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A little over a decade ago, the major players in the environmental movement tried to take on Florida's sugar producers. The industry's fertilizers were polluting the Everglades, and the environmentalists asked Florida voters to approve a penny-per-pound tax on sugar companies that would yield $35 million a year for cleanup work.
But "Big Sugar" responded with a multimillion-dollar campaign to portray the environmentalists as white elitists attempting to weaken an industry that employed blacks and Latinos. Jesse Jackson joined forces with the industry, telling Floridians, "We should never have a showdown between alligators and people." With the help of minority group blocs, voters soundly rejected the tax.
The defeat was a wake-up call for the National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy and other large environmental groups, which at the time were staffed and supported mostly by white people. In recent years, these organizations have begun to devote a great deal of money and effort to engage minority groups—not just to foster a sense of inclusiveness, but to survive in a demographically changing society. Nonwhite people make up 33 percent of the U.S. population, and the Census Bureau expects that figure to increase to 50 percent by 2042. Meanwhile, a survey of 60 environmental groups conducted in 2002 found that minorities made up less than 13 percent of their staffs.
Whites don't have greener sensibilities than nonwhites. Rather, many minority environmentalists have declined to join the large environmental organizations because they think the organizations focus too much on wilderness preservation and not enough on public health issues such as toxic dumping and lead poisoning⎯problems that disproportionately affect minorities and poor people. In the 1990s some of these minority activists formed parallel campaigns—the "environmental justice" movement—that consists mostly of small, community-based organizations.
Today, the large national organizations are trying to bridge the divide between the two crusades. Audubon has undertaken an ambitious, nationwide effort to turn blighted sections of inner cities into nature education centers. They offer after-school programs, summer camps and internships to children who will—if the plan succeeds—grow up to be environmentalists and, perhaps, Audubon staff and members. In the past two years, such centers have opened in Dallas, San Antonio and Seattle, and two more are scheduled to open this summer in Columbus, Ohio, and Phoenix. Audubon is raising money for centers in Baltimore and Philadelphia, among other cities, although the recession is making this effort difficult.
But much of the work necessary to diversify Audubon and other mostly white environmental groups has nothing to do with fund-raising and construction. "Opening an Audubon center in a community isn't like building [a restaurant], where you can just plunk something down and customers will come," remarks Audubon president and CEO John Flicker, one of the environmentalists who was inspired to reach out to minority groups by the Florida sugar tax defeat. "An Audubon center is all about building trust and building relationships in the community, and that just takes time."
For example, the Audubon Center at Debs Park in a Latino section of East Los Angeles has been open since 2003, but a survey taken last year showed that 70 percent of nearby residents didn't know it existed, says Jeff Chapman, the interim director. "People tell us, 'We thought this beautiful building was a private facility [where] we weren't welcome.'" To address this misperception, the Debs Park staff has been working closely with day care providers, health clinics and schools—"trusted voices" in the neighborhood.