Opinion: Hot issue - Are environmental NGOs institutionally racist?

Last week, think tank Capacity Global unveiled research showing that BME groups perceive the environmental sector as institutionally racist and mostly white and middle class in its recruitment and strategic policies

YES - LIZ SUTTON, communications co-ordinator, Women's Environmental Network

Institutional racism is a loaded phrase, open to misinterpretation. But does the movement behave in subtle and unintentional ways that exclude black and minority ethnic people? Yes.

Environmental charities are dominated by staff and members who are white, middle class and - at the top - male. This means that issues are too often framed from their perspective, which is why WEN started.

The environmental movement does too little to counter the view that green lifestyles are expensive or self-sacrificing choices that only the middle classes can afford. Being green can be cheaper, healthier and fun. Take organic food - WEN is working with predominantly BME women's groups to cultivate inner-city plots and grow affordable and culturally appropriate organic food for their families. BME people and women are incredibly active at the grass-roots but, as we found in this project, do not necessarily identify what they do as green.

If we are to be truly relevant to diverse communities, we have to make the connections between environmental and social justice more explicit.

Marginalised communities shouldn't have to justify their right to participate - and they need to be resourced to do so.

NO - STEPHEN TINDALE, executive director, Greenpeace

At Greenpeace we have the desire to increase our engagement with minorities.

We have a plan in place to increase the amount of work we do on issues to do with equity and, through that, reach out to more BME people.

The reason we're doing it that way rather than setting up-front targets is because that's what Maria Adebowale, the director of Capacity Global, advised us to do three years ago.

There's no point in being tokenistic until you've changed the nature of the work you do, and that is what we have been focusing on. Globally, we've carried out a review of our entire programme and decided that our central guiding principle should in the future be sustainable equity, which is making Greenpeace far more focused on human impacts and issues of fairness.

We haven't made as much progress as I would have liked, but the message Adebowale gave us was that there is no quick fix - you can't tackle the effects until you have tackled the causes.

As an organisation, our number one priority is climate change. But in order to be an effective voice in the struggle against climate change, we need to become more diverse as an organisation, and that is one of our main objectives.

YES - JEREMY CROOK, director, Black Training and Enterprise Group

If the evidence does show a lack of direct involvement of BME groups with environmental NGOs in the UK, this fact is very hard to get away from.

From the outside, environmental groups do not appear to be diverse. In terms of my involvement, I haven't met that many black individuals working for environmental NGOs, and I have been working in the sector for more than15 years.

Organisations that are not fully engaging with black-led groups concerned with the environment need to look at the reasons - they must look at the facts provided by this research, assess themselves and make themselves relevant to the whole of society. If there is no commitment to addressing those issues then, yes, they are guilty of institutional racism.

Environmental groups need to come up with something robust to address this issue in their recruitment and strategic policies. If they do not do this - and remain one-dimensional in terms of diversity - then that will be a disadvantage for them and for the sector as a whole.

YES - TOM FLOOD, chief executive, BTCV

The answer is a resounding yes, due more to complacency and fear of 'doing the wrong thing'.

The problem does not lie only with environmental NGOs, however. Look at the record of government departments and quangos - lip service is paid with one-off projects and photo opportunities. Government, Lottery bodies and the Charity Commission should insist not only on an equal opportunities policy, but also on appropriate recruitment strategies and an annual publication of the paid workforce and volunteer profile.

Many BME groups see BTCV as an unlikely ally. Progress remains uneven, funding is erratic and imagination is required to sustain the pace. But my staff now view involving BME and marginalised communities as part of our organisational DNA, and support from Global Capacity, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Home Office gives it credibility.

But let's not lay all the blame on the environmental sector. BME groups and their community leaders could do more to engage, welcome us and work in partnership. As an immigrant who has been in the UK for 30 years, my sympathies always lie with those excluded by society. Events in London and Bradford are a wake-up call to the sector to deliver better on this issue.

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