Making white the old green

Thanks to a friend and the information-sharing power of social media, I just came to read a couple interesting articles about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) – or the lack thereof – in the environmental space. You can check them out below. While these are American articles – and the context in the US may be somewhat different than here in Canada – the premise raised likely spans both countries.

The recognition that “green” is very “white” is not new. It’s certainly something I’ve heard talked about (and – as a white woman – I guess contributed to!) for as long as I’ve been in the sector. Progress is certainly being made – and there are (and have been) some great initiatives led by Sustainability Network and others to support this change – but it’s a slow process and our effectiveness as a sector is likely hindered as a result. That said, we could be at a pivot point right now, with a genuine energy around DEI, reconciliation, issues of environmental justice and the like. There is an opportunity to ride this wave and make lasting changes to benefit the environmental sector – and the environment.

I am hoping we can use this space to have a dialogue on this issue, to share successes and challenges, to foster collaborations. DEI cross-cuts everything we do as a community – so hopefully conversations here can help build some of those unusual bridges that will strengthen all of us in all that we do. I encourage folks to contribute - as there is so much knowledge and experience out there would be all benefit from!


To make environmental issues - like climate action - more relevant to more diverse audiences we need to start thinking carefully about how these actions can be designed to generate valuable community benefits - like improved public health and quality of life, more equitable access to mobility, and job creation - especially for people who face barriers to employment. Deepening our understanding of the community benefits of climate action is a key focus for The Atmospheric Fund this year, so if you have insights or reports or experience to share in this vein, please let me know!

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Hi Mary - and welcome to the Knowledge Centre! This is exactly the type of sharing we want to encourage here.

Interestingly, I happened to read a Toronto Environmental Alliance opinion piece on this very subject recently. I imagine you’ve seen it but here is a link, just in case - Toronto needs to take a community benefits approach to climate change. I also read a related article about this referencing research TEA is doing, in collaboration with Social Planning Toronto and the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, with support from the Atkinson Foundation. Again, I imagine you’re familiar with this work (and who knows, maybe supporting it).

A couple other things I’ve come across may be of interest, if you don’t already have:

I do think this a really interesting area to explore, with some relevant work already done in Toronto re: the Eglinton Crosstown etc. It also has really interesting intersections with OTF’s Prosperous People and Connected People Action Areas. Would definitely like to learn more about what people are doing in this space - and branch this off into its own conversation if warranted!

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Thank you Thea - great resources and I will definitely explore - much appreciated!

Yes, TAF is supporting the very interesting work of TEA, SPT and CEE - we provided them with a grant to hire a developmental evaluation coach to guide the three groups through an in-depth process to help identify their common areas of interest - and how their work might best intersect to bring about mutual benefits.

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This is interesting and something I too have noticed here in Ottawa.

This quote from the second article you shared sums it up for me…

It’s simple: the more diverse the group discussing the problem is, the more comprehensive, sustainable, and creative the solutions are.

The lack of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in Canada’s nonprofit environmental space boils down to two main issues for me: 1. DEI of those directing the organization and 2. Giving a voice to beneficiaries & stakeholders.

1. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion on the Board of Directors:
What I’ve noticed on the ground is that participants of non-profit programs are often far more diverse and with a much different lived experience than the board members of the nonprofits delivering those programs. It’s not just a difference in race but also a difference in diversity, capacity and wealth.

It makes sense that a struggling young farmer or struggling single parent would not have the capacity to serve on a board to help direct the programming intended to serve individuals such as themselves. Are there examples in Ontario where homeless youth have a seat or two on the board of their local mission, or a board member (or two) of a local United Way have recent lived experience of using & benefiting directly from their programs or housing first initiatives? Charitable law prevents board members from benefiting directly from a program while serving on the board. However, I personally would be far more likely to donate more money to a poverty alleviation charity which has few current (or recent) clients on their board of directors than a board which consists entirely of wealthy CEOs & VPs.

Thea, that article about taking a community benefits approach is interesting and I wonder how similar thinking could be applied to a community benefits approach to building a diverse board of directors.

The closest I’ve seen here in Ottawa is Diversity in Governance. There’s also Diversity on Board for Vancouver, the GTA, and a few other Cities.

2. Giving a voice to beneficiaries & stakeholders.
This is the hardest and most challenging for the environmental movement.
Birds of a feather do flock together and if environmental organizations can not find ways to improve human diversity among their ranks and create inclusive programs alongside the communities that need it most, there’s little hope that we’ll be of much use to our non-human beneficiaries & environmental stakeholders…

It is difficult to fill a room with struggling single parents to discuss solutions at a workshop or find half a dozen struggling farmers willing to drive into the city to make decisions at regular board meetings. However, it is next to impossible to get an endangered blanding’s turtle to join your board or a flock of starving migratory birds to participate in a workshop. The closest I’ve seen here in Ottawa were annual mass protests involving involuntary injury & death at Ottawa City Hall… but again, that group too lacked diversity as it was just a [bunch of Bohemian’s (34 dead, 12 injured)].(

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Jay - Welcome to the Knowledge Centre and thanks for your very thoughtful post. Your comments reminded me of a presentation I was fortunate to hear a couple of years ago while at a meeting of Great Lakes funders in Flint, Michigan. There, Dr. Dorceta Taylor, presented her study regarding diversity within ENGOs in the Great Lakes Basin. The issue you reference at the Board level permeates the staff level too. While the demographic in Canada may be different, the issue is nonetheless similar.

Your comment about the need to engage lived experience in a meaningful way is also vitally important and I think the environmental sector has much to learn in this regard from others. We are seeing some interesting examples through some of the collective impact work that, when most effective, engages community and lived experience at its core. Key to doing so is a willingness - or indeed an imperative - to meet community ‘where it is’ - not where is convenient to us.

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