Green Groups Look to Build Minority Support

National environmental groups have a very small percentage of members who are ethnic or racial minorities. Part of the problem is the lack of connection between the grassroots environmental justice issues that are often focused in minority neighborhoods, and the more global agendas of the national organizations.

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Earlier this year, the National Wildlife Federation named Jerome Ringo chair of its board of directors. He is the first African-American to have the the job. Ethnic minorities are still rare at the top and in the ranks of national environmental groups. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has this report about why the green movement has stayed so white.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

Jerome Ringo grew up hunting and fishing and loving nature. But he says nobody in his low-income black community considered joining a conservation group.

Mr. JEROME RINGO (National Wildlife Federation): The environmentalists were mainly people that were sports hunters and sports fishermen. Those were the people that I would say would fish to hang the fish on the wall. Those people that fished to put the fish on the plate simply didn't join clubs and couldn't afford to anyway.

SHOGREN: Patty Limerick, a University of Colorado professor of history and environment, says turning back the clock a hundred years to when the conservation movement was born explains a lot about its current complexion.

Professor PATTY LIMERICK (University of Colorado): It is a movement that really does involve people of leisure who want to have pleasant outings into nature and who in some ways are actually escaping. They want nature to be the opposite of the urban, complex, ethnically complicated society. They want nature to be the place where you go to get away from your fellow citizens.

SHOGREN: Many minorities across the country belong to community groups working to protect the environment. They make up the environmental justice movement. Jerome Ringo got his start in a grassroots group fighting pollution from refineries in what's called Cancer Alley in Louisiana. But soon he joined the Louisiana Wildlife Federation.

Mr. RINGO: I felt that there's power in numbers, and if I could become a part of this organization that I could get onboard with an already established organization that was reaching the Legislature in our state and beyond and, because of their relationship with the National Wildlife Federation, was actually reaching members of Congress to address the issues that affected and impacted the lives of people back in southwest Louisiana.

SHOGREN: But mostly, large environmental groups have failed to draw minorities. Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, admits that's a problem.

Mr. CARL POPE (Sierra Club): The difficulty is that in terms of building a powerful movement, you want to have your movement be powerful in every community, and if you're not able to accommodate the diversity of America, you're going to find yourself with a very patchy power map on the country. You're not really going to be representing the whole country.

SHOGREN: There's only one minority who sits on the Sierra Club's 15-member board. The proportion of minorities among its membership isn't much higher. Pope believes the problem is cultural.

Mr. POPE: When you go to a Sierra Club meeting at your local level, most of the people who you see there are going to be, frankly, older, white and well-educated. And I think if you're younger or an ethnic minority or not as well-educated, you're likely not to feel quite as comfortable in the room.

SHOGREN: Pope said his group tries to make up for its lack of diversity by working with local minority groups that may have leverage with their members of Congress.

Mr. POPE: Strategically, my view is we'll never get there if we just try to recruit individual Hispanics. We need to work with Hispanic community organizations and build alliances and relationships with them.

SHOGREN: Genaro Lopez says that's a cop-out. He's a grassroots environmental activist from San Antonio, Texas. He believes big environmental groups could be more diverse if they tried harder. Lopez points to a recent strategy meeting on the energy bill.

Mr. GENARO LOPEZ (Activist): We had our grassroots community representative sitting on one side of the table and the green group sitting on the other side of the table and just to put it frankly, there was no color on the other side of the table.

SHOGREN: Lopez said the green groups urged him to devote more attention to global warming, but he says he has to focus on refinery smokestacks that threaten people in his own back yard.

Mr. LOPEZ: Not to be overly dramatic, but it is a life-and-death situation for our community, so those are things that we don't pick and choose but that we have to take on.

SHOGREN: Lopez says he and other groups haven't had much success getting national organizations to focus on problems in low-income communities.

Mr. LOPEZ: You know, sitting across the table from them, I've never once seen any one of those folks in our community trying to do, you know, block walking or knocking on people's doors or doing that type of stuff within our community, so no, there is not a connection; there's definitely a disconnect between the work that's happening on the grassroots level and the work that the green groups are taking on.

SHOGREN: It's a disconnect that's particularly costly now, because neither the green organizations nor the environmental justice groups carry much weight with the Bush administration or the Republican-controlled Congress. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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