Dorceta Taylor giving the keynote address

Photo: Connor McLaren Photography

New Horizons Conference Spotlights Urgent Need for Diverse Perspectives in Environmental Movement

The  three-day conference drew environmental leaders from across the globe and focused on the future of diversity, equity, and inclusion and environmental and climate justice movements.

Leaders of the environmental movement urged students and young professionals to have confidence in their own abilities and push for transformative climate policies that give voice to underrepresented communities during the 2024 New Horizons in Conservation conference hosted by Yale School of the Environment’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Sustainability Initiative (JEDSI). The annual conference, which was held this year in Washington, D.C., June 27-29, gathers emerging environmental leaders who are historically underrepresented in the environmental field and/or committed to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Your perspective broadens the perspective of what needs to be done,” said  Kim Waddell, acting president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who participated in a panel discussion on the future of diversity, equity and inclusion and environmental and climate justice movements. “You create new values,and new sensibilities about what is important because, so often, that's been decided by someone else that doesn't look like the folks in this room. We've had answers and solutions driven by a majority. But the fact is, we are the majority everywhere else, so we need to bring our perspectives, our issues to the table, and that's how we're going to increase both DEI, and increase the likelihood of having solutions that are more meaningful for the communities that we care about.”

Waddell, who helped with recovery efforts during the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 in San Francisco Bay Area, noted that recovery efforts are often directed by individuals from outside of the diverse communities that are most affected, and it is vital that people of color, and people from within the affected communities, are in positions of leadership. He used the examples of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which struck the Caribbean in 2017, to illustrate how disaster recovery is vastly more challenging for underserved and under-financed communities. 

We need to bring our perspectives, our issues to the table, and that's how we're going to increase both DEI, and increase the likelihood of having solutions that are more meaningful for the communities that we care about.”

Kim Waddell Acting President, Union of Concerned Scientists

“What is becoming painfully clear is how (disasters) exacerbate the haves and the have-nots,” said Waddell, who is also research director at the University of the Virgin Islands. 

Danielle Deane-Ryan, a senior advisor with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, Karen DeGannes, a senior manager at Pacific Gas & Electric, and Melody Mobley, former forester for the U.S. Forest Service, rounded out the panel.

Deane-Ryan noted that the Department of Energy’s Justice40 Initiative, which directs 40% of overall federal investments from Inflation Reduction Act funding in clean energy, energy efficiency, sustainable housing, and clean water infrastructure into disadvantaged communities, “is just a floor, not a ceiling.”

“Global warming reformers must mobilize broadly to gain popularly rooted support for climate policies, not just to offer something big to corporate players, but for ordinary American citizens,” Deane-Ryan said.

DeGannes said that while there are unprecedented resources available to bring federal stimulus money to communities, DEI efforts within companies and organizations have slowed under the weight of economic uncertainly, corporate belt-tightening, and social issues. She also emphasized the need for workplaces to provide safe avenues for people of color to speak up about concerns that could prevent or resolve problems within a company and hat can  also impact  the welfare of others.

“We realized that, if you're not safe, including psychologically safe, which is what links to DEI, you can't speak up … So, more than anything, it has become critical to ensure that everybody is able to speak up to also keep us all safe,” she said.

Mobley, who was the first Black woman forester in the U.S. Forest Service, noted that the numbers of people of color in the service is still low.  About 3% of  employees at the Forest Service are Black. She also recounted the discrimination and abuse she faced during her career in the service, including having her credentials for the position questioned repeatedly and being assaulted by coworkers.

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion and sustainability initiatives are key to everything that we’re going to do. We have to have the best and the brightest in order to really deal with these global issues like climate change,” said Mobley, who now serves on the Forestry and Natural Resources Commission and on the board of directors of two environmentally focused NGOs.

Leaders of Change

The three-day conference included career workshops, field trips to a variety of government agencies and nonprofits, and flash talks from students and professionals about their work on a wide range of topics, including climate justice, policymaking, community engagement, public health, food systems, and energy. 

During her keynote address, Dorceta Taylor, Wangari Maathai Professor of Environmental Justice at YSE and director of JEDSI, discussed her 2023 study on environmental grantmaking that found that organizations led by people of color were less likely to be funded than other kinds of organizations and that there were salary disparities within environmental nonprofit organizations. 

Less than 8% of 2,703 CEOs of environmental organizations the study reviewed are people of color and more than twice as many men than women who head the environmental nonprofits earn more than $500,000 annually, the study found.

“As you move up the career ladder, it becomes whiter, more male, and very skewed,” Taylor said.

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Taylor also emphasized that while these statistics can be daunting, the conference is aimed at “identifying and preparing diverse, talented leaders who will support diversity and broaden the reach of the environmental movement.”

Cesar Gomez, a 2022 Yale Environmental Fellow and current doctoral candidate at Texas Tech University, said the conference reinvigorated his commitment to the field.

“I think this conference is important because it really brings together all underrepresented groups, people who support them, and everyone who’s interested in environmental justice and supporting the environment. It really empowers everyone to keep doing the research that they're doing. The main takeaways are just that the work that we're doing is productive, helpful, and worth the struggle to keep doing it,” said Gomez, who is studying stormwater management.

Kiera Hale, a Yale Conservation Scholar, and a rising sophomore at Howard University, said the conference helps build personal confidence and connections in the field.

“This conference is really important to me because the environmental movement needs leaders, and it also needs a lot of collaboration because environmental changes and climate change encompass every aspect of everybody's life. I learned a lot about what it takes to lead people, what it takes to connect with people, and what it takes to work together for a movement,” Hale said.

Photos from the Conference

Photos: Connor McLaren

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