Color needed in bay causes

Lack of minority participation addressed by task force

Eric Salzberg — The Capital
Eastport Elementary School students, Martha Vasquez, 10, and Aldo Marquez, 10, discuss the various sites around the bay while onboard the Annapolitan II.

Tree plantings. Stream cleanups. Wade-ins. Legislative hearings.

At most environmental events in this area, the crowd of participants tends to be overwhelmingly white — unless schoolchildren are involved.

Anne Arundel County and the state of Maryland are diverse places. And certainly most people care about having clean air, clean water and safe places to enjoy nature.

So where are all the people of color? And how can more of them be drawn into the environmental movement?

That was the challenge set before a state task force that recently issued a report on boosting minority participation in environmental causes.

Task force members acknowledge that talking about race can be a touchy issue. But it's important to discuss, they said, because if there's any hope of solving our environmental problems, all the people affected need to be at the table.

'Unless you engage all stakeholders, you are not maximizing all of the assets in the community to solve problems,' said Vince O. Leggett, a Department of Natural Resources employee who helped guide the task force.

Mr. Leggett has long been involved in environmental issues in general, and minority participation in particular. He founded the Blacks of the Chesapeake organization and wrote 'The Chesapeake Bay Through Ebony Eyes,' a book about the experiences of blacks in the maritime and seafood industries.

The Blacks of the Chesapeake group was among those that pushed for more attention to the issue of minority participation in the environment. They persuaded the General Assembly to create the task force in 2006.

'It was a number of organizations that were concerned about lack of minority involvement,' Mr. Leggett said. 'There was always a lack of minority presence.'

Zora Lathan, director of Chesapeake Ecology Center

Cutting to the chase

Why is that?

There are several ideas.

For starters, the lack of minority involvement is not because minorities aren't interested in the environment, task force members and activists said.

'To discount and assume the environment isn't important to minorities is a gross assumption many whites make,' said Zora Lathan, director of the Chesapeake Ecology Center on Clay Street in Annapolis.

Rather, the environmental message isn't always framed in a way that minorities can relate to it.

In this region, for example, environmental causes are often about saving crabs and oysters or ensuring beaches are safe for swimming. But those issues may not seem important in the day-to-day lives of many Marylanders, and especially minorities.

Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper

Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, said many minorities — and especially blacks — tend to cut to the chase quickly: How does this affect me? How can this improve my life in my community?

'It's important that the messaging be more explicit and in tune,' he said.

In other words, 'the environment' may be more about air pollution that contributes to asthma in kids, a neighborhood stream that's strewn with trash, fish that may be too contaminated to eat, or crabs that are becoming more expensive as the population struggles.

Boiling issues down to the local level has the benefit of attracting more people in general, not just minorities, Ms. Lathan said.

'A local focus is generally an approach to get more people involved,' she said.

The message also should be sent through different channels, the task force report suggests.

For example, public service announcements could be recorded in different languages. And they could be placed on a variety of TV and radio stations, including stations that cater to people who speak Spanish.

Places of worship are another means of communication. Churches, synagogues and mosques often attract distinct and different ethnic groups.

Role models, decision makers

The task force also said getting minorities involved in visible, decision-making positions might draw more people into the movement. And having people from different backgrounds may result in new ideas or different perspectives on the issues.

The report recommends that key state agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Department of the Environment set goals for hiring more people of color. And the state could give tax incentives to 'green businesses' that hire minorities.

Mr. Leggett said there's a lack of role models for young people of color who might consider a job in a green-related field. 'To be one, you have to see one or two or three.'

The emergence of so-called 'green-collar' jobs is another opportunity to get minorities involved, Ms. Lathan said.

Green collar is a term that's been coined to describe jobs related to America's growing interest in being more environmentally friendly and energy-wise.

Even for minorities who are well-established in environmental professions, there still can be roadblocks.

Ms. Lathan, who worked a long stretch at Audobon before starting the ecology center, said she often feels marginalized at professional conferences — even when she is one of the featured presenters.

Mr. Tutman said he sometimes is seen as a curiosity — 'the black riverkeeper.'

'Sometimes I get static from African-American groups that my 'black card' has expired because I work with 'those guys,'' he said.

Mr. Tutman said he struggles to come up with a good answer and usually points out that everyone is affected by environmental problems in one way or another. He's working on an article about the issue for a magazine published by the international riverkeeper organization.

New organizations

Many of task force's suggestions — reshaping environmental messages, recruiting minority workers, promoting green collar industries — could be achieved at little to no extra cost by state agencies and established environmental groups.

But the task force also came up with two key recommendations that will take more effort and money.

The first is to set up a 'virtual environmental center.' The center would link up existing programs, such as community groups and the environmental science programs at the state's historically black colleges and universities.

The second is to establish a Minority Environmental and Land Trust. It would be funded by $250,000 a year from the state general fund, with an added boost of $100,000 in cash or services from nine state agencies involved in the environment.

MELT would carry out the task force's ideas and promote more minority participation. Mr. Leggett said that having an organization devoted to the issue would be more effective than trying to force existing agencies and nonprofits to drastically change their missions and programs.

Also, having a dedicated center would mean the movement would carry on, even if the leaders and participants change over time. Too often, efforts of change are personality-driven and fade when the leaders move on to something else, Mr. Leggett said.

State Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore, who sponsored the bill that created the task force, said she's committed to carrying out the group's ideas. When the ideas for the VEC and MELT are refined, she said she'll sponsor bills to establish them.

Task force members said they hope Gov. Martin O'Malley will latch on to some of their ideas and either put them into an executive order and be worked into his environmental agenda.

While government reports often 'sit and collect dust,' as Ms. Gladden put it, she's hopeful this one actually will make a difference.

'We've worked hard to broaden the voices,' Mr. Leggett said. 'We really do feel it's a great time for this body of work to move forward.'


(Revised Dec 2007)