The environmental movement has been dominated by upper-class whites even though the people most affected by environmental contamination and other such problems have been ethnic minorities and the working poor, leaders of a conference for ethnic media said Oct. 8.
At the highest levels, this can mean that the well-being of communities of color is at risk, said Courtney Cuff, director of the Western Conservation Foundation, which lobbies on environmental issues.
“In D.C., people look at ethnic communities as not really having power,” Cuff said. “It can turn into a David and Goliath situation.”
Cuff was one of about 20 speakers at the Southwest Summit on Environment held at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. New America Media, an association for ethnic media outlets, sponsored the event.
Cuff said part of the lack of diversity in environmentalism comes from the movement’s early successes.
“After we got some environmental regulations in the ’70s, the movement became professionalized,” Cuff said. This effectively shut out many people of color, who are less likely to have college degrees, she said.
One way to remedy this is having smaller groups with environmental concerns reach out to the ethnic media, said Diana Bustamante, director of the Council for the Development of Las Colonias, which works with underdeveloped neighborhoods, also known as colonias.
“We need people like you to spend time with us, to help us craft our message,” Bustamante told the group of mostly newspaper and magazine editors.
Too often, journalists ignore or oversimplify complicated environmental stories, said Bustamante, whose group recently led opposition to a landfill planned next to a New Mexico colonia.
Another way to diversify the environmental movement would be for larger groups that have more resources to support smaller ones more likely to work directly with minority groups, said Arturo Sandoval, director of the Center of Southwest Culture, which helps indigenous Latinos in the U.S. and Mexico.
“There are huge class differences that I don’t think we should bother trying to overcome,” Sandoval said. “We should just cut them a check and get the hell out of the way.”
But Cuff said environmental groups of all sizes should continue to reach out to ethnic media. Not only is the ethnic press growing, but its relationship to the audience can help attract more people to the environmental movement, she said.
“Ethnic media are not just reporting,” Cuff said. “They’re also community leaders.”