Justin Schott was always a little unsettled about his position as executive director for Detroit environmental nonprofit EcoWorks. Being the latest in an unbroken chain of white male executive directors of a nonprofit dedicated to serving the energy and sustainability needs of mostly poor people of color in Detroit never sat right with him.
At the time he stepped into the role, Schott had a five-year history with the organization leading its Youth Energy Squad, a program to cultivate green leaders amongst the youth of diverse backgrounds. EcoWorks was in a financially fragile state at the time, and all concerned thought it seemed prudent for Schott to step into the role because of his experience with the organization.
“I felt like there were a lot of ways that Ecoworks was doing really good stuff around racial justice and equity. But the ED position was one of the most visible shortcomings there,” he tells Planet Detroit. “I always thought that when I left I hoped that I would be the last in a chain of white men in this seat.”
The Ecoworks staff is between 60 and 65% of people of color these days, Schott says. The environmental movement has a history of not being inclusive, but in recent years, environmental organizations have become more proactive about recruiting staff of color and cultivating leaders.
They’ve also become more intentional about honoring the role of people of color in the movement’s past. Many are coming to the conclusion that the fate of people of color and the fate of the climate are inextricably entwined.
Schott penned a blog post on May 27 announcing his intention to step down as leader of the organization to make space for a new leader, writing that “there are serious costs to the executive history of environmental organizations, and EcoWorks has the opportunity to embrace change. Getting serious about racial justice and equity means, as a minimal starting point, that we can no longer dance around the issue, we have to address it directly and transparently.”
He says that since writing the post, he’s received support, adding that he was glad to be able to leverage his position as Executive Director to “set the tone” for the future.
“The decision was certainly based on a lot of the work and the conversations that we’ve had internally about the importance of leadership at the top being people of color and people who have deep ties in Detroit,” Schott told Planet Detroit.
EcoWorks is now embarking on an open search process. Schott says he would have preferred to have identified a successor and mentored that person for several years, but that didn’t pan out. He is cognizant that the new leader may face unique challenges in the role because of systemic sexism, racism, or homophobia, and remains committed to staying on as a mentor, Schott plans to maintain a contractual relationship with EcoWorks as he works on a project for managing the City of Detroit’s upcoming climate strategy.
Schott says that while filling the role with a non-cis-gender male is a good step, he’d like to see additional steps are taken, such as formalizing the commitment to racial equity through staff commitments and changing the organization’s bylaws to require more board representation from the community.
“We’ve been doing a lot of this work among staff; having honest conversations that are difficult,” he says, “I think everybody understands doing individual work — wherever you are in your journey on racial justice issues — is part of being an EcoWorks.”