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.
So what's stopping them?
"I don't think Hispanics are anti-environment or anything like that," posits Alejandro Aguirre, deputy editor and deputy publisher of the Miami-based Spanish-language daily newspaper Diario Las Americas. "I believe what happens is that a good chunk of the Hispanic community is political exiles, and if you look at a majority of where their political expression goes, I think that is part of your answer."
Teo Babun goes a step further. An international business consultant, Babun is the one Miami Hispanic besides Milian who is most often associated with environmental issues. He says exile politics have distracted Hispanics not just from the environment but from social causes in general. This tendency, he argues, reflects a lack of commitment to this place, Miami. "When it comes to social concerns, there's almost a feeling of being a guest rather than an active participant," he observes. "A lot of people may not feel at home. It gets back to: Do they really feel they're a part of the community, or do they feel they're transient?"
Which isn't to say that Latin American immigrants were stumping for the ecological preservation in their homelands. Until very recently, environmental concerns have not been a priority for governments in Latin America, and this institutionalized lack of concern has filtered downward through society.
U.S. environmental consciousness, of course, didn't sprout up overnight. Jim Webb, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior during the Carter administration, ran the Florida regional office of the Wilderness Society for nine years before returning to Washington this past year to become the organization's general counsel. "Most of these values were formed in the Nineteenth Century and expressed in the Twentieth Century, and gave us the National Forest System and the National Parks System," Webb says. "The formation of public land is a damned American thing, and the basis for this debate in the U.S. is 50 years old.
"One night I was talking with some Latin-American elites about public lands, and they weren't getting it," he continues. "And not just because they have this urban background. These were people who did not have experience with the concept of public lands and national parks in their native cultures. Nor were they involved in the creation of them here. I finally said, 'The state has to take care of matters in the same way a responsible latifundista [large-scale landowner] would in a Latin American country as a matter of noblesse oblige.' And they got it right away. They had a hard time understanding the role of public agencies in doing it. Getting that across is one of the gravest challenges to those of us who are trying to preserve the capital values of our nation."
As for immigrants who have made the U.S. home for more than a generation, Webb points out that twentieth-century newcomers have generally been engaged in issues of urban development. And while urban-development advocates such as the Latin Builders Association have literally come to dominate the local landscape, opposing voices from that same community have yet to develop.
Lack of minority participation is especially troubling in these times, when environmentally active citizens of any stripe are as scarce as the Florida panther. "[Environmental involvement] is embarrassingly low," grumbles Edwin Moure, past executive director of the National Audubon Society's Everglades Campaign. "I gauge it from talking to National Audubon offices around the country. And I say, 'We don't have ten people in the State of Florida who would take assignments that the forty people in your local chapter took.'" California, Moure points out, has a Green Party, and New England has profited from numerous citizens' initiatives over the years, such as the laws mandating refunds to encourage recycling. "Was the bottle bill campaign coordinated by environmental groups?" Moure asks rhetorically. "No! It was just a bunch of people who did it."
Echoes Jim Webb: "This is a question not just about how you engage other racial groups but how you engage other compositions of American society and people who can understand that, though they live in the middle of Miami, their life depends on stuff that takes place far beyond the urban-development boundary. We're now into a new range of decisions, like fixing the Everglades. We're talking about bioscapes now, not parks.
"If we fail at that," he adds, "we fail forever."
If minority communities have been slow to join the environmental debate, environmentalists have done little to mobilize what interest there is.
In 1990 two civil rights groups sent letters to ten of the nation's mainstream environmental organizations A the so-called Group of Ten A charging them with racist hiring practices. "Racism and the whiteness of the environmental movement is our Achilles heel," read the letter sent by the Gulf Coast Tenant Leadership Development Project in New Orleans (the other letter was from the Southwest Organizing Project in Albuquerque, New Mexico). "You must know as well as we do that white organizations isolated from Third World communities can never build a movement."
Environmental leaders heard in the missives the voice of genuine frustration. A generally liberal and progressive breed, they are perhaps the last Americans who would want to be accused of racism. But in confronting the disparities in their ranks, they have had to acknowledge the perception that they are an exclusionary lot.
"It has been conveyed to me that I wasn't a real environmentalist because I was Hispanic," Arsenio Milian seethes.
Other minority conservationists have sensed similar prejudice. "I don't think there is overt discrimination within the environmental community," says Roger Rivera, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs consultant and founder of the National Hispanic Environmental Network. "I just think they've made some stereotypical judgment about degree of interest in the minority community."
In 1988 Rivera worked as a staffer for Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign. "One of the constituencies that I was assigned to work with was the environmental community," he recalls. "I was struck by the lack of diversity in the mainstream movement at that time and how surprised they were that, a) I would be expressing an interest, and b) that others in the Hispanic community would be interested. I've had experiences where people look at me and ask, 'Well, what's your angle? What's your interest?' I'd look back at them and say, 'All of us ought to be involved in the environment.' There was a patronizing attitude toward minorities in general, an attitude that seemed to say, 'Look, Hispanics, we know what your issues are. They are bilingual education, immigration. Let us handle the environmental issues, because we know you're not interested in them.'"
Joseph Browder, an environmental consultant and veteran South Florida activist, argues that environmental interest within the minority communities simply has not manifested itself in the traditional ways. "I think it would be misleading to look at organizations that were founded by people from one part of our socioeconomic spectrum and to conclude that simply because people of another background haven't flocked to those clubs, it reflects how people feel about those issues," argues Browder, who is now based in Washington, D.C. "Audubon, for example, is an organization whose social activities that draw people in are primarily centered on going out and looking at birds. Regardless of what sort of political work the group does, if birding does not have very high participation in the [Hispanic or black] community, maybe it's understandable why the community isn't participating in groups where social activities are based on that."
Hispanic participation, in particular, was crucial in the fight to designate Biscayne National Park in the Seventies, Browder remembers. "Machinists -- that is, the people who repaired aircraft engines in Hialeah -- had at least as big a role as anyone in saving Biscayne Bay. There were thousands of people working in Hialeah who loved to go out and fish on their days off. The machinist unions organized to get Florida political leaders to save the bay, and even got other locals involved.
"The shrimpers on the bridge to Key Biscayne are Cuban American," he adds. "These are people who are relating to the bounty of the bay directly, much more so than any Audubon or Sierra Club members will ever be. Are they less aware of the bounty of the bay because they haven't joined the Sierra Club?"
Angel Martin, who hosts a Spanish-language talk show on WCMQ-AM (1210), says that while he appreciates the sentiment, Cuban Americans' appreciation for South Florida's water resources doesn't necessarily reflect a solid environmental ethic. "The Hispanic community reacts to crisis," says Martin, who occasionally covered environmental affairs when he worked as a reporter for WSCV-TV (Channel 51). "When there's a problem with Biscayne Bay -- you can't fish or you can't drink the water -- then it becomes a news item. People are so involved doing their thing. There hasn't been a real effort to promote the environment by [Hispanic] community groups."
Activist Mary Barley is championing a two-cents-per-pound federal sugar tax to help clean up the Everglades. In her high-profile campaign, she has lobbied business leaders and politicians, and although she has focused some of her effort on winning the support of black community leaders, she hasn't bothered to take the fight into the Hispanic community. It would be, she believes, a waste of time. "I haven't really solicited the Hispanic community at all, mainly because I don't really know anybody in that community, and all my feedback has been very, very negative," admits Barley, widow of the late George Barley, an Orlando-based developer who initiated the campaign before his death this past year. "My people tell me, 'You might as well just forget it. They don't do anything for the arts, they don't do anything [for social causes.]' I don't think we're going to get money from them, from what I heard. If you try to get money, they want a return on their money. They like campaign contributions."
Estus Whitfield has tried trolling for converts among minorities, but he has come away frustrated. "Finding minority representation for environmental boards and commissions is difficult," says Whitfield, policy coordinator for Gov. Lawton Chiles. The most high-profile gubernatorially appointed group is the two-year-old Governor's Commission for a Sustainable South Florida, a consortium of representatives from the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors formed to study ways to balance the demands of nature and urban development. Its forty-four members include only eight minorities -- four blacks, three Hispanics, and one Native American. (Both the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians have seats on the commission; the Miccosukee seat is filled by an Anglo representative.) Swears Whitfield: "I can absolutely verify that we tried very hard to get minorities represented."
South Florida's environmental community had better try harder, warns Art Teele, chairman of the Dade County Commission. Either break down the barriers to minority participation, Teele cautions, or lose the battle over the Everglades, and perhaps lose the Everglades altogether. "The issue can be hijacked in a community," says Teele, who has championed environmental issues during his six years on the Metro Commission. "The environmental community must broaden its breadth and reach. The adversaries of the environmental movement -- pro-growth, development, Big Sugar -- are going to wind up discrediting the environmentalists. It's happening right now."
Teele refers to the advertising blitz sugar growers are waging against Barley's two-cents-per-pound tax campaign. One television commercial that particularly rankles the commissioner features a black farmer, Carl Hankins, who says he has been farming for more than 25 years. "Some environmental extremists want a special $75-million-a-year tax just on sugar farmers," the farmer intones, sitting on the back of a yellow pickup truck. "They want to force people like me off the land."
"This African-American man no more typifies a farmer in South Florida than he would typify a Russian astronaut!" Teele exclaims. "African Americans in Miami will develop the view that the environmental community is an adversary. This is a tragedy."
Sugar growers have launched a similarly targeted ad at Miami's Hispanics, appealing to the community's most sensitive prejudice: Fidel Castro. The Spanish-language ad shows a picture of the Cuban premier alongside veteran South Florida environmentalist Nathaniel Reed, who is a member of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board. "What do these two have in common?" reads the ad. "Fidel Castro stole the Cuban farms and destroyed the sugar industry of Cuba. Nat Reed wants to take the Florida farms and kill the Florida sugar industry by taxing it."
This dangerous brew of ethnicity, politics, and the environment was also being served up during the debates over the development of the Homestead Air Force Base. During a public hearing in late November, one of the leaders of a development group chosen to turn the base into a commercial airport charged that opposition to the plan was ethnically and racially motivated. All the principals of the group, Homestead Air Base Developers Inc. (HABDI), are Hispanics; the coalition of South Dade residents, property owners, and environmentalists that spoke out most vehemently against the plan were predominantly Anglo. According to the Miami Herald, builder Camilo Jaime accused citizens' group president Chris Spaulding of "stirring up the people to come against the Cubans."
Tropical Audubon president Dennis Olle says the monochromaticism of the environmental community was particularly harmful during that debate. "When the Homestead Air Force Base is about to be compromised, you're worried about that rather than where our next Hispanic board member is going to come from, although clearly the importance of having one on our board would be useful in exactly that context," Olle explains. "Sheer appearances sometimes count for a lot. It avoids the label that you are just a bunch of elitist Anglos."
Alan Farago made the fight against HABDI a focus of his life during the months leading up to the January commission vote ratifying the contract. Founder of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities, an ad-hoc coalition of environmental, community, homeowners', and other civic organizations, Farago sees in the battle against HABDI the signpost for a new direction in the environmental movement. Specifically, the intersection of the traditional conservation agenda with the pressing needs of the urban community.
"Environmentalists have been concerned with wilderness and issues out there," Farago says. "But as more and more people are living in South Florida, the protection of the environment has become an urban quality-of-life issue, and the definition of 'the environment' becomes more inclusive. It becomes the environment of our neighborhoods and the construction of our urban landscapes."
He has found a kindred soul in T. Willard Fair, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami. "As we talk about the very increasing amount of substandard housing and asbestos and paint and crime, those are environmental issues," says Fair, who is black. "I think a big problem is when we hear the word 'environment,' it always has a 'nature' connotation. It's expecting a great deal of me to expand my emotions to that extreme when I'm fighting other environmental issues that are very immediate."
Through his ad-hoc coalition, Farago has tried to show how an agenda like Fair's is in keeping with the agenda of the environmental groups, if only the the environmentalists would widen their focus. By doing so, he contends, they "can find their way back into the public-policy ball game. Make the problems of decaying infrastructure, overcrowded schools, traffic congestion a part of the environmental equation and not separate ones." As an example, Farago points to the 1995 passage of the Dade County ordinance requiring a two-thirds majority vote on the Dade County Commission for approval of zoning changes. "That ordinance was responding to the defects of the built environment," he posits.
Commissioner Miguel de la Portilla, who sponsored the ordinance, considers the vote and the support it garnered among his constituents in West Dade to be a manifestation of a "young and subtle environmental movement" among Hispanics. "People are looking at development a lot more closely," says de la Portilla. "The concept is a very simple one: Land is very sacred. I think that's an environmental movement, if you will."
Jordan Commons, Habitat for Humanity's affordable-housing development in South Dade, is shaping up to be a functioning symbol of the symbiosis between the urban and natural worlds. Jack Parker, a technical advisor to the project, is a professor of chemistry and environmental science at FIU and a founder of the university's environmental studies program. Parker says the Habitat community will utilize energy-saving technology and be a model for environmentally friendly living. One of the outcomes, he hopes, will be the inculcation of an environmental ethic among the residents, who will include Cuban Americans, Haitian Americans, African Americans, and migrant workers from Mexico. "They're going to understand that environmental issues are not just something to do with egrets in the Everglades but involve our cities and involve their drinking water, garbage bills, and energy bills," Parker says.
"Sometimes," he adds, "we have failed to get across the message that urban environmental issues are extremely important."
If anyone has tried to communicate this message, it is Arsenio Milian. In 1987 Milian was appointed to the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District, the first Hispanic to take a seat on that dais. In the months following his appointment, he realized how little environmental information was filtering down to the minority communities in Dade. He formed a non-advocacy educational group, Citizens for a Better South Florida, to help instill environmental awareness in those communities, particularly among Hispanics.
"You have to approach it in a meat-and-potatoes way," says Milian, who tirelessly hustles his message to schools, business groups, community organizations, and the media. "You have to say, 'Saving the Everglades isn't only protecting it for wildlife and tree huggers. It's directly related to the water supply, flood control, water quality, and the economy.' With the developers and businessmen, I try to tell them that their product has no marketability if the resources are destroyed. Unfortunately many of those people look at this as very short-term. They try to make their profits and don't look at the long-term effects."
Teo Babun, a former member of Citizens' board of directors, says other environmental groups have been slow to follow Milian's lead and rouse Dade's minority communities to action. "There may be a general assumption that the Hispanic community is largely aware and if they cared they'd get involved," Babun says, arguing that environmental groups need to develop a sweeping strategy to educate all minority communities. "Until the strategy is established, we can't go to war. And as far as I'm concerned, this is a war!"
Babun believes that if the battle is to be won, radio programs will have a lot to do with it, at least in the Hispanic community. But environmental programming is an endangered -- perhaps extinct -- species on the airwaves. Not a single show on Spanish-language radio or television is devoted, even in part, to environmental affairs. (Exiled Cuban environmental and anti-war activists Orlando Polo and Mercedes Paez are currently negotiating with the popular WCMQ to launch the first radio show exclusively devoted to ecological issues, Polo says.)
As for the Spanish-language print media, Milian has met with the editors at Diario Las Americas to discuss the possibility of an environmental-affairs column, tentatively titled "Ventana al Medio Ambiente" ("Window to the Environment"). But deputy editor Alejandro Aguirre says "economic pressures" have forced the paper to suspend further consideration of the column.
The greatest hope for wider environmental participation probably rests with Dade's youngest generations. A key piece of the Dade school system's environmental-education curriculum is the Center for Environmental Studies, based in a portable classroom nestled behind the sand dunes in Crandon Park on Key Biscayne. Middle- and high-school classes visit the center for a two-day program during which students learn about the ecosystem, wade over the sea grass flats, stomp through mangrove swamps, and hike in the woods. The experience provides many underprivileged kids with their first opportunity to see the ocean, a beach, or a forest. "Quite often, great clusters of children who come from the inner city have just never been brought out of their neighborhoods to other environments," notes Mabel Miller, a retired schoolteacher and one of the center's founders. "If you don't make them aware, you can't hope to make them care."
Environmentalists are also beginning to realize that if they ever hope to translate some of this school-age interest into professional interest, they are going to have to clarify the fuzzy image of the environmental community. "Too often it is still viewed as either a low-wage shelter for leftover hippies cranking mimeograph machines and waving placards, or as hopeless out-of-touch birdwatchers in tweed sports coats," wrote George T. Frampton, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, a few years ago when he was president of the Wilderness Society. "The reality is different. National and regional organizations are staffed increasingly by scientists, economists, biologists, foresters, lawyers, planners, and former government regulators . . . . Working for an environmental organization should be one of the most attractive job opportunities around these days for anyone who wants to improve the human condition."
In South Florida, governmental regulators are stepping up their outreach to specific communities. The South Florida Water Management District, for instance, is in its second year of a so-called awareness campaign in the Hispanic community. District representatives are hosting monthly roundtable discussions and occasional field trips for Hispanic leaders, a program for which the agency has budgeted $80,000 this year. Water managers have budgeted $50,000 to launch a similar effort for black business and community leaders.
"I think we'll see a larger proportion of minority groups become affluent enough or educated enough to recognize that economic growth and high environmental standards go hand in glove," predicts Nathaniel Reed. "And recognize that in many cases they have been the victims of environmental degradation because they have not had either the education, the economic power, or the political power to prevent the real problems of air, water, visual blight, and urban decay from being part and parcel of their lives. This [empowerment] will be one of the more interesting developments in the 21st Century.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.