How we can all support equity and diversity in the sustainability field

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all have a role in our workplace cultures and policies. And we have the power to change them.

On April 13, four local professionals joined us at PSU’s Native American Student and Community Center to lead a discussion about equity and diversity in the sustainability workplace. They were there to share their insights on how to champion equity, manage expectations, confront issues, and describe the challenges of hiring and retaining diverse talent.

Thanks to the apt and spirited facilitation by Akash Singh, a Student Fellow of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, we covered it all.

The panelists have all been recognized as champions for equity and diversity at their respective organizations and are dedicated to creating inclusive environments, whether that’s part of their job description or not. They described typical situations in the workplace that create barriers for non-white professionals to succeed and grow, and offered solutions to counter toxic and prohibitive structures, including those that perpetuate racism, classism, and ableism.

In a 2014 report, The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations, the current rate of racial diversity in the environmental field is troubling. Like other historically white-dominated fields, there is a growing demand for assembling a more diverse sustainability workforce, where the leadership reflects the communities they work in. While recruiting for racial and ethnic diversity is a common priority, going beyond optics matters more than ever.

Asena Lawrence, community liaison for Portland Commissioner Nick Fish, described the importance of cultivating a culture that celebrates and emphasizes diversity and provides support systems for staff members from underrepresented groups in all levels of the organization, including in leadership.

Desiree Williams-Rajee, equity specialist at the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, emphasized the benefits of organizations doing an intersectional identity analysis of their staff to consider power dynamics based on race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, immigration status, and more. These are often difficult conversations to have, especially within government agencies, but they are important to identify sources of oppression and related problems in the workplace.

Power dynamics go beyond the workplace and affect the communities we work in, so efforts to expand equity and diversity in an organization need to be genuine. Tokenization, a symptom of inequitable systems, is a common problem.

Nakisha Nathan, climate justice organizer at Sierra Club and board member for Neighbors for Clean Air, said, “Operating where relations are transactional and self-serving make it impossible for people to have opportunity.” She also described her experience of being the only black woman in a room of people working on environmental issues earlier in her career.

Equity also begins at an organization’s mission. “If the mission sidelines diversity inclusion, this will not work,” said Williams-Rajee, who also suggested individual-level solutions like “management skills and knowing how to support people not like you.”

Support systems from individual managers to groups are vital. Virginia Luka, advisor for Student Activities and Leadership Programs at PSU, shared an example of creating an Employee Resource Group (ERG) like the ones she’s had experience leading, including the Queer ERG and Asian American and Pacific Islander ERG, to strengthen networks and provide professional development. For allies, she suggested identity mapping, an exercise she facilities with students. This involves self-reflection to identify various privileges we each have, and the ways they impact everyday interactions and long-term decisionmaking. “Institutional change starts with individual level of reflection.”

We can all start somewhere as agents of positive change to elevate the voices and needs of people who are marginalized. Nakisha’s message on accountability ties it all together:

“Despite your best intentions, be aware of your role in systems of oppression and toxic spaces.”

This event was made possible by the Student Fellows of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions and the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.