What We Can Do About Environmental Philanthropy's White Privilege

What We Can Do About Environmental Philanthropy's White Privilege

Marcelo Bonta, Momentum Fellow

Environmental philanthropy has a big problem.

It’s not our lack of racial diversity, especially at the executive and trustee level. It’s not the lack of funding directed towards organizations led by people of color. It’s not the lack of funding for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, despite many foundations now talking about it. It’s not the lack of investment in established leaders of color and a professional pipeline for emerging leaders of color. It’s not the underfunding of general support and capacity-building. It’s not the assumption that people of color don’t care about the environment; it’s not the lack of acknowledgement that people of color support environmental issues at higher rates than whites. It’s not the hiring of average white men instead of overqualified people of color.

All those are simply the byproducts of the big problem: White privilege.

Privilege blinds us to reality. And the reality is this: Until environmental philanthropy acknowledges and successfully addresses its white privilege, sadly, our planet will continue to suffer.

For example, we haven’t successfully addressed climate change because we haven’t equitably included the full breadth of our world’s voices and diversity. Study after study prove that an approach that embraces diversity, equity and inclusion leads to more innovation — and we badly need innovation to solve climate change. Yet we keep trying to apply old approaches to a new problem, like legislating an answer with a group of white environmental leaders and politicians.

Replicating Past Mistakes

In his plenary remarks at the 2012 Environmental Grantmakers Association Annual Retreat at Mohonk Mountain House in upstate New York,  University of Wisconsin Prof. William Cronon shared the history of the Lake Mohonk Conferences of Friends of the Indian (1883-1916) where well intentioned white philanthropists with influence to direct federal Indian policy gathered to discuss what they thought was best for Native Americans.  This group recommended to “civilize” Native Americans by (1) breaking up their reservations, (2) make them U.S. citizens subject to U.S. law, and (3) “educating” their children.  In other words, this small group of white people thought it was best for Native Americans to extinguish their culture and assimilate to white American life. The group’s good intention led to extremely destructive and oppressive policies and impacts on Native Americans.

Now, you might say that this situation was in our nation’s racist past, and it’s not the same today. Or is it? A small group of well-intentioned white people with power to direct resources towards an effort that they thought would fix a problem actually sounds pretty familiar.  And that’s white privilege, in practice. How many times have you been in a decision-making room that was all or almost entirely well-intentioned white people making important environmental decisions that impact all Americans — 37% people of color and growing?  In fact, even the audience of environmental grantmakers that William Cronon was addressing was almost entirely white.

If you represent a predominantly white organization, here are 10 ways of determining if your organization's white privilege lens may be undermining your efforts:

  1. Could you add “for white people” to your mission and make it even more accurate?
  2. Do you experience push-back from people of color?
  3. Does a white person often speak for and make decisions about people of color?
  4. Do you talk about diversity, equity and inclusion without having done the deep transformational work of developing a racial equity lens?
  5. Do you expect staff members of color to conform to your culture? (Or do you say “he or she was not a good fit” when you decide not to hire a person of color?)
  6. Do you expect people of color to help you understand diversity, equity and inclusion without paying for this service?
  7. Do you refrain from providing funds for capacity building or operational support?
  8. Do you agree the environmental movement needs to work on diversity, equity and inclusion — but you don’t provide those resources for your grantees and community partners?
  9. Do you opt not to fund organizations led by people of color because they may be "risky" or "non-traditional?"
  10. Do you receive few/no grant applications from organizations led by people of color, or have you rarely/never approved a grant from such an organization?  (See also: “Funders, your grant application process may be perpetuating inequity” blog post by Vu Le, Nonprofit with Balls.)

When left unchecked, white privilege exacerbates institutional and systemic racism. However, white privilege isn't always bad. Acknowledging and accepting the privilege that you and your organization hold can be a powerful statement. The next step is to do something about it, both on the individual and organizational levels: focusing on building capacity and how you will do your work differently in a racially equitable way. The individual level is easier. Changing an organization's culture is tougher — but doable.

Marcelo Bonta at Philanthropy Northwest's 2016 conference, sharing his experiences of creating equitable foundation operations.

Transforming white privilege so that it can provide real and meaningful benefit to people of color is also called white allyism. Doug Stamm, Meyer Memorial Trust’s president and CEO, is one such white ally. As the leader of our organization-wide equity journey, Doug has made a long-term commitment to learning about institutional and systemic racism, implementing solutions and deeper understanding of the power and privilege he benefits from as a white, cisgendered man. This commitment has led to powerful changes at Meyer, including a mission and vision that focuses on equity, an authentic and vulnerable equity statement and ongoing equity learning approach with 43 staffers, fellows and trustees — fully half of whom identify as people of color. Together, we continue to evolve, working to translate talk into meaningful actions to positively influence the region and the national field of philanthropy, especially predominantly white foundations.

Simple Advice

So what's my advice to white environmental philanthropists, coming from a person of color who has felt the brunt of individual, systemic and institutional racism in the environmental movement over the past 16 years and has worked full-time for the past decade on racial equity solutions and change processes?

My advice is pretty simple.

Attend at least two days of racial equity training, ideally as part of a long-term cohort. (Center of Diversity and the Environment’s Environment 2042 Leadership Program is an excellent example.)  This experience will help you develop an enhanced equity lens. 

Yup, that’s it. That’s all you need to do at this point. And if you have attended a racial equity training, well done! Please continue to seek opportunities to grow and utilize your white privilege for good. We need you.

Only when we as environmental philanthropist begin to develop an equity lens will we begin to view our environmental challenges and solutions in a realistic, holistic view where our planet is fully protected and all people benefit.  

As Samantha Harvey, an environmental program officer at Overbrook Foundation, wrote in her Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) piece earlier this year, "It is incumbent upon us to figure out where we sit in the continuum, recognize our privilege, and push ourselves and our institutions to stretch out of our comfort zones toward a better future.”

I can’t wait to live into that better future — a 21st Century environmental movement for all.

Marcelo Bonta is a Momentum Fellow hosted by Meyer Memorial Trust. Read more about the Momentum Fellowship on our website.


Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 10/26/2016 - 10:14am

10/10 would read again. I shared this on facebook because I absolutely agree - the only thing I would change is that we need people to take the leap from ally to accomplice - to actually get as invested as we are. Nicely done.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 10/26/2016 - 3:48pm

You hit on so many accurate facts and observations that form the foundation and lens through which I conduct my work, both on the ground as an organizer and my interaction with grantmakers, elected officials, and environmental organization leaders (who of course, are overwhelmingly white).

I am lucky that my employer "gets it," and that they let me dictate my style of organizing, policy development, and communications strategies with no interference. I'm not just the token guy here to increase diversity.

Thanks for dropping the knowledge.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 10/26/2016 - 7:47pm

I agree to some of the considerations when applied to our social philanthropy, but not all. Inclusiveness and opportunities should also be based on individual merit and talent; special privileges fall off when lack of competency is exposed.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 10/27/2016 - 10:58am

Yes, I agree. We need to stop hiring underqualified mediocre white people and start hiring the numerous overqualified people of color that often get passed on. This approach has hurt philanthropy and our missions for way too long.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/28/2016 - 9:54am

Hear, hear!

Submitted by Marcelo Bonta (not verified) on Fri, 10/28/2016 - 10:17am

First, I want to thank you for reading my blog. I have received numerous positive emails and facebook comments from people of color and white allies (or white accomplices as one of the comments above states).

I also want to thank the many white people who may be the first time (or one of the first times) reading about white privilege. I know its not easy to read and can be straight up uncomfortable. It's that space of discomfort where you learn the most in this work. As Queta Gonzalez (Center for Diversity and the Environment's Director) taught me- discomfort is the "learning edge." Thank you for committing to this work and doing something about it.

For those of you who want to learn more, hear are a couple of great pieces on white privilege. One is a classic, and the other is relavent to today's news.

1. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, http://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-k...
2. King: White Privilege Sets Oregon Militia Free http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/king-white-privilege-sets-orego...

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/28/2016 - 2:45pm

You had me at "it's not the. . ." List. A brilliant strategy that shows those abberations as not being the problem though the fact they're all true should require us to go no further. CORRECT THOSE! and we'll be well on our way. Lol. Bravo Marcelo!

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/28/2016 - 6:38pm

Great post. I like the idea of orgs doing racial justice training. I would like everyone in an org to do it and for that training to be deepened every year. I would also encourage orgs to learn more about environmental injustice and environmental justice in the U.S. We are often ahistorical, and that contributes to our replicating of behaviors. As orgs commit to change I ask that they have a long range commitment that is steady and willing to make mistakes while shifting organizational culture and practices. We gain wisdom through the practice of learning and doing over time. Thanks, Marcelo for posting.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/28/2016 - 10:58pm

Howzit Marcelo. I like #1. It made me laugh in that very cynical way from my deep and dark nihilistic soul. I agree with the conceptual things you say. However, I am always concerned about whether the terminology we choose to use to convey these issues help people embrace what they need to do. I want action, people must move beyond reflection.

Sometimes I think the terms we use often create binary or divided ways of relating and do not ground us in the common humanity we are ultimately seeking. I agree too with Queta's mana'o on a "learning edge" because discomfort may lead to transformation or learning, however I also think that that edge is and will continue to become more nuanced.

Today I had a similar conversation with a friend on the term "colonizer" and "settler" which some folks I care about dearly choose to use. These terms do not- in my current opinion- help improve a situation where neither of us are really going anywhere. That is they do not in the long run help us transform the situation we find ourselves in, they just if anything reframe it. I am not sure reframing is necessarily transforming in the long run.

So good to see Samantha is writing and doing good things!

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/16/2016 - 11:08am

The situation we find ourselves in is ongoing settler-colonialism. Ongoing illegal occupation of other Peoples' lands (grammar intentional). Colonialism is immoral and illegal by international law.

The concepts and terminology are not unclear.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 11/01/2016 - 9:22am

Wholeheartedly agree Marcelo. I used to worked with indigenous groups overseas and the amount of privilege and undeconstructed colonialist mindset was challenging and destructive to the local context and environment. Indigenous groups were not usually invited to decisionmaking tables and if they were, were often labeled as troublemakers or treated as tokens. They had an immense body of rich traditional knowledge and practices, and a unique perspective, but these were dismissed or seen as backward, rather than adding to the overall movement. It's a global issue. Thanks for sharing.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 11/05/2016 - 1:35pm

what's up Marcelo. Man I def needed this today. Thanks.. it's rough out here. But we persevere.