Rhea Suh

The so-called “Big Green” groups have a diversity problem. They are overwhelmingly white, and the top leadership is predominantly male. Rhea Suh, now in her second year as president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, is determined to change that. The daughter of Korean immigrants, she envisions an environmental movement that better reflects the diversity of the United States. For green organizations, she believes that requires not only a culture of inclusivity, but also a programmatic focus “on issues that resonate with a broader suite of audiences.”

photo of a woman outdoorsphoto Rebecca Greenfield / NRDC

Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, with the Rocky Mountains as her extended backyard, Suh developed an early passion for environmental advocacy. After studying environmental science and education at Barnard College at Columbia University, she worked briefly as a teacher in New York City and Korea. She later went on to work in environmental philanthropy at both the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation before taking a position as the assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget at the US Department of the Interior.

I spoke with Suh a few days after she returned from the Paris climate talks. Our conversation ranged from what inspires her to continue working in the environmental field, to her plans to increase diversity at the NRDC, to what environmental advocates can do to build on the victories of the past year. Building the green movement, she says, is really about helping people draw “clear connections between the things that they care about, the world that they aspire to, and the actions that, as consequence, need to taken.”

Are you satisfied with the agreement that came out of the COP21 talks in Paris?

I think that the talks and the outcome were truly historic and it was a pretty incredible experience being there. I will say that I remained fairly confident before, during, and obviously after… that they would get to where they got. That being said, I think that what actually transpired during that two-week period of time was kind of beyond my expectations. And what I mean by that is just that the feeling of energy, of commitment, of determination, of collective will, was palpable throughout the halls of the Le Bourget conference center.

Regardless of how big a country you were representing or the type of country you were representing, I think everybody there actually came to the conference with a real sense of common purpose. As you know, in previous COPs, you haven’t really necessarily had that same sense. And I think the reality – that we had a COP that started off with the tabling of very concrete plans from the vast majority of nations about how they were individually going to pursue actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – was extraordinary. It was really an incredibly thrilling time, and again, I think, quite historic, and hugely uplifting. I will admit that I am somewhat exhausted, but it was well worth whatever sacrifice I personally made.

Now that we have a global climate change agreement signed by almost 200 countries, how can the environmental movement keep momentum going when it comes to climate change?

As the UN chair for climate, Christiana Figueres, said, the momentum has to continue to be driven purposefully in each of the countries. Almost all of the countries have concrete plans, and so it’s about turning those plans into action and making them the reality.

Now, here in the US, the primary plan is the Clean Power Plan that the president released over the summer. We know that we have a long road ahead of us in terms of creating 50 state implementation plans – plans that work for each state, that belong in a common framework to pursue an overarching set of goals. So NRDC is going to be turning, and has already turned, very deliberately toward helping states and working at the state level to get these plans created and ultimately implemented in the way that we all envision. [In February, the US Supreme Court stayed implementation of the Clean Power Plan.]

Backtracking a bit, how did you first become interested in environmental issues and the environmental movement?

I was born and raised in Boulder, Colorado. I’m not sure if you’ve ever been there, but it’s an extraordinarily beautiful place. And I grew up really thinking that everybody basically had a backyard like mine, looking at the Rocky Mountains, and was able to kind of hike, and camp, and ski, and fish, and recreate in the great outdoors. So, it was a big part of how I grew up. It was a big part of how I saw the world around me, and I think that those very basic tenants of environmentalism were kind of built into me from birth on.

I took the interesting step of moving from Boulder, Colorado to New York City to go to college. I was probably the only kid that moved from Boulder to New York City to study environmental science, but I did so, and was grateful to do so in the context of New York because I also got, I think, a very different perspective on environmental issues – less the green side and more the brown side. I remember doing field trips to the Fresh Kills landfill in New York, which, at the time, was the largest landfill there. It wasn’t the bucolic Rocky Mountain experience, but something that was equally, if not more, important in terms of really understanding the nature of environmental issues overall, and the opportunities and the challenges associated with pursuing appropriate and needed environmental policies.

When you took over as president of NRDC in early 2015, you were pretty clear that one of your goals was to help diversify the environmental movement. Now that you’ve been with the organization for a year, how are you approaching that task?

I continue to be somewhat amazed at the fact that I am the only person of color and one of the few women running a big mainstream environmental organization. I think there are transitions happening in these mainstream environmental organizations, and hope to see more diversity at the highest ranks of all of these groups.

It’s important to look at multiple dimensions when you think about diversity in and of itself. One dimension is really the diversity of your organization, and that’s not just at the leadership levels – it’s at the board and the board representation levels, and it’s at the staff level, but it can also be attributed to membership.

But I think it’s a dangerous thing to look at diversity in a vacuum. What I mean by that is: It’s really hard to both recruit and retain diverse candidates or individuals in an organization that doesn’t necessarily embody the values of embracing diversity, that doesn’t embody a culture of inclusivity. And it’s also difficult to retain and recruit individuals if you’re not actually programmatically, or in a mission sense, focused on issues that resonate with a broader suite of audiences. And so, when I think about the diversity challenge, I think about it in three parts, and diversity is actually only one. It’s diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The diversity piece is, again, how do we recruit and retain the best and most diverse individuals that adequately reflect the public that we serve. The “I,” the inclusive piece, this is about how we create and maintain cultures and values that truly can create the type of environment that we want and that can be successful in retaining people with lots of diverse backgrounds and ideas. And so that values piece is really around the internal culture management.

And the middle piece, equity, is, I believe, really focused on the mission-oriented work that our organizations do. I am incredibly grateful to be part of an organization that has been thinking quite a bit from a programmatic and mission-oriented way of how they can more decisively draw the connections between equity and the environment. And we’ve been doing that since the ’70s, basically. We have very, very good programs on the ground that not only focus on the more traditional environmental justice issues. I think we were the first mainstream organization to actually have an environmental justice program. We have [also] expanded that work to be place-based. [For example,] we do an incredible amount of good work in places like Southern California, where we’re working to combat pollution from the expansion of the ports in Los Angeles that directly impacts and disproportionality impacts communities of color and low-income communities.

In addition to that place-based work, and in addition to the EJ work, we’ve also expanded pretty significantly our “cities work,” which we do primarily though partnerships as opposed to in our own offices. This is really looking at the framework of cities and thinking about how we can create more livable and sustainable and healthy cities. And some of the most interesting work that we’ve done is, again, drawing these connections between the intersections of equity and the environment, focusing on things like the New York Public Housing Authority, to hold them to account, to ensure that they’re providing housing that is, frankly, safe for the residents to live in. We’ve brought suits against NYCHA here in New York City about the rampant mold and excessive moisture that exists in many of these public housing units. And we’ve been successful at holding that public agency to account in what they should be held to account for – providing healthy and safe places for residents to live.

Another example of how we work in cities is through our city energy project and our low-income energy efficiency work, which is primarily focused, again, on public housing. [We] really try to figure out ways to improve energy efficiency in public housing that not only can achieve overarching carbon reduction goals, but simultaneously achieve opportunities to reduce the monthly bills that many residents are paying. Low-income residents spend an astronomical percentage of their monthly budgets on energy. We see it as a real win-win opportunity.

Overall, when you look at the landscape of opportunities and the issues that we’re confronting throughout the country, I think the intersections between environment and equity are both obvious and incredibly opportune. So, backing into this conversation about diversity, it’s the tri-legged stool of diversity, equity, and inclusion that together, and only together, work towards really achieving the type of organization, the type of work, and the type of impact that I think we all want to see.

You mentioned that you’re the only person of color and one of the few women running a mainstream environmental organization. As a woman of color, has it been a challenge to work in a field led predominantly by white men?

I think it’s always a challenge to be the unique one in the room. I will say that I’ve spent my whole career focused on environmental issues and environmental policy work, and for much of that career I’ve often been either the only person of color in the room or one of a handful. And that does, I think, take a toll. I think it’s hard to be singular in that way for that long a period of time.

But I do feel a lot of positive energy around what I think is the kind of natural transition that many of these organizations are going through. There is a generational transition that most NGOs, as well as government agencies, are going through. That generational transformation – I think – will be, and already is resulting in a different ethos, a different attitude, a different perspective, and a different approach to how we think about diversity. I feel very hopeful that I am increasingly finding common cause both substantively as well as, I guess, cosmetically, with more folks that are rising through the ranks and finding their voice in leadership positions throughout the movement.

Prior to joining the NRDC, you held roles with the Packard foundation, the Hewlett foundation, and the Department of the Interior. How does your background in philanthropy and government work inform your approach at the NRDC?

It informs it significantly, and I will just say, I think it’s enormously helpful to have the fortunate experiences that I’ve had. I think that having experiences in different sectors allows you to have a deeper understanding of the perspectives within those sectors – the perspectives of the foundation world, and of funders, and donors. I spent more than a decade of my life working on that side of the ledger, and I think that there’s an enormous obligation that funders and donors have, there’s enormous demand they’re exposed to on a daily basis, and there’re really enormous opportunities for them to play catalytically in all the causes that they fund.

In government, similarly, it’s an incredible experience to kind of go behind the scenes, and really understand how government agencies work, how the Hill works. You know, those are experiences that are priceless in many ways, and I think they help to not only inform my perspective of how I should be thinking about, and how we should be thinking about, policy objectives moving forward, but how, more importantly, we should be thinking about the mechanisms of how government actually functions, works, changes, or does not.

So it’s been invaluable, and overall, it’s a really invaluable thing for anybody to have in their life experiences. Moving from one sector to another, getting different kinds of experiences, it’s what makes us richer, it’s what makes our perspectives more complex, and I believe it’s what makes us more effective as professionals in our sectors.

The environmental movement has enjoyed some big wins in the past year, including the defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline, and President Obama’s decision to restrict new drilling in the Arctic. I’m wondering how you think the movement can build on these successes moving forward.

There is and has been so much momentum around our issues that [those successes have] become a real galvanizing force for the movement as a whole. I think in order to maintain that galvanizing force we need to make sure we are continually drawing the connections between what is possible and what is necessary for the kind of world that we all want to live in, and what people individually can do, and should be thinking about, in order to get there.

Drawing these more personal connections to people and places, where they’re at and how they’re thinking, is something that I think we should continue to do, and do in even greater ways to not only maintain the resonance that we have with the American public, but to expand it. That’s really about meeting people where they’re at on the issues they already care about, and helping them draw more clear connections between the things that they care about, the world that they aspire to, and the actions that, as consequence, need to taken.

What is your number one goal for the NRDC in 2016?

I’d certainly like to have the NRDC realize, in very tangible ways, the work that we’re doing – and investing in – in the diversity, equity, and inclusion piece. I see that as a fundamental piece of how we should be thinking about our work, our organization as a whole, and our mission-oriented objectives, and so really seeing very concrete progress towards those goals is something that I’m certainly hoping to see in 2016.

Beyond that set of internal goals, I’m looking at this final year of President Obama’s term as an opportunity to solidify the gains that we’ve made, and perhaps even further push the envelope on creating the kind of environmental protections we need for future generations. It is often the last year in an eight-year term for any presidential administration where things start to really get rolling. It’s hard to imagine that they’re going to be rolling more than they did this year, but I have high expectations for my former colleagues in the administration. I think it’s an incredible administration, I think he’s an incredible president, and I hope to continue to work from the outside in getting the kind of gains that we’d like to see out of this president before he leaves office.

What inspires you to continue working in the environmental field?

It’s going to seem a little bit hokey, but I really do think, and immediately did think, about my four-year-old daughter when you asked that question. She is inspiration for so much of my life. When I think of all of the really hard work that is before us, all of the hard work that we’re in constant battles to achieve, I just think about how I want her to grow up. I think about what kind of world she’s going to have when she’s my age, and I have, I think, really high expectations that she’s going to have a better world than I had.

I think every parent who brings a child into the world has a fundamental belief that they’re giving their children a better shot at a better existence. And I’m certainly hoping that I can leave behind a world to her that is as good, if not better, than the one that my parents left me. So, that is, and continues to be, the single biggest source of inspiration I have in my life.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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