“ARE YOU GOING TO GET ARRESTED?” No, I had not committed a crime, I had just been named Executive Director of Greenpeace USA. For over 40 years, Greenpeace USA has cultivated a reputation as a bold organization unafraid of speaking truth to power through creative, non-violent, direct action. Sometimes these tactics land Greenpeace activists in jail, so it was actually a fair question to ask of its new leader. The thing is, I’m not just an executive director, I’m also a single mom, and all I could think was, If I’m in jail, who is picking my daughter up from school?
Although climate change affects us all, White men have historically dominated the movement to protect us from it. By 2014, when I assumed my role at Greenpeace USA, four out of six of the organization’s executive directors had been men. “Boys and their boats,” people would tease, referencing the organization’s famous ships, like the Rainbow Warrior, and the men known for running the show within them. And of course, their contributions have been invaluable — Greenpeace would not be what it is today without them.
The rise of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements have focused a spotlight on the power imbalances that still exist between men and women in modern, Western society. It’s a conversation that’s long overdue, and it got me thinking about the role of women in the environmental movement and the obstacles many of us still face.
Many institutions are examining group dynamics — both internally and among allies — and realizing that things still need to change. Greenpeace itself is looking inward, examining its own internal culture and making changes to ensure that all employees and volunteers feel secure, after revelations of gender discrimination and harassment have surfaced within our own global network.
Harassment that may have been overlooked a decade ago is not tolerated today. That’s a great start, but it’s not enough. The movement towards diversity, acceptance, and inclusion is also about creating organizational cultures that are safe, welcoming, and productive for all. It has nothing to do with political correctness either — it’s about creating conditions for the smartest, most visionary ideas to flourish. When a movement looks predominantly White and male, it acts and sounds White and male too. If you consider the fact that low-income communities and people of color are more likely to be affected by climate change, isn’t it only logical that the smartest solutions to climate change are more likely to surface if their experiences and perspectives are featured front and center?
Not everyone with a solution to climate change is going to shout their opinions from the rafters or serve as pundits on major news shows, like White men have traditionally been encouraged to do. Some solutions won’t be articulated in English, or by people with college degrees, and some solutions might come to light outside traditional working hours — and not at a conference among recognized environmental leaders.
Studies show that diverse companies perform better; the same reality applies to the environmental movement. We limit our movement’s power and relevance when we make it harder for some voices to be heard. The more we can create conditions for women and other historically marginalized groups to participate, the more effective the solutions forged there will be. This means highlighting the experiences of those on the frontlines of climate change — the communities living in the shadows of oil refineries and the paths of pipelines. It means encouraging participation among people from different cultures and educational backgrounds, valuing different communication styles, and accommodating schedules that might not fit the traditional 9 to 5 mold.
Simply put: We limit our movement’s power and relevance when we make it harder for some voices to be heard, and we all benefit when our collective movement has space for all people — including immigrants, indigenous communities, and single parents.
Luckily, the tide is turning. The environmental movement is shifting more of its attention towards the human impacts of climate change, featuring those most impacted at the center of its stories. White, privileged thought leaders are learning to lower their voices when it counts, making room for Indigenous leaders to explain how fossil fuels are destroying the planet and their communities — the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline is a prime example of this.
But it is not enough to just amplify certain voices for a brief moment. Those of us in the movement who occupy positions of power must stay attentive and make sure the spotlight continues to focus on those who have fought in the dark for too long. If it was difficult for me, a person more privileged than most, to articulate my need for my colleagues to adapt to my schedule as a single, working mother, think how challenging it must be for women of color working more than one job, in order to feed more than one mouth, who may or may not speak English, to participate in the movement.
We need to remember that the environmental movement is as much about protecting human rights as it is about saving trees and cute animals. Nobody should have to choose between being a parent and being an activist in order to make the future brighter for all kids. Everyone with a potential answer to one of the most vexing challenges of our time should be granted the space and the tools to help tackle it.
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