Black and Brown Want Green Jobs Too

04/02/2015 04:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015
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This week, hundreds of environmental experts will be descending on Washington, D.C. for the 15th National Conference and Global Forum on Science, Policy and the Environment. One topic that has received a recent flurry of attention and should continue at the convening: the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in most mainstream green groups and government agencies. While this is no revelation -- for decades it's been a hushed issue that's fractured the movement and kept minorities out of the green insider's club -- we now have empirical evidence of the industry's lingering racial divide.

Dorceta Taylor, professor of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, has laid out the dire situation in her report, "The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations, Government Agencies."

The report's message is clear and numbers don't lie: the green movement does not value minorities. Despite being nearly 40 percent of the American population -- and disproportionately affected by contamination -- people of color have yet to break the decades long 12 to 16 percent "green ceiling" at large-budget environmental institutions. And this is despite proven interest by minorities in environmental issues according to recent polling.

Of the paid staffers employed by mainstream organizations that completed the survey, 88 percent are White. And their governing boards were no different -- 95 percent of members were White. What does this data tell us? Plans to recruit and retain people of color at these green groups have been built on little more than good intentions, resulting in failed diversity efforts.

There is good news and a solution for the environmental sector. If they are willing to work with us, they will find a fertile green revolution blooming at America's Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). My institution, Clark Atlanta University, is among 43 green HBCUs that are primed to offer the green industry a well-cultivated pipeline of emerging environmentally seasoned talent.

Coming on the heels of Ms. Taylor's report is the HBCU Green Report, written in part to dispel the myth that Black schools can't be green. Data on the work our universities are doing in the areas of administration, infrastructure, student involvement, food and recycling, and climate change and energy -- the same five categories used in mainstream environmental rating reports -- show that HBCUs are making the grade and having a huge impact on their communities.

Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas converted its energy consuming football field to a farm that produces more than 20,000 pounds of organic produce. Ten percent is donated to neighborhood charities, and the remainder feeds the campus, city restaurants and grocers. In Raleigh, N.C., Johnson C. Smith University is developing a "Sustainability Village," the centerpiece of which will be a model home that incorporates sustainable and renewable alternative technologies and conservation measures. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore operates a 17-acre solar farm that provides the 4,200-student campus with about 15 percent of its electricity. The 2.2 megawatt solar facility boasts a massive grid of 7,800 collection panels and is the largest concentration of photovoltaic modules situated on one site in Maryland. At HBCUs, green is the new black.

The creativity exhibited by these institutions to pursue environmental sustainability with few resources is extraordinary, and ought to be studied more closely. But whether it's the prized Gold LEED-certified Laura Spelman Building at Spelman College, or the two LEED Silver renovations at Clark Atlanta, or the study abroad program at Atlanta's Morehouse College that offers students the opportunity to travel to West Africa where they can assess new eco-economy paradigms of sustainable development, our HBCUs are making good on their commitment to sustainable practices and policies. It looks like green HBCUs are where mainstream environmental organizations and agencies need to be looking if they are serious about diversifying and growing the green workforce. We have what they need in our garden.

Mainstream environmental NGOs and foundations now have a chance to demonstrate they are ready to begin anew. A groundbreaking effort by GuideStar, D5 and Green 2.0 allows organizations for the first time to add diversity data to their existing GuideStar profile, just like financial data. Environmental organizations always call for science-based decisions and evidence. Now they should heed the call to measure what many say they value, so we can assess whether their new efforts are making a difference.