Associated Press, Oct.17, 2013
PITTSBURGH — Thousands of young environmentalists from around the country are heading to Pittsburgh, planning to strengthen the green movement by involving more people of different races and backgrounds.
The four-day Power Shift conference beginning Friday takes on some traditional issues in a new way. Organizers are fighting coal mining, fracking for oil and gas, and climate change, but doing it through sessions such as "Racism and the Climate Movement," ”Sex and Sustainability," ”Young Leaders from Puerto Rico’s Frontlines," and "Lessons from Transgender Activism."
Power Shift, the Sierra Club and other groups are making a concentrated effort to reach working-class black, Latino, and Asian communities, seeking to change the typically mostly white and upper-class membership of national environmental groups. The meeting in Pittsburgh is the first Power Shift conference outside of Washington, D.C., where conference organizer Energy Action Coalition is based.
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, chief executive of Green For All, said the lack of diversity within the environmental movement is "shocking." She said it’s important to note that "communities of color really have a strong environmental record, they just don’t have a strong connection" to national groups.
"We just didn’t call it environmentalism. We just did it to survive," she said of such practices as recycling.
Ellis-Lamkins said the challenge for the environmental movement is to get minority and working class people to expect and demand both good jobs and clean air and water.
About 8,000 people are expected to attend the meeting, which includes training sessions and evening music concerts.
Conference spokesman Whit Jones said the group doesn’t ask attendees to list their race so a breakdown on those attending isn’t available. But he estimated hundreds of students are coming from historically black colleges and universities.
There’s little debate that minority communities suffer from excessive pollution. A 2012 report from the NAACP found that in areas around the 12 most-polluting coal-fired power plants in the U.S., people of color were about 76 percent of the population.
Allison Chin, a past president of the Sierra Club, said environmentalists won’t become a more diverse group "without us rolling up our sleeves." She said the Sierra Club has launched programs to provide environmental training, scholarships and even jobs to people from minority communities, as well as a Spanish language website, Ecocentro.
That kind of outreach helped attract Erica Thames, a 23-year-old woman with a multi-racial background who lives in Inland Empire east of Los Angeles and now works for the Sierra Club.
"In the past, the environmental movement has been upper-middle class, white male. I’m really excited that it’s getting more inclusive," said Thames, who’s working on a project to bring rooftop solar panels to her heavily polluted, working-class community, which also suffers from high unemployment.
Thames said many of her friends and neighbors were skeptical when she began the project, partly because some recalled that in 2004 an anti-immigration faction ran for seats on the national Sierra Club board. The battle spawned allegations of racism, lawsuits and ugly headlines before the anti-immigration candidates were defeated.
Thames said that at first community groups "didn’t want anything to do with us" because they suspected an elitist underside to the environmental agenda. Then, she had to deal with practical questions.
"People were like, how does that apply to me really? I don’t have $20,000 to put rooftop solar on my house," said Thames, who would then explain that solar panels would mean jobs for local construction workers, savings for the property owners in lower electric bills and cleaner air for everyone.
"When you start talking about health benefits and jobs, people become really intrigued," she said.
Bill McKibben, a leader in the national climate change group 350.org, said in an email to The Associated Press that diversity among environmentalists is critical to the fight to limit damage from climate change.
"It’s people on front-line communities who are crucial to leading this fight — and the hardest hit front-line communities, not surprisingly, are full of poor people and people of color," said McKibben, who plans to speak at the conference.