Three ways to take the environmental movement out of its white middle class ghetto

An open letter to the new CEO of Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Shilpa Shah Jannat Hossain
20 July 2015

Dear Craig,

We're thrilled to see you talking about taking the environmental movement out of its White Middle Class ghetto. However, there is a real danger that your words about 'huge potential' and your focus on diversity ‘out there’ will be taken as condescending and instrumentalist - almost like a company talking about a new market.  

As two young Women of Colour who previously worked at Friends of the Earth, there are a few things we’d like to share with you and anyone else that has similar ambitions for environmental justice organisations. Three key ways you can avoid this and make a real difference:

a)     Change starts with us.  Start 'in here' rather than 'out there'. Always start by stressing that changing the dynamics of power and privilege in our movements starts with us as individuals. Each and every one of us needs to educate and challenge ourselves - on our own unearned privileges, the struggles of marginalised people, and how this impacts the way we campaign. Only when we start to grasp this do we become better campaigners and ultimately better people. We are then stronger to tackle patterns of privilege and oppression within our own organisations from who we employ, how we act and how we involve people in decisions.

b)      This is about building strength together - and part of that is about us learning and responding. You need people with time to go to where the struggle is and build trusting partnerships. This takes time and committing resources. There is an Aboriginal activist saying "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you are here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." This isn't about what your organisation can do for marginalised groups. It’s about what strength you can build together. For example, many Bangladeshi groups have been working on environmental action for years – approach them not with an expectation to become a FOE group, but an offer to work together in a way that respects each other’s strengths, independence and expertise.

c)   Be more humble and self-aware. Acknowledge the giants on whose shoulders both you and your words stand. Work on equality and diversity has been led at Friends of the Earth and within the environmental sector for nearly 20 years, with courage and leadership being shown by young Women of Colour like us and numerous other Women (and a few male) allies. And lots of activists in FOE’s own local groups network. Both of us now work as trainers and consultants, supporting other organisations to tackle the very issues you're talking about. This work is happening - there is so much expertise out there, which doesn’t get the mainstream attention it deserves. Your intention is to raise the status of this debate in your new role as Executive Director - and we salute this. Your intention may not be to squeeze out more marginalised voices, but the way you have started off is an example of how White male privilege plays out in the organisations we care about.

This work is hard. Really hard. We know, we've been doing it for a long time. It requires us to really challenge ourselves to undo hard-wired patterns of thinking and doing. It needs some people to raise their voices and others to use their power to create space for others. It all takes time and courage; we’ll make mistakes and dust ourselves off and learn from them.

Large scale societal change for the better has always been instigated by people who suffer most from the status quo – real commitment and action will help to make the stronger and more effective environmental justice movement we so desperately need. 

This letter comes from a place of love and passion for what Friends of the Earth and organisations such as yours do. We want you to be the best you possibly can be. 

We wish FOE and all other organisations doing this work all the best in your journeys.

Jannat Hossain and Shilpa Shah

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