Unpacking the lack of diversity in the environmental justice movement

The environmental movement has been criticized as a luxury movement for decades, a movement meant solely for the white and middle-class. Why has this assumption lasted throughout the years? To answer this question, we have to understand the role of race and class privilege in the general environmental movement and the environmental justice movement.

In the appropriately titled article, Race and Class Privilege in the Environmental Movement, Gregory Mengel draws on previous activist works to examine the lack of diversity in the environmental movement and the role that privilege plays in perpetuating this phenomenon. He starts with the claim that we must, “engage the entire human family.” I agree – it’s important to expand the reach of sustainability and for environmental activists to emphasize the universality of environmental change. Mengel also emphasizes how easy it is to be blind to the inequalities pervasive in daily life and in activism, citing cognitive dissonance as the source.

“Cognitive dissonance, whereby the brain essentially rewires itself so as to not perceive aspects of the world that present painful contradictions or challenge one’s sense of identity.”

This analysis interests me, coming from a psychology/neuroscience background. Cognitive dissonance (coupled with guilt, lack of perspective on what “normal” entails, et cetera) may very well be the reason for the lack of understanding within the activist community, the refusal to address the diversity issue that is very much a problem. Reiterating Mengel, this doesn’t mean that the people in the environmental justice movement are bad people; nonetheless, it does mean that a perspective shift is necessary.

The list that Mengel provides is helpful as a starting point. These items should spark conversation as well as an initial shift in perspective that encourages people to change their baseline assumptions of privilege and the lack thereof as related to sustainability.

The featured five items from the list are:

  • I can, if I wish, purchase fresh local produce at my neighborhood farmer’s market.

  • Because I have had access to an abundance of consumer products all my life, I am able to derive both material and moral satisfaction from choosing a simplicity-based lifestyle.

  • I can take a nap in a public park without it being assumed that I might be homeless.

  • My sense of intimacy with the land does not entail spending all day in the hot sun picking strawberries or tending someone else’s lawn.

  • I can enjoy National Parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, imagining them as intact wildernesses because their establishment did not involve the forcible removal of my ancestors.

These items call into question previously held presumptions around sustainable food choices, green consumerism, public parks and other natural spaces, and romanticizing sustainability, reminding us to keep race and class in mind rather than getting swept up in the privilege that is often required to maintain the green living forced indiscriminately onto everyone in a well-intentioned but poorly informed push that alienates individuals without these privileges.

Ultimately, Mengel’s points are well-backed up by statistics, including those from The Green Insider’s Club, that reveals problems in the mainstream environmental movement including a green ceiling, pervasive discrimination and bias, and lackluster effort and disinterest in diversity.

Some of the statistics shocked me, especially concerning the lack of interest in NGO’s, government agencies, and foundations in promoting cultural initiatives externally or internally. However, this article ends with a positive spin that adds an element of logistical, concrete solutions that complement Mengel’s idealogical shift. By promoting tracking and transparency, accountability, and increased resources, it is possible to transform the environmental movement for the better.







Environmental Justice and Feminism

Niger Delta

Article Spotlight:

The Role of Women in the Struggle for Environmental Justice in Ogoni

The Role of Women in the Struggle for Environmental Justice in Ogoni is about the Federation of Ogoni Women’s Associations (FOWA), an umbrella organization for all women’s groups of the Ogoni, an indigenous ethnic group in oil-rich regions of Nigeria. The authors give a brief history of the movement and then analyze how and why the movement has been so effective in organizing, expanding, and achieving its goals in both environmental justice and feminism.

This article reiterates the importance of environmental justice as a movement that serves underserved communities as well as the realization that women often unjustly bear the burdens of environmental harms as one of the underserved communities. FOWA is an incredible movement that supports the Ogoni women through various means, fighting against the air and water pollution resulting from oil production as well as domestic violence, contraception, and sexual education.

Pushing for Community-Led Solutions


People’s Climate Change March

At the end of Fall Quarter, I wrote an article about effective service at Stanford. I interviewed leaders from various organizations, analyzed trends in student perspectives, and concluded that Stanford students have the potential to make a meaningful contribution if they perform thoughtful service, with a thorough awareness of their privilege as members of a prestigious university and a willingness to learn from and work with outside communities rather than coming in and “saving” them.

Students often approach service with the wrong mindset. Each of us perceives the world in a slightly different way; our perceptions are colored by our differing backgrounds and identities. These paradigms combined with the privilege of many Stanford students often result in two incorrect beliefs – first, that our perception of the world is inherently better than everyone else’s and second, that we can fix everything by teaching underprivileged people the “right way” to improve their lives without having to fully understand their communities. These assumptions foster condescension and a white savior complex. Tensions arise when Stanford students step into another community’s space, uneducated about the context of the issues, and try to teach people or impose their own values.

Unfortunately, this problematic approach extends beyond Stanford students. During our class discussions, it became evident that much of the efforts to address environmental harms and inequality, especially the food initiatives in West Oakland.These efforts in West Oakland were outlined in a recent article from KQED, entitled 3 Food Initiatives That Could Transform West Oakland’s Food Desert. Some of the food initiatives faced the same limitations, with rich foreigners intruding into underserved communities to “help” them without understanding the communities or the needs of the people. One specific example is Tom Henderson’s plans for a 20,000 – square – foot supermarket in the Jack London Gateway shopping center. Henderson, “Oakland’s king of EB-5 investments,” is willing to spend upwards of $25 million (just in start-up costs) to fill the gap of affordable grocery stores – while churning out a profit – but has been met with skepticism by many merchants and community activists in the neighborhood because of his lack of basic understanding about the community.

First, the Jack London Gateway shopping center has poor street frontage and limited public transit; with a target consumer base of a community in which most people walk or take the bus to shop every few days, the location offers unnecessary logistical challenges. Instead, most of the customers will be more affluent people with access to cars and the market will do little to address the crisis of food deserts.

Moreover, Henderson’s expensive marketing push will most likely alienate those in the community who perceive the store to be pricey. Overall, Henderson’s efforts are well intentioned but misguided. They may even lead to more harm than good, because if Henderson manages to intimidate his competitors with his ambitious supermarket but ultimately fails because of his inability to connect with the community, the neighborhood will be left in a lurch without other options.

Luckily, there are other community-based incentives, often led by people from or at least familiar with the communities. These efforts analyze the needs of the community and specialize to fit their needs. Some examples include the People’s Community Market and Mandela Foods Cooperative, which sell healthy staples at affordable prices and improve the general nutrition of the communities they serve. Lasting change must begin with understanding, both in service and in environmental justice movements. It comes from working with communities to serve their needs in the most effective way possible instead of coming in, ignorant and arrogant, to save the world.