lot of organizations. It’s assumed that simply hiring more people of color will address the racism that permeates our culture. I’m thinking of when Ruth Tyson resigned from Union of Concerned Scientists earlier this year and wrote a moving exit letter about why she found the culture there unwelcoming. Is diversity hiring enough?

I think 2020 proved to a lot of organizations that diversity hiring alone isn’t enough. We saw some organizations make good-faith efforts to hire more diverse staff, but they didn’t have the infrastructure in place to make those new hires feel included and valued.

That’s why many organizations have a higher turnover rate for people of color than white staff. The failure to retain those hires is significant and often indicates that something is broken in terms of the work culture. It means that the organization needs to dig deeper to figure out what about the organizational structure itself is not helping them retain people of color.

One of our reports, Leaking Talent, found several factors that helped organizations improve retention for employees of color, such as including diversity and inclusion commitments in the organization’s mission, vision, and values and the organization’s strategic planning process. We also found that transparency in employee development and evaluation is really important.

So, when you step back and take a look at the environmental movement as a whole, how are we doing?

We’re doing better, but we have a long way to go. There are success stories, but there are also organizations that, year after year, refuse to take this seriously. They’re just saying, “Oh, we hope this goes away, so we can go back to our normal practices.”

But I’m here and Green 2.0 is here to say this is not going away. The idea that the environmental movement cannot succeed without having leaders and people of color at the table, that idea will not go away.

That’s why our report card, for example, is so important, because we’re showing which of these organizations are not being transparent, which are falling back on hiring people of color. There is no escaping the numbers. Those are real. They’re not anecdotal.

And it seems like foundations in particular are among the least transparent.

Yes. Participation among the top 40 environmental nonprofit organizations in Green 2.0’s annual survey that is used to create our Transparency Report Card increased from 82 percent to 90 percent from 2017 to 2019Participation among foundations, however, has remained stagnant at 35 percent. The vast majority of the top 40 foundations critical to funding on environmental issues have not reported any diversity data to GuideStar over the last three years.

Wow. So, addressing the racism and lack of representation in the environmental movement is the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do, right? If we want to preserve a habitable planet?

Absolutely. We’ve seen so many reports and scientific data showing that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by climate change, and care deeply about environmental issues. Yet in our meetings, the least represented group is people of color. People ask, “What should we be doing when it comes to people of color? What do communities of color need? ” How about you actually bring in people of color and have them sit at the table, and ask them?

Until we change who’s at the table, we’re not going to change.

There are two distinct strands in the American environmental movement: the mainstream groups that grew from conservationist roots, and the environmental justice groups that are more concerned with social equity and health. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the former, led mostly by white people, has a lot more resources and power than the latter, which is mostly led by people of color. So a truly diverse, representative movement would require a shifting of power and resources. Do you see that shift happening?

Overall, I don’t see that shift happening where it needs to happen. I do not see a shift of power among the top leaders.

What can we do from wherever we sit as activists, funders, or just regular people who care about the future of life on Earth to bring about “Green 2.0?”

The most important thing to keep in mind when we’re talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion is that it’s about power. Inequity in communities of color is a result of systematically consolidating power outside of those communities. So, I would invite folks to think about what we’re doing in relation to this power imbalance. What are we doing to share power, and to build power in these communities?

We need to not only say, “Oh, we hope that there are people of color coming in to be leaders,” but we need to work to make sure that we’re giving people of color opportunities within our organizations.

One of the things that happens — and I’ve seen it firsthand — is you get, for example, a project coordinator who comes in, a young person of color. That’s where they stay. There is no attention to their career, there’s no one saying, “Let’s look at what would you like to do, how can we give you a voice, how can you grow within this organization, what are the tools that we can give you to succeed?”

And when the organizations aren’t looking to do that, you’re setting someone up for failure, because what’s going to happen is they’re going to sit there for about a year, maybe two, and say, “I thought I would be farther along in my career. I look over and I see someone else who is succeeding and growing, but I’m still here. Why?”

What can funders do?

They need to ask, “What communities of color, what leaders, should we be giving resources to?” Some of them have stepped up over the last few months, and they need to continue to do that. They need to realize that just doing it in the year 2020 and then forgetting about it in years to come isn’t helpful.

Foundations need to step in and be long-term partners. There cannot be change when you come in looking for a short-term solution. Foundations need to be giving money to communities and organizations of color with the idea in mind that this is a long-term relationship, not, “We’ll help you for a year and then we’re going to go back to business as usual.”

What makes you hopeful about the future?

I do have hope that environmental organizations as well as foundations are changing. Are they changing as quickly as I would like? No. Are they changing at the top, the way Green 2.0 would like? No.

But there are foundations and organizations trying to step up, trying to look internally, trying to make a difference and change, funding outside of the box, hiring people of color all throughout different programs. That gives me hope.

I’m very hopeful for the youth who are so passionate about the environment. Look at the Sunrise Movement. It’s a grassroots, diverse, youth-led organization working to fight climate change. They give people of color full-on leadership roles, in which they can speak on behalf of the movement. They don’t hold back, and they’re succeeding. They are talking about climate change to a whole new generation.

So when you look at them and how diverse they are, how inclusive they are, and the work that they’re doing, that to me is a sign of success. It’s hopefully a sign of good things to come.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Teaser photo: Andrés Jimenez. Photo provided.

Laurie Mazur

Laurie Mazur is the editor for the Kresge Foundation/Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is working to advance a holistic, transformative approach to urban resilience in the era of climate change, grounded in a commitment to sustainability and equity. Laurie has written extensively about gender, health, and environment issues.

Tags: anti-racism, Diversity, environmental racism