Glass Houses: Exclusion in the Environmental Movement

Adeline Wells


The lack of diversity and inclusion amongst staff and members of environmental organizations is a key component to their difficulty in effectively combating environmental justice issues.  However, the whitewashing of environmentalism is not a new phenomenon; women, people of color, and people of low socioeconomic status have historically been excluded. The Sierra Club and other organizations have begun making efforts to correct the lack of diversity ingrained into the environmental movement, yet this journey has not been without its mistakes and challenges.


While the conservation and preservation movements paved the way for modern environmentalism, they also introduced several of the barriers to inclusion and equity that the movement still faces today. Reflecting society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, conservationist circles were dominated by wealthy, white men who conceived of nature as an exclusive hub for recreation and game-hunting.  Likewise, several of the most prominent forefathers in conservation held narrow, racist views as to who should have access to wilderness. Madison Grant, a renowned preservationist, zoologist, and co-founder of the American Bison Association, for all his progressive perspectives on nature, was most notably known for his 1916 white suprecamist manifesto, “The Passing of the Great Race," warning of the decline of Nordic peoples in America due to increasing immigration.  While Grant’s racist views may not have affected his regard for redwoods or bison, they did perpetuate a narrative that wilderness areas —the essence of America— were exclusively the white man’s playground.  The Sierra Club was unique in that the organization had female members and participants almost from its founding, thereby challenging the status quo.  Yet John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, embedded racist diction in his writings, reporting on the presumed laziness of “Sambos” and the “dirty and irregular life” of Native Americans, (A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, 1916).  While the Sierra Club may have been a frontrunner in the inclusion of women, its founder’s lack of regard for ethnic minorities and their rights to nature further infused racist ideals into the conservation movement.  This upheld the standard of the Sierra Club as an exclusively white organization, a view that would continue throughout the twentieth century.


The rise of environmentalism in the 1960’s and 1970’s was part of the immense wave of social movements of the time, colliding with the Civil Rights Movement, the second wave of feminism, the American Indian Movement, and the anti-war movement, amongst others.  While it was an era of massive social change, the individual movements rose to prominence separately. This resulted in clashes amongst them, as activists of each thought their cause should command the most attention.  The environmental movement was no exception. The first celebration of Earth Week in 1970 was met with several protests by other social justice activists, who believed that the methods of demonstration and overall goals of environmentalists were misguided.  Black student activists picketed an event where white environmentalists at San Jose State College buried a new $2,500 car, arguing that the money could be better spent cleaning up urban, poverty-stricken neighborhoods (Commoner, 2014).  Likewise, Native American activists protested the call for new environmental legislation, arguing that tribes were being left out of the decision-making (Taylor, 2014).  While white environmentalists were calling for clean air and water, ethnic minorities were calling for clean sanitation, pollution control, and the combating of urban poverty; definitely environmental issues, but arguably not as head-line worthy as the Cuyahoga River catching fire or the Santa Barbara Oil Blowout.  When white activists did eventually fixate on waste management and sanitation, the efforts built a stereotype that urban centers and communities of color were “dirty,” in contrast to the language of cleanliness and purity they tied to environmental ideals.  Zinger, Dalsemer, and Magargle’s 1972 study of environmental activists found that 98% were white, and 59% were college educated.  Further, a 1969 survey of Sierra Club members found that 74% had a college degree, at a time when only 11% of the general population did (Taylor, 2014).  While the 1970’s definitely spurred a lot of diverse, necessary social change, the rising of so many causes often lead to a lack of coherence and effective collaboration amongst them; due to this, environmentalism still remained a largely wealthy, white male cause.


Professor Dorceta E. Taylor’s 2014 report “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations,” examines the gender, racial, and class diversity of nearly 300 different environmental organizations’ boards and staff. The 2014 study was composed of a survey dispersed to 191 conservation and preservation organizations, 74 government environmental agencies, and 28 environmental grant making foundations.  Data was collected via an online survey that lasted between 30 and 45 minutes, administered from November 2013 through April 2014; notable personnel from each organization were asked to complete it, such as an executive or a human resources director.  While the study mainly focused on the diversity of gender, racial, and class within the organizations, it also touched on cultural, sexual orientation, inter-generational, and rural-urban diversity.  Overall, Taylor found that increased gender diversity has had the most significant progress over time, compared to racial and class diversity, particularly within conservation and preservation organizations.  While over 56% of board members are male, the gender gap is much narrower than racial or class gaps in environmental organizations.  Despite ethnic minorities’ accounting for approximately 38% of the United States’ population, they accounted for less than 16% of board members and staff within all three types of organizations (Taylor, 2014).  Comparatively, The National Science Foundation found in 2014 that ethnic and racial minorities account for 29% of the science and engineering workforce nationwide.  From these results, one can draw that there is a clear discrepancy between the prevalence of ethnic minorities in society and their lack of inclusion within environmental organizations.  The study also found that environmental organizations tend to recruit via informal networks and word of mouth, rather than utilizing networks and recruiting mechanisms that more directly target ethnic minorities and people of lower socioeconomic status.  Additionally, the most popular diversity initiative across all three organizations was the internal promotion of already employed white women to leadership roles; while this initiative does serve to narrow the gender gap in environmental organizations, it perpetuates an already wide racial gap, as well.


The Sierra Club falls into the first category of Taylor’s research as being a conservation and preservation organization.  The overall response rate for the survey was 20 percent; while 350 organizations originally responded to the survey, the answers off 155 organizations had to be dropped from the study due to too few questions answered; this lack of an adequate response rate exemplifies the sensitivity surrounding issues of diversity (p. 47).  While over two-thirds of conservation and preservation presidents were male, Taylor found that males accounted for 48.9% of leadership positions, while females accounted for 51.1%; the gender gap was fairly narrow amongst conservation and preservation organizations.  However, she also found that ethnic minorities accounted for only 11.3% of leadership positions within these organizations.  The one position a person of color is more likely to hold is that of a Diversity Manager; only nine of the studied organizations had such a position.  Over 95% of board members are white, 88% of paid staff, and 87.2% of staff hired in the past three years (p. 56); only seven of the interviewed organizations reported having minority members and volunteers.  While conservation and preservation organizations have made significant strides in narrowing the gender gap amongst their staff, there is stark, significant work to be done to effectively close the racial gap.  


The Sierra Club is making aims to change its path in the widespread narrative of whitewashed environmentalism.  In 1972 the Sierra Club was polled if the organization “...should concern itself with the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities,” 40% of the organization was strongly opposed, and only 15% were strongly in support.  However, since 1976, the Sierra Club has begun its Inspiring Connections Outdoors initiative, through which volunteers engage participants in outdoor outings and adventures.  The initiative was previously titled ‘Inner City Outings’; it was eventually recognized that the condescending title inappropriately stereotyped urban residents and communities of color as being confined within urban limits, and in need of white activists’ aid to experience nature.  The goal of the recent program is to help participants foster relationships with the environment, and provide an outlet for them  to experience nature and the outdoors where it otherwise might not be feasible; particularly for urban residents.   In 1991, the Sierra Student Coalition was founded, which connects the Club to thousands of smaller, student-led branches on college campuses across the nation.  The Environmental Justice Program was founded in 1993, which highlights and works to aid environmental justice issues that plague the nation.  The Sierra Club created several smaller diversity plans throughout the early 2000’s until 2015 when they officially launched a multi-year Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Plan, headed by Nellis Kennedy-Howard.  The initiative is composed of a variety of different elements, all aiming to provide an intersectional approach to achieving the Sierra Club’s goals.  These include diversity training opportunities for staff and volunteers, protections against workplace and sexual harassment, recruiting techniques and resources, as well as the inclusion of a justice and equity goal within every staff member’s individual work-plan.  


The Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Plan is the most recent initiative of the Sierra Club’s to combat the systemic racism and lack of diversity that has historically plagued the organization; should the initiative be successful, it could help the Sierra Club be a leader of change within the environmental community.  On the local scale, the Wisconsin John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club has founded its own Equity, Inclusion and Justice Committee, which works to address issues of equity, inclusion, and justice here in Wisconsin.  Environmental activists remain a largely white, educated, relatively wealthy group; the movement still has a long way to go before it actively includes and accurately represents the interests of people of color and people of low socioeconomic status.  Yet this issue being openly discussed and addressed amongst Sierra Club members and the public is an important first step.



1. Commoner, Barry. The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology. N.p.: A.A. Knopf, 1980. Print.

2. "Madison Grant and the Racialist Movement." American Renaissance. American Renaissance, 02 Sept. 2017. Web.

3. Muir, John, and William Frederic Bad. A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. N.p.: Pantianos Classics, 1916. Print.

4. "Sierra Club's Multi-Year Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan." Green 2.0. N.p., 10 May 2017. Web.

5. Taylor, Dorceta E., Ph.D. The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations. Rep. School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan. N.p., July 2014. Web.