Whose Earth Day?

04/22/2011 01:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2011

The question, posed by a black man, left me dumbstruck. "If you leaders of the big Green groups hadn't been a bunch of northeastern white folks for the past 40 years, what issues would you have worked on that would have been different?"

I was, in fact, a Californian, new to the environmental movement at the time, having arrived at Environmental Defense Fund from a long career at the San Jose Mercury News and other journalism stops along the way.

The event, held on Martin Luther King Day in Detroit in 2006, forced me to look at the choices made by the environmental community I'd recently joined. I suppose that's because the question had an unmistakable ring of truth to it.

We Greens say all the right things about expanding our base beyond primarily white, affluent members and activists. But it takes real commitment, money and effort to set new priorities. And the price of talk is well known.

Most major Green groups can point to significant efforts. Audubon's partnership with Toyota, TogetherGreen, funds 40 leaders every year who are driving remarkable changes in their communities. Drew Lanham, a black professor at Clemson University, is working to reconnect African American landowners to their land -- helping to stem the flow of land lost to development in South Carolina.

Mary Adelzadeh, a Native American conservation biologist living in Sacramento, is working to involve young Native Americans in outdoor and conservation activities. And Stacey Vigallon, a white environmental educator in Los Angeles, is working with dozens of Californian kids, mostly African American and Latino, to help them develop superb resumes for college while restoring native habitat on Los Angeles' coast.

Audubon is partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the Gulf to develop new courses focused on the environmental and social challenges faced by the lower Mississippi River, providing more opportunities for black students to study and apply science in their communities.

And our Audubon Centers had more than one million visitors last year, many of them kids and families of color from underserved communities. From Rio Salado in Phoenix to Debs Park in East L.A. to Seward Park in Seattle, these hands-on, interactive Centers are gateways to nature, providing people from all walks of life with opportunities to relax, reflect, and learn. And, true to Audubon's spirit, the centers are places where every day, thousands of Americans discover the power of birds to inspire us to care and advocate for the planet.

But these efforts are just a starting point. We won't really create inclusive Earth Days until we broaden the cultural perspectives in the rooms in which our decisions are made. .

And that leads me to my other blinding "aha" from my early days in the Green world. I'd spent a morning in Harlem with Peggy Shepard and her team at WE ACT, one of the nation's leading environmental justice NGOs. After a couple of hours of spirited conversation, it was clear we were talking past one another on a key point.

"You keep using the word sustainable -- and you bring a lot of heat with it," I said. (All the while, I'm thinking about my snow-averse Prius, about locally-grown vegetables and about what it will take to make solar panels truly affordable.)

And WE ACT's outreach leader says, "We want the lead out of the paint in our apartment walls; we want the oil and the glass out of the empty lot on the corner, and we don't want you putting your damn diesel bus yard in our neighborhood to make our kids sick just because we're not rich enough to keep those buses out. That's what sustainable means to me."

Her perspective and the question I was asked in Detroit point the same issue. It's about how Greens see the world and the choices we make. And it shows just what it's going to take to make next year;s Earth Day -- or some Earth Day soon after, everyone's day.

David Yarnold has been CEO and President of Audubon for seven months. He was executive director at Environmental Defense Fund, where he launched a highly acclaimed diversity initiative and was Executive Editor at the San Jose Mercury News, recognized in numerous studies as the nation's leader on diversity practices in journalism.