Some years ago, I met a member of the Establishment for lunch, someone who ran a major charity in the environmental sector. The conversation moved on to the reason I had wanted to meet in the first place; the continuing lack of diversity in organisations such as theirs. When I broached the subject, their eyes narrowed and their gaze moved to somewhere in the middle distance: “Yes, well… it's very difficult you know. We did have someone, once. But they never stayed ...”
It's an exchange I have had with depressing regularity over the last 20 years. People in the environmental movement, who would otherwise call themselves equal opportunity liberals and who would no doubt profess to be shocked at unconscious bias and racism, have seemed to have an inability to judge their own organisations by the standards they would expect others to keep. The reality is that, according to figures from Policy Exchange, IEMA and the NUS, the sustainability profession and wider environmental sector are the second least diverse in the country. Moreover, despite some of us pointing this out for the last two decades, nothing has changed.
I had never previously considered myself very involved in identity politics - I'm mixed race, and deracinated when it comes to my Asian heritage. Like everyone else of colour, I've put up with pretty much every office and workplace behaviour from mildly patronising attitudes and ignorance (“what’s wrong with calling you half-caste?”), to off colour-jokes and outright racism. Then topped off by the joy of being told , as I was by one manager, that I was “seeing discrimination when it wasn't there” with the implication that I was essentially making up the case of prima facie racism that I had come to him with. We put up with this kind of rubbish because we assumed that it would get better for the next generation.
The BLM movement has been a reflection point for many people of colour. I have been surprised that this rage has been matched in middle-aged people like me, as we look back, aghast, at the lack of progress. The sad fact is that you can want to save the planet and be a bigot at the same time. As someone I recently spoke to said: “I expected to be called a Paki in the workplace, but I didn’t expect it for my children”. Last year, I attended a virtual event hosted by by Green Alliance about this issue, to hear three brilliant, articulate young women of colour describe experiences that could have happened in the 90s.
No more. We have a limited time to make this right. The need to accelerate diversity in the sector has a habit of slipping down the professional agenda for many organisations, but I can assure you it’s still right up there if you’re not white; indeed, the constant need to point this stuff out is exhausting. There is still a lot of complacency in the sector, but the UK is changing fast around some organisations that increasingly do not reflect the modern communities of the UK, and that will struggle to find relevance – and revenue – in future as a result.
We have made addressing inequality in the sector a priority for IEMA, and I am glad to say that over 20 organisations across the environmental and sustainability sectors have joined us so far. On Friday, March 19th we are launching the Diverse Sustainability Initiative, with real commitments from the organisations that have joined and real action, in the form of a toolkit of actions and a network for people of colour that will have the agency to speak truth to power when organisations are getting it wrong. The toolkit has been developed in consultation with IEMA members of colour; they know better than anyone what practical steps are needed to accelerate equality. We need to actively seek brilliant graduates of colour, convince them that this is a profession for them, and support then through their journey and call out unacceptable attitudes. While we’re at it, we should do the same for white, working class men and women, who are also woefully underrepresented.
What I should have said to the person in tweed sitting with me for lunch was that it’s only difficult to effect change if you can’t be bothered. It is not an attitude that will stand the test of time.
Posted on 18th March 2021
Written by Sarah Mukherjee
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