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Confronting the Whiteness of Big Green NGOs

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The actions of several big green NGOs at the London Climate March sparked some very uncomfortable conversations about racism in the environmental movement. But these issues have been festering within many green groups for years. If we want to understand and build a movement that makes space for our differences, we need to look to the roots of the racism that became visible at the Climate March.

A couple of years ago, having just finished running a workshop with my friend Sue about power and privilege in the UK environmental movement, the two of us randomly bumped into a senior manager I vaguely knew from a large UK environmental organisation in a pub. We had been trying to approach this organisation about working with them on these same issues, but hadn’t had much luck through other inroads. Finding ourselves in the same pub with the very senior manager responsible for internal training seemed like a fortuitous chance to open the conversation.

Our impromptu pitch was for a reasonable piece of work, rather than a one-off workshop like the one we had just delivered. One of the lessons Sue and I had learned while doing this work, we explained, was the need for regular ongoing reflection on the ways prejudice is subtly embedded in most organisations and individuals, even within the green movement. Once you acknowledge that we live in a racist, sexist and otherwise discriminatory society, it becomes silly to think that we can undo lifetimes of negative conditioning in a single workshop. One deep-dive into the choppy waters of our own social privileges, just isn’t enough to break long-established patterns and behaviours, so we were suggesting a longer term approach.

Unfortunately, the response was underwhelming. While this manager offered vague support for the general sentiment of our work, this sentiment was not backed by the commitment to push the issues forward or the resources to make them happen.

‘You see,’ he replied, ‘I have to view everything I do through the organisational lens. Investing in a year-long process doesn’t make sense because I don’t know how many of those staff members who have been through it will stick around. If they leave, then we’ve wasted our money.’

The organisational lens has a lot to answer for, but rarely have its costs been as clear to me. As one of the better-resourced environmental NGOs in the UK, staff leaving, well-versed in their understandings of power and privilege, must not be seen as an organisational waste. Some might go as far as to say it is a large organisation’s responsibility to make this kind of investment if they truly believe in movement building, knowing that staff will leave and join other groups or organisations, thus spreading their learnings in the process.

If the organisational lens prevents a well-resourced organisation from prioritising the need to address its contributions to wider injustices, than something is seriously wrong. But the organisational lens has a cascade effect, in terms of its negative impact on addressing privilege. Without the investment in the internal work, the issues perpetuate themselves, and eventually make themselves known to the wider movement, and even the wider public.

Lack of investment (time and money, both) in building better understandings of the issues, allows micro-aggressions and prejudiced assumptions to go unchallenged in the workplace. This makes the workplace uncomfortable and unsafe for less-traditionally-privileged staff (who are already likely a small minority in most big organisations). Word spreads that ‘x’ organisation isn’t really committed to hiring outside of its own image, discouraging others from different backgrounds from wanting to apply to work there (trust me, these stories DO spread). Then, with minimal diversity in the organisation, it becomes harder and harder to have the necessary perspectives in the room to organise anything broad-based and accessible to those beyond the largely-privileged demographics involved in organising it.

This is what brings us to the London Climate March of November 29th. In a nutshell, a group of large – predominantly white – environmental NGOs, at the last minute, swapped the banners and silenced the voices of Indigenous and Black and Brown climate activists, many of whom had travelled to London en route to the Paris climate talks, to raise their voices about the frontline impacts of climate change. Indigenous communities had come to London to take part in the protests, after the protest ban in France made it impossible to do so there, following the recent violence.

Even after this very group had been invited to lead the march – in recognition of being those most-affected by climate change – their critiques were deemed too radical by march organisers. Participants reported having placards snatched at by stewards, attempts to have their bloc’s banner covered, and actual physical pushing and shoving to get a less-controversial banner to cover theirs.

I’ve heard various whispers about the nightmare of coalition organising of this march; several NGOs left the process out of frustration. Those that remained seemed committed to controlling the day like a highly-choreographed piece of theatre, the photos and online videos of which, could fit nicely into a pre-determined campaign narrative about a non-confrontational version of ‘people power’ helping shape the outcome of COP21.

In a move I have never experienced in a dozen years of marching and protesting, organisers even insisted on hiring private security to help police the march, so committed they were to making sure it didn’t diverge from their plans. When this wasn’t enough on the day, march stewards called-in support from the police, with whom the ‘Wretched of the Earth’ bloc were left to negotiate for themselves, without the support of organisers.

Let’s reiterate for a moment: large NGOs in a Global North city organise a march about climate change, but when those who are facing sea-level rises and other life-and-death climate catastrophes raise their voices in a way the organisers find uncomfortable, the NGOs try to shut them up, turning to private security and then the police – with their long, established history of racism – to help them do so.

Let that sink in for a minute…

Now let’s trace a hypothetical line between the internal reluctance of these organisations to invest in deeper personal and organisational understandings of power and privilege, and the organising of the Climate March. It seems to me that organisations which had made the space to explore power and privilege issues – or even had a wider mix of people in the room – would have understood that:

  • Many Black and Brown people have negative and violent associations with law enforcement, and thus that the hiring of security would be a threatening move by a predominantly white organising group.
  • Those who are experiencing the first hand impacts of climate change most strongly are likely to have a different analyses of the issues than most London NGOs. Therefore, given the current and historical power dynamics involved, it would be critical to make space for different perspectives at the front of the march, even if they weren’t universally agreed.
  • Refusing to accept leadership – at the planning stage, or on the march itself – from those most-affected by climate change, replicates the colonial dynamic of Global North people and organisations telling Global South activists how they should respond to their own oppression.

Unfortunately, the attitude of the NGO senior manager I began with, is not unique to them or their organisation. I have seen it over and over in voluntary organisations and even grassroots activist groups, and when an NGO isn’t willing to put in the difficult work to get its own house in order, it shouldn’t be surprising when it makes a mess outside its walls.

If we don’t do the work needed to foster deeper understandings of power and privilege, shameful moments like that which played out at the Climate March are doomed to repeat themselves. Environmental justice will involve some uncomfortable conversations and confrontations, but the environmental movement needs to know that it can’t just shy away from – or in the case of the Climate March, actively try to silence – that discomfort. Either we face it straight on, or we will find ourselves on the wrong side of history.


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Posted in diversity and equality and power and social change.

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More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.