We are committed to combating the scourge of environmental racism and to finding ways to make the green movement more inclusive of minorities, writes the EEB’s Director of Global Policies and Diversity Manager Patrizia Heidegger.

Two environmentalists from the ‘Brussels bubble’, Chloé Mikolajczak and Marianna Tuokkola, launched a petition under the hashtag #GreenBrusselsSoWhite. Being white climate activists themselves, they call on us, civil society organisations working on environmental and climate policies at the European level, to address the lack of racial[1] and ethnic diversity within our staff.

There is no denying the fact that the green movement in Brussels is pretty white. Out of the 80 members of the European Parliament sitting on the Environment Committee, there are just a couple of MEPs who belong to ethnic minorities and not a single black MEP.

Under-representation is a general problem at the European Parliament. According to the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), only 24 out of 705 legislators belong to racial and ethnic minorities, that is 3%, which is much lower than the estimated 10% of Europeans who belong to such minorities. Throughout the history of the EU, all European Commissioners have been white, and you will have a hard time finding any senior Commission official who is not.

There is also no national environment minister in the EU-27 whose background is reflective of Europe’s racial and ethnic diversity. And when you skim through the websites of European environmental NGOs you will not be able to spot many staff or board members who belong to ethnic, religious or racialised minorities, especially not in leadership roles. The same is true for green think tanks, trade unions or business associations working on environmental and climate policy.

Nothing about us without us

At the EEB, we fully agree that the Institutions, civil society organisations and all other stakeholder groups that shape European policies must reflect the diversity of European societies. Strategies, policies and laws must be designed and developed by directly including diverse communities. Those communities that are most affected by certain policies must also have an opportunity to lead on their development. The under-representation of people belonging to ethnic, religious and racialised minorities is not acceptable: EU-level policymaking has a whiteness problem and this needs to change.

First of all, this is a matter of principles. In a democracy, all segments of society must participate in decision-making, enjoy fair representation and have their concerns addressed in a meaningful way. Just as we are asking for a fair share for women and open ears to the voices of young people, we must play our role in closing the representation gap for minorities – and any other under-represented group. But there is also a reason intrinsic to environmental problems: poorer racialised and ethnic minorities are often disproportionately affected by pollution and environmental degradation and are sometimes not granted the same environmental services as the rest of society. An intersectional approach is essential, as environmental injustice often has a gendered impact, too.

About a year ago, the EEB, together with the European Roma Grassroots Organisations Network, published the first report on environmental racism against Roma communities, ‘Pushed to the wastelands’. In the EU, the environmental justice approach is still in its infancy. We lack data on the unequal distribution of environmental burden between different groups, and there is hardly any institutional uptake of the concept. In the United States, for example, the environmental justice movement has resulted in a programme run by the Environmental Protection Agency. Going beyond that, the new Biden administration plans to employ an “all-of-government” approach to ensure that environmental justice is a consideration in decision-making across all federal government agencies.

The social fabric of the United States is different to Europe’s, but there are many topics to research and focus on for us here, such as inner-city neighbourhoods often inhabited by ethnic, religious or racialised minorities that are particularly exposed to air pollution and deprived of green spaces. Or the environmental justice struggle of the Sami, one of the few recognised Indigenous groups in Europe, shows that those suffering most from climate change are marginalised in political decision-making .

Thanks to the EEB and ERGO’s advocacy campaign, the European Commission now, for the first time, refers to environmental justice under its new EU Roma strategic framework 2020-2030.

Beyond the borders of the EU, European policies and practices result in multiple negative environmental impacts ranging from deforestation and land-grabbing to the loss of biodiversity, from water and resource depletion to chemical and industrial pollution, a reality we helped expose as part of SDG Watch Europe’s ‘Who is paying the bill?’ report.

These negative spillover effects often create a disproportionate burden on the livelihoods and rights of marginalised communities, including ethnic, religious or racialised minorities and indigenous peoples. While these communities have very little influence on environmental and climate policies in the EU, we must de-colonise our trade and raw materials policies, ensure access to justice to our domestic courts for those negatively impacted through European value chains, and ensure global environmental and climate justice.

Leading by example

I agree with the petitioners: Ambitious sustainability policies to address the triple environmental crises must be shaped by the whole of society, in particular those who have experienced environmental injustice.

The lack of diversity in environmental and climate policymaking is a symptom of much deeper, societal problems characterised by the overall under-representation of minorities, in particular ethnic, religious and racialised minorities, in policymaking, but also in other core areas that shape decision-making including the media, leading research and science organisations or company boards. As civil society organisation we must lead by example and be part of driving change across society.

As European civil society networks (and the same is true for the institutions), we must seek to represent the diversity of our European society. This includes a fair representation of ethnic, religious or racialised minorities (as well as of all other social groups). According to ENAR, around 10% of the European population belong to racial and ethnic minorities.

Detailed statistics are often absent as many countries do not collect such data. But even without exact figures, we can work with an approximation of society’s diversity. Fair representation at the EU level means that on average every tenth position, from the entry-level to the top leadership, should be held by somebody who belongs to an ethnic, religious or racialised minority.

Why is it that our staff is not more diverse?

At the EEB, we have a few colleagues who identify as belonging to ethnic minorities. None of them is black. We struggle not only to attract more staff members from minority groups but also to find colleagues from the ‘new’ member states in Eastern Europe who are under-represented in particular amongst our policy experts. Especially if we look at senior management roles and our board, we are exclusively white.

However, it is not justified to say that European civil society does not want to be more diverse “as if the many minorities that make up Europe are simply forbidden from entering the sacred grounds of the EU bubble in any capacity, and especially into leadership roles,” as #GreenBrusselsSoWhite have put it. At the EEB, we welcome every recruitment that helps us to become more diverse, whether that is through recruiting a new staff member who is part of an under-represented group, or by further increasing female leadership. The question is not whether we want to be more diverse but rather how do we get there?

While we have not undertaken empirical studies, the answer is certainly complex. The environmental movement, and environmental NGOs as part of it, are probably perceived as ‘white’ organisations. Historically, the environmental movement in Europe has been, and arguable still is, a movement dominated by the middle-class, while racialised minorities are disproportionately represented in low-income groups.

Dismantling the white ghetto

While many environmental NGOs, including the EEB, seek to link environmental issues with struggles against inequalities and questions of global justice, we need to do more as environmental organisations to leave behind our “white, middle-class ghetto”, as Craig Bennett of Friends of the Earth put it. Aminta Touré, the first black MP in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, argues that the Green party, generally known for its openness towards multiculturalism, must ensure it does not just sound like a white middle-class party that likes migrants, but must actually incorporate the perspectives of ethnic, religious or racialised minorities.

The alienation of many minorities from the environmental movement is linked to the “environmental classism” described so well by Karen Bell in her book on working-class environmentalism as “the problem of mainstream environmental policymakers, practitioners, activists and academics often failing to understand and support working-class people”.

We need to better incorporate social justice struggles into our work, ideally by cooperating with colleagues identifying with and bringing in a deep understanding of these struggles. We need to be even more outspoken about the nexus between environmental degradation and climate change, and privilege, power, oppression and exploitation. We need to acknowledge what in the history of the environmental movement and our present work alienates both ethnic, religious or racialised minorities and the working class. Does the way we frame our policy answers always consider that people’s realities in our societies are quite different? Or that 20% of Europeans live at risk of poverty?

But this is not only about class. This is also about acknowledging that discrimination and racism are a reality in our societies and that this impacts how ethnic, religious or racialised minorities can and want to be part of environmental movements. In light of the youth climate movement and the actions organised by Extinction Rebellion questions around the inclusiveness of the environmental movement have again come to the surface.

Do these movements proactively support people from racial and ethnic minorities? Do they give enough attention to their perspective on environmental and climate problems? Non-white activists have argued that certain forms of protest, such as ‘arrestables’, do not take into account why a black activist cannot afford to be arrested, given racial prejudice that prevails in the police and justice system. In other cases, black activists have been erased from pictures that were widely shared by the media (see Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate) or that NGOs themselves disseminated (such as the case of Tonny Nowshin). Do the language and the images we use adequately reflect diversity?

Structural bias

People working in EU-level policymaking come with a relatively homogenous skill set that includes a certain education (often European studies/law, or, in our case, a more specific degree in environmental sciences), multilingualism, previous membership in environmental organisations (sometimes starting from youth organisations), internships with environmental NGOs or European institutions, and so on.

While many people who came from racial or ethnic minorities acquire excellent qualifications, our focus on certain skills may limit the chances of people who are not middle class or who have been educated outside the EU from being eligible. While we seek not to distinguish between people based on their name or place of birth, we must also ensure that there is no unconscious bias at work when we look at the educational background.

Beyond skills and education, doing internships in Brussels and working for an environmental NGO, especially in the first years, is costly or at least comes with relatively small financial compensation. Even later on in a career, working for an NGO is not necessarily suitable for somebody who needs to support family members. While people from minorities in Europe live under very different circumstances, a proportionally higher percentage belongs to low-income groups. Working for an NGO is often a privilege reserved for those who can afford to earn less.

While we lack statistical data on this, I assume that the membership in local youth environmental organisations does not necessarily reflect the diversity in our societies. There may be different reasons for that: do youth environmental organisations always make inclusive offers that attract the interests of young people from all walks of life? Or what are the free-time activities that families, children and young people choose themselves? How many people belonging to minorities continue then as adults to support or volunteer for environmental organisations?

There are, of course, excellent examples of inclusive environmental actions. But it is quite likely, that many young people from a minority background are not socialised through environmental organisations and may not even think of us as a future employer.

Learning curve

At the EEB we are keen to engage in this debate, to learn and to change. We want to turn our Anti-Discrimination Policy into a more detailed, instructive Equality and Diversity Policy. Internally, we held workshops in 2020 on an anti-racist and postcolonial approach to the work of environmental NGOs and indigenous people’s rights in environmental protection. We have established a chat channel for regular exchange on related issues, and we want to keep the debate going with a critical whiteness workshop. We have created the role of a diversity manager in our senior management team to ensure gender equality and diversity are addressed in the long-term.

We have an internal policy that foresees gender balance and diversity in panels. Ensuring diversity in our events is a challenge. When all key roles in environmental policymaking are held by white people how can we avoid tokenism? We are trying to find better ways.

We have published articles on why we need to talk about race and on anti-racism. We have joined EQUINOX Initiative for Racial Justice as part of its Supporters Council and are looking forward to listening, learning and working together. As part of our work against environmental racism, we are planning an internship programme for Roma environmental activists, and we seek to integrate an anti-racist, anti-colonial and intersectional approach throughout our policy work.

We welcome feedback regarding our policy work and campaigns and our practices as an employer. We are keen to exchange views with other NGOs as well racial justice campaigners on how the environmental movement can become more inclusive, how environmental NGOs can attract a more diverse membership, starting from our youth organisations, and which measures we can take as an employer to encourage more applications from people with diverse backgrounds.

We must ask ourselves: when young people from ethnic, religious or racialised minorities make choices about their professional future, do they see us as an interesting place to work?

Yes, we need “to lead by example and to walk the talk even when it’s uncomfortable and requires unlearning, restructuring, sharing power and giving space” as called for by the petition. Things are moving  now in light of Black Lives Matter and through the new dynamism in the youth environmental and climate movements. Green activists from minority backgrounds are speaking up, also about their struggles within the movement. #GreenBrusselsSoWhite is therefore extremely timely, and I hope it will help to stir a healthy debate how we can make green Brussels reflect all the colours of Europe.


[1] The use of the term ‘racial minority’ does not imply an acceptance of theories that attempt to determine the existence of separate human races. I use it here to describe ‘racialised’ communities, that is, groups of people who are categorised in racial terms and are often discriminated against.

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