Metro Detroit’s environmental organizations are ...

Metro Detroit’s environmental organizations are largely white. Some are working to change that.

Kensington Metropark

“We have to grow caretakers. That means creating environments—indoors and outdoors—that have a culture of belonging from the top down. 

There’s a line that Artina Sadler likes to quote, from the engineer W. Edward Deming: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” 

It is apt when it comes to environmental organizations, she said. White people overwhelmingly dominate leadership roles, even though people of color also have intimate relationships with the natural world, and despite the ways that environmental injustice disproportionately harms communities of color, including in Flint and Detroit.

That is the predictable outcome of a long pattern of exclusion, including cultural and financial barriers.

“The system is designed to be white, and it’s designed to exclude people who are not white,” she said.

Now, she’s working right in the heart of it. About eighteen months ago, Sadler became the first chief of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at Huron-Clinton Metroparks. Her role is to integrate DEI practices and cultural competency into the parks and in the organization itself.

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Metroparks is one of several local environmental and outdoor organizations that have been reckoning with racial diversity, or the lack of it, within their ranks.

Five local watershed councils in Metro Detroit—advocates of the Detroit, Rouge, Clinton, Huron, and Raisin river basins—have banded together for an audit and training that focuses on how to address structural racism within their own organizations.

Meanwhile, at the Detroit environmental nonprofit EcoWorks, executive director Justin Schott announced that he is exiting his role as executive director. In his resignation letter, he highlighted the team’s 25-year history of being led by straight white men. “EcoWorks has the opportunity to embrace change,” he wrote. “Getting serious about racial justice and equity means, as a minimal starting point, that we can no longer dance around the issue.”

They follow a national trend. Longstanding organizations are daylighting the untold histories of even the most venerated conservation icons, such as that of John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club and fought for the preservation of the Yosemite Valley, but also used disparaging language about Black people and Native Americans. Other early Sierra Club leaders and members advocated for white supremacy, eugenics, and forced sterilization.

In 2020, the Sierra Club elected its first Latinx president in its 128-year history: Ramón Cruz, from Puerto Rico. As part of reckoning with its history, the Sierra Club says that it is investing $5 million and redesigning its leadership structure to empower more indigenous and people of color.

Much of this work picks up on patterns described by Dr. Dorceta Taylor, a sociologist and environmental justice scholar who recently accepted a position at the Yale School of Forestry. (She continues her University of Michigan affiliation as an adjunct professor.) In her landmark 2014 report for Green 2.0, “The State of Diversity at Environmental Organizations,” Taylor described how racial diversity lagged behind progress in gender diversity (which itself is not wholly done). Among nearly 300 NGOs, foundations, and governmental agencies, she found fewer than 12 percent of ethnic minorities and multiracial people filled leadership positions, despite making up about 38 percent of the U.S. population. People of color rarely had the most powerful positions or served at the largest institutions.

Kensington Metropark Photo by Nick Hagen..

In another study in 2018, Taylor found that out of 2,057 environmental nonprofits in the U.S., fewer than 4 percent revealed data on the racial makeup of their staff. She described a “pervasive culture of secrecy that leads most environmental organizations to keep demographic information private or hidden behind a veil of ignorance by claiming that they do not collect demographic data about their employees.”

Of those that did share records, on average, 80 percent of board members and 85 percent of the staff were white. Fewer than 15 percent indicated that they engaged in some form of DEI work.

Taylor also found that the only position more likely to be held by a staffer who wasn’t white was that of “diversity manager.”

* * *

Over at the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, Sadler is creating her job as she goes. It’s a big responsibility at a sprawling organization that encompasses 13 parks spanning nearly 25,000 acres across five counties. There are a couple hundred full-time staffers—roughly 94 percent white and 6 percent people of color—and many more seasonal and part-time employees. Sadler is supported by a diverse advisory team made up of staff from across the park system.

For about 80 years, natural wonders and outdoor recreation have thrived in the Metroparks. They have also historically been a fault line for community concerns. Supported by a millage that the whole region pays into, the parks are located in communities that are largely rural, white, and inaccessible by public transportation. Many people have felt the parks were not welcoming or available to them, with overly aggressive policing a particular point of tension. Last year, a police officer was put on leave for an internal investigation into discriminatory remarks he allegedly made to an Arab family.

These concerns play into “the horrid history specific to African Americans about what it means to be in the woods with a lot of white people,” Sadler said. “That’s very scary for Black people.

The system has also faced lawsuits in past years, long since settled, alleging that older white candidates were discriminated against in hiring practices. Several women filed lawsuits, which were dismissed, saying that they experienced gender discrimination on the job. A former director who resigned in 2017 for undisclosed reasons was later alleged to have sexually harassed an employee in a federal lawsuit.

Unpacking this long history of tension and mistrust won’t be an easy task. The first thing Sadler did was put together a huge, 114-question survey for the Metroparks staff. “The results we got were very telling. Very revealing. Very helpful,” Sadler said. “It gave me a way to assess the whole system.” The survey will be conducted every few years to track the organization’s DEI progress.

In March, the Metroparks published its plan to make the parks more welcoming and accessible to people of all races and ethnicities, and also to people with disabilities. It is now in Phase I, “foundation building,” which involves collecting data, developing its advisory team, coordinating DEI training for staff, reviewing policies and procedures, and building new relationships.

In Phase II, (“storming,” 2021-2022), the plan calls for implementation, preparing for retrenchment, continuous learning, and departmental support.

For Sadler, success starts with deep, real conversations. She’s trained to listen to what people are not saying, to key into how people use coded language, and to give people space to voice their thoughts. “You’ve got to understand where people are,” she said. “That’s where they are, and where we have to work from.”

Artina Sadler. Photo by Nick Hagen.

What that success doesn’t look like is flatlining. For years, she has seen DEI staffers put in positions where they are never able to do anything meaningful, effectively serving as an organization’s ‘woke window-dressing.’ That can happen through staff structure, she said, where the DEI staffer reports directly to an indifferent human resources department, or to a supervisor who simply doesn’t believe in the work. “They have no authority and are running their head into a wall,” she said.

At Metroparks, Sadler was hired by a director she knew—one she trained years ago in DEI, in fact—and her brand-new position is situated on the organization’s leadership team, so she is peers with the other chiefs and directors, not subordinate to them. It was an important factor in her decision to join the team.

While the disruptions of 2020 have altered some plans, Sadler is serious about progress.

* * *

Many small, local environmental organizations that are already overwhelmed by the world-saving work they’ve taken on cite lack of capacity and few job openings as the biggest obstacles for cultivating diverse leadership, consistent with what Taylor’s studies describe. 

Friends of the Rouge is a 34-year old watershed organization that works for the restoration of the Rouge River. It has seven staffers and two contractors that do not represent the diversity of the 48 communities that the Rouge River cuts through, according to executive director Marie McCormick. She acknowledges that this is part of a pervasive pattern.

“We are unquestionably and unequivocally white, and that is something that’s been true since the inception of most of our watershed groups,” McCormick said.

Marie McCormick. Courtesy photo.

With funding from the Erb Foundation, Friends of the Rouge partnered with four sister nonprofits on a program that explores race and organizational culture within the region’s watershed organizations. In addition to paying for a shared consultant, the grant covers staff time to participate in time-consuming work—a key equity factor that makes it possible for smaller groups to participate.

The five groups have different sizes, histories, and cultures, and they’ve done various levels of internal DEI work, but the program is designed to be agile. The consultant will first get to know each group before putting together a series of shared training sessions that meet different needs. 

The program starts this month. But Friends of the Rouge began early with pre-trainings through a free sustainability and DEI program from Erb that was designed for municipalities and easily adapted for nonprofits. 

“It doesn’t have to be someone outside your organization that’s telling you how to be diverse, equitable, and inclusive,” McCormick said. “You can learn this stuff. You can take the first steps.”

For small teams that feel they don’t have the capacity to take on DEI work, McCormick said that leaders need to ask: “If you don’t do it, then what?”

“Because that is the moment in time we’re at now,” she added. “It needs to be done, because it’s not just the right thing to do, it is a key factor in the advancement of your nonprofit.” 

* * *

When Schott took the top job at EcoWorks, he felt uncomfortable about continuing the long line of straight white male leadership, especially as the Detroit-based nonprofit was heavily involved in deconstruction and reuse. The divide between Black staff on the ground doing lower-paid work and higher-paid white people in administrative roles was painful.

At the same time, the nonprofit, which has about 25 staffers, was in a precarious place due to back taxes and a devastating fire at its Reclaim Detroit warehouse. “I was really nervous about the organization not existing,” Schott said. Having worked there for years in a different position, he figured that, as someone very familiar with the backstory behind the most delicate problems, he could be helpful.

In the years since, EcoWorks has seen a number of positive developments, including a rising concern for racial justice that more fully infiltrated the organization after its move to a new office in northwest Detroit, bringing its spread-out staff under one roof. 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are now addressed more directly than they used to be. “It’s not enough to just assume employees are on the right side of this,” Schott said, “or even engaging with it in their own work.” 

Just naming the dominating influence of white men in leadership has been more valuable than he expected. It’s a relief to speak directly about race in regards to other roles as well, Schott said. 

“Now we say that if we’re hiring for a position that’s working with kids in Detroit, it’s going to be really difficult to do that if you don’t share their background,” Schott said. “That’s a huge consideration for that position.” 

The other side of the coin is to be direct when a staff person doesn’t work out, Schott said. If somebody has to be fired, it may lead staff members to wonder if race or cultural divides were a factor. It’s not appropriate to give details about specific situations, Schott said, but he believes it’s important to at least describe, generally, the vulnerabilities that led to the firing. It’s difficult, he said, but “better than people mumbling in the hallway.”

Kensington Metropark. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Schott’s exit as executive director has been in the works for some time, and in light of many local environmental groups that have long been powered by people of color, he doesn’t think he should get a pat on the back for using his resignation letter as a way to push to diversify the leadership of EcoWorks. But he did say that he’d be happy if organizations that are newer to these conversations are moved to reflect on their own patterns.

“No matter how effective we believe we are, how mindful and responsive to other justice principles, and how connected to our communities and partners, we cannot fulfill our mission by reserving a disproportionate number of seats at the table for white men,” said Schott in his resignation letter. “In some ways, it’s like how blanketing our atmosphere with too many greenhouse gases results in climate change—it’s not personal, it’s just physics.” 

* * *

Francisco “Paco” Ollervides is president of Green Leadership Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to diversifying environmental leadership. It matches people of color with boards, and also assists with retention and recruitment. 

The racial gap, he said, is partly fueled by history. “The environmental movement, as you know, was founded by white men over 100 years ago,” Ollervides said, “and even then, it was overall kind of a luxury for people to prioritize the environment.”

A century later, not enough has changed. “Environmental institutions are still not set up for … these people to bring their knowledge, their information of how their community is affected [by environmental injustice].” 

Ollervides hears the excuses. Concerns over lack of capacity are common, right up there with worries about mission drift. “‘Oh, we can’t serve everyone. Oh, we don’t have time and resources.’” 

“If you have interest, but not time and resources, then your interest is not high,” he said. He advises groups to “make a program, not an ad hoc committee, and put your money where your mouth is.” 

A professed inability to find qualified people of color for staff and board positions is another commonly cited barrier. But, as Sadler said, organizations “have to reckon with the fact that they never look for them.” 

Kensington Metropark. Photo by Nick Hagen.

‘Looking for them’ means breaking out of familiar networks (often word-of-mouth and informal, according to Taylor’s report) that repeat familiar patterns. It means building long-term, non-transactional relationships with communities of color. It means, Ollervides said, not asking people to come to your office, but instead going out to them.

Or, as Sadler added, it means looking beyond the relatively few rising leaders in the environmental movement who aren’t white and in high demand. 

It also means rethinking how jobs are posted and what applications require, keeping in mind the systemic barriers to education, internships, and service programs faced by people of color in this country.

“I’m a big believer in non-traditional experience,” Sadler said. It took her 12 years to earn her college degree, and while it made her more marketable, she said it didn’t make her who she is. For many positions, having a degree may not meaningfully represent a candidate’s potential. Other forms of experience, including lived experience, may be equally important, if not more.

Certain jobs do need to be credentialed, Sadler said, but hiring committees would do well to consider it generally sufficient for a person to demonstrate that they can do the required work well, no matter how they came to their abilities.

“You have to convince me that the person with a degree is better than the person with experience,” she said. These are the kind of conversations Metroparks is having all the time now, she said. “We have hired no wrong person yet.”

At EcoWorks, Schott too said that many people in a position to hire future leaders “are just used to seeing certain assets as being critical to a position.” 

While his nonprofit re-evaluates what is essential and what is merely familiar, it has noticed that its job postings don’t reach as many Black and brown Detroiters as it’d like.

In one recent instance, he ended up not hiring anyone when he was unsatisfied with the candidate pool. He closed the position, and then came back to it a few months later with a revised idea for what the role would look like. 

“Technical barriers were holding back a lot of people who were otherwise qualified for 90 percent of the work,” Schott said. To fill in the gap, “we’re backfilling now with an outside firm providing some high-level service on a limited basis,” which allows the new person to focus on operations.

All the while, there’s more work to be done. “We have to grow caretakers,” Sadler said. “That’s our challenge.” That means creating environments—indoors and outdoors—that have a culture of belonging from the top down. 

“It’s not just who comes to parks,” Sadler said. “We want you to own the park.”

Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit and the author of “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy,” which was named one of the year’s best books by the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Kirkus Reviews, Audible, Amazon, the New York Public Library, and others. It is the winner of the Hillman Prize in Book Journalism and the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award. Her writing has appeared in Elle, the New York Times, Politico, the Columbia Journalism Review, Next City, and other places. She has been a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya, and a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She received the Excellence in Environmental Journalism award from the Great Lakes Environmental Law Council.