Friday, April 3, 2015

Conservation Campaigns Need Outreach to People of Color

By Vanna Garcia

In the 1960s the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, known for its development of infrastructure that has historically increased the metropolitan region’s economy, had plans to build a major regional airport to supplement three other airports in the metropolitan area.

The land they sought for this project was 30 miles west of New York City and less than 20 miles from Newark Airport, and consisted of 7,768 acres of land that was home to hundreds of wildlife creatures including birds, fish, frogs, deer, and fox, among others.

This sought-after land, located in Morris County, N.J., is the Great Swamp—and it pitted local residents against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who wished to develop the land.

Among some of the initial allies in the grassroots campaign to save the swamp was Helen Fenske, a stay at home mom who lived in an old farmhouse on the edge of the swamp. She was appointed secretary of the campaign and ran the meetings from the corner of her kitchen, since there was not much money to run the organization, according to "Saving a Swamp and Other Landmark Campaigns" in A Citizen's Guide to Grassroots Campaigns..

With lack of funds, the Great Swamp supporters raised awareness of the wetlands as a national wilderness area by holding an event that labeled it as such. This tactic ensured the safety of the area and encouraged counties like Morris and Somerset to construct county parks and environmental education centers.

Through the legwork of many allies, the organization was able to give talks to conservation groups, increase the diversity of their audiences and set up displays at the Short Hills Mall. Soon enough, they gathered enough public attention and eventually saved the swamp.

The Great Swamp salvation was the start of many other environmental projects. The chapter goes on to discuss the Farny Highlands, some of New Jersey’s most threatened and endangered rural lands, and how they have been able to survive industrialization.

Residents of these communities learned how to reach out to their neighbors, to residents of neighboring towns, to regional conservation groups, to local officials and to county, state, and federal officials. They even reached out to experienced advocates like Fenske for guidance.

It is no surprise that more progress is made when grassroots campaigns expand to include diverse audiences into their initiatives. When more people are involved, there is a greater chance of being heard by those in positions of power that can actually enact political change.

But since the staffs of many large, mainstream environmental organizations have been historically white, it is not very common that people of color are included in community discussions on new developments or environmental issues. I would even go as far as to say that the traditional environmental movement has a diversity problem.

There is a clear disconnect between the leadership at highest levels of grassroots organizations and people of color, who you do not often see in environmental group leadership positions. Clearly, there is a misguided perception that people of color do not care about the environment or that they do not have the skills and academic background to hold reputable membership positions in these organizations, but that perception is simply wrong.

If only more grassroots organizations expanded their outreach to make all community members, especially people of color, a part of the discussion on wildlife preservation and other environmental issues, change would be more evident.

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