It was in the 1980s when Black community scholars first showed that race was the single most important factor in determining where toxic waste facilities were sited in the U.S., and the emerging environmental justice movement began linking environmental racism to systemic economic and political disenfranchisement. Decades later, a double-sided problem persists when it comes to who is setting priorities in the environmental movement: 1) people of color-led organizations are under-resourced, and 2) the organizations that receive the majority of funding remain predominantly white, middle class, and male.
A report released in 2012 by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy showed that between 2007 and 2009, “only 15 percent of environmental grant dollars were classified as benefitting marginalized communities, and only 11 percent were classified as advancing ‘social justice’ strategies.” In that same period, organizations with budgets over $5 million received over 50 percent of funding, despite representing only 2 percent of the sector.
A few years later, a new report showed that mainstream environmental organizations were failing at increasing diversity in their leadership. People of color, the report claimed, represented only 12 to 16 percent of leadership, numbers that had not changed in decades. The report identified not only lack of interest in diversity as the problem, but also an organizational culture that was “alienating to ethnic minorities, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and others outside the mainstream.” All of this, despite the fact that people of color consistently poll higher than white people when it comes to supporting environmental protection.
The Maine Environmental Changemakers Program is attempting to push back on this problem, providing mentorship and leadership opportunities to marginalized youth in the environmental sector, and directing funding and support to youth-led, community-based projects in Maine. I spoke with Nyaruot Nguany about the work of Changemakers, and about lifting up marginalized youth in the movement. Nguany participated in the first Changemakers gathering in 2016, and is now part of the youth-led team that’s building out the resulting network into a multifaceted program.
Nguany is deeply interested in addressing barriers that marginalized youth face in seeing themselves and being seen as leaders in the environmental movement. According to Nguany, resourcing youth is a first step: “I feel like those questions are not being asked. Generally, [people ask] how can you do this? How can you show up to this? Instead, [Changemakers is] asking, what do you need to get here?”
One way that Changemakers is creating pathways for youth leadership is through their fellowship program, which funds youth to identify and lead environmental projects in their community. Nguany was awarded a Changemakers fellowship, and for her project co-organized Outdoor Afro, a Maine chapter of a national organization that is seeking to “[change] the face of conservation” by connecting Black people with nature.
Nguany spoke about being raised with a spiritual connection to the earth, and having a deep concern about the environment from an early age, but not seeing herself represented in the outdoors or environmental sector. “I wanted to be a kayak instructor! I really wanted to work in the environmental sector. I wanted to do all those things but I didn't have the money to get those certifications, and I didn't have the resources to help me get there. There wasn't opportunity and I didn't see myself represented. And now I finally do. And it’s because it’s being created and I'm part of the creation process.”
In the 2012 report, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy argued that the imbalance in environmental funding, in addition being a gross injustice rooted in systemic racism, also represents a strategic disaster. When it comes to transforming society, grassroots organizing gets the goods. Centering directly impacted people and resourcing their organizing is a strategic imperative. This is a claim that the people of color-led environmental justice movement has been making since its nascent years. And it is especially true for marginalized youth, who Nguany points out, have the most at stake when it comes to addressing the environmental crisis. “When you don't include youth,” Nguany said, “you lose important voices and perspectives and first hand experiences. Youth know what's going on.”
Nguany said her experience in Changemakers makes her feel hopeful about the possibility for broader change: “This is what happens when you give people power. You get shit done.”