A Whiter Shade of Green

Black and Hispanic environmentalists are scarcer than Florida panthers. If that doesn't change soon, the whole movement faces extinction.

This was the Everglades brain trust, people who cared so much about the dying River of Grass that they were actually doing something about it. Activists, government regulators, scientists, lawyers, engineers, farmers, journalists, they had gathered at this Pembroke Pines hotel to strategize. The annual meeting of the Everglades Coalition was an opportunity for the consortium of more than 30 U.S. conservation organizations to discuss the problems threatening the region's natural ecosystem, to debate restoration strategies, and to fly their colors.

Make that color: Of the 150 or so participants, only a handful were Hispanic or black. Everyone else was white and Anglo.

From the corporate to the governmental to the not-for-profit sectors, no other arena so relevant to the entire human population is less diverse than this country's environmental movement. And nowhere is the collective complexion more pallid than in Dade County.

Local environmental activists A those people who dedicate their lives to protecting South Florida's ecosystem A are an extremely bleached lot. Friends of the Everglades, that pesky, homespun band of watchdogs founded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, has a board of directors numbering nine. Only one, a Hispanic woman, is a minority. The rest are white Anglos. The organization's membership, too, is largely Anglo.

The Tropical Audubon Society, a club of local birders hawkish on the eco-policy front, has a 21-member board that, save for one Hispanic, is entirely Anglo and white.

The Miami branch of the Sierra Club counts among its ten directors only two Hispanics. No blacks.

The National Audubon Society's Everglades Ecosystem Restoration Campaign, the South Florida policy wing of that venerable institution, has one minority on its five-member full-time staff -- a Hispanic receptionist -- and only two Hispanics in its seven-member informal advisory group. (Again, no blacks.)

And among the eight staffers of the Miami chapter of Clean Water Action: Zero minorities.

All this in a county where, according to the 1990 U.S. Census, Hispanics constitute 49 percent of the population and blacks 20 percent.

(In public service, where hiring is affected by affirmative action, minority representation jumps, but not enough to make it proportional to the population. The 415-member staff of Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management is 44 percent Hispanic and 13 percent black.)

Ecology is everyone's concern, environmentalists argue, the common trust of all who breathe the air and drink the water and depend on the sanctity of the earth for nourishment. And one might think the environment would be a primary concern in minority communities, which are perennial victims of environmental degradation. (An exhaustive 1987 study conducted by the United Church of Christ showed that communities of color in the United States were disproportionately targeted for commercial hazardous- and toxic-waste dumps.)

Attempts to broaden the ranks are by no means new. Nathaniel Reed, a leading South Florida conservationist who was the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks under Presidents Nixon and Ford, says concerted efforts to diversify the ranks of federal regulators -- the National Parks Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, et cetera -- began some two decades ago. Since then environmental leaders have periodically lamented the whiteness of their movement. "Almost every major environmental group has looked around within its own ranks and challenged themselves to figure out what's going on," comments Theresa Woody, southeast regional representative for the Sierra Club.

But this self-analysis has amounted to nothing more than earnest lip service. And in an era of rampant deregulation and budget-slashing, diversification of the environmental movement may be the only key to its viability and survival.

"The more diverse your group, the more expanded your network," says Dennis Olle, president of the Miami-based Tropical Audubon Society. "In the long run, that's where it's advantageous. These [groups] work off who knows who."

Why are so few minorities involved in environmental affairs? In part, the answer lies within the minority populations themselves.

"There is so much other stuff that we've got going on. We're worried about education, we're worried about civil rights," explains Dr. Quinton Hedgepeth, a Miami dentist who has been the rare black representative on several local and state environmental advisory boards. (He is currently vice-chairman of the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission and a member of the Governor's Commission for a Sustainable South Florida.) "We're also unaware of the need to get involved [in the environment.]"

Adds Metro Commission Chairman Art Teele, who is also black: "There's not a big hook. The environment is much like the arts, and historic preservation -- it's almost a luxury. There's an element of survival that blacks are preoccupied with."

Arsenio Milian, an environmental engineer who is the self-described "token Hispanic" on a variety of local, state, and national environmental boards, says that to a certain extent, the same goes for Latin Americans. "With respect to Hispanics, there are basic needs that have to be satisfied: learning the language, getting a job, getting schooling for their children, getting a home." But, Milian is quick to point out, much of Miami's Hispanic population has moved far beyond economic hardship. "Many Cuban families are already in their second generation A they've progressed to the point where they can be concerned with other things," he says.

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