On Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, Union welcomed Dorien Paul Blythers as part of the Kelly Adirondack Center Lecture Series on Young Leaders, Diversity and the Environment.
The lecture was entitled, “The Color of Climate: The Changing Face of the American Environmental Movement.”
Blythers was raised in Atlanta, Ga. with family roots in Chulahoma, Miss., a rural community in the Deep South that he joked, “looked and smelled exactly as it sounds.”
Young Blythers was constantly on the move, before he found his calling in life as an environmental organizer while attending Howard University in Washington D.C.
Although he found Howard to be different from the surroundings he grew up in, he soon found his own sense in community and carved out a unique space within the student community to project his activism in campus-wide sustainable initiatives.
In his capacity as student body president, and lead person on the Environmental Defense Fund’s Partnership for Environmental Leadership with Howard, he found a platform to rally others to incite change on campus such as launching a comprehensive recycling program amongst a list of other improvements to serve others, following in his ancestors footsteps of community service and activism.
Switching between the lyrical and the prosaic, Blythers gave a stirring, emotional and heartfelt appeal to the audience using song, lecture and poetry on the need to connect with communities of color within the environmental movement.
The topic of diversity in the environmental movement intrigued the audience, some of whom were well-versed in this issue, and even those who are not.
The audience was very eager to relate to Blythers from professionals bringing up personal involvement in non-profits bringing inner-city kids to experience the outdoors, to students keen on learning from his effective social organizing skills.
Director of the Kelly Adirondack Center, Hallie Bond, was very interested in learning about getting new groups to care about the environment.
Bond remarked, “Definitely, this talk is new to me because I am not a social organizer.”
A student who attended the talk, Bobby Pinkham ’17 echoed this view. He recounted, “That facet of the green movement was something I have never encountered or heard of in my life, and I think he brought along with him a very special and unique perspective to this topic.”
He added, “It was very cool how he reached out to different groups as a way to synthesize disparate groups into a unified movement.”
Blythers integrated the sensitive conversation of race relations very well to make a point on what could be done to bridge the diversity gap in the modern-day green movement and why the mainstream environmental movement matters to people of color.
Invoking his self-coined phrase “bringing the main street into the mainstream,” Blythers explained that the daily social and economic challenges witnessed on the streets and sidewalks within African-American communities and other communities of color makes it a challenge for them to engage fully in the mainstream environmental movement when their primary concern is on meeting daily needs.
Blythers explained that environmental injustice, inadequate planning, lack of alternative transportation and economic underinvestment have left communities of color ravaged, rendering them disinclined to think in terms of sustainability.
The lack of cross-class connections and lack of political representation in segregated immigrant and minority neighborhoods have left them without a voice in community planning.
The result is that these communities are disproportionately exposed to toxic waste sites, highways, landfills and other health and safety hazards that few others would willingly choose as neighbors.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Data, pedestrian fatality rates amongst minorities are higher with a figure of 2.39 deaths per 100,000 compared to 1.38 deaths per 100,000 for White Americans.
The lack of investment in bike and pedestrian paths in transit-dependent communities reinforces social, economic and physical barriers by depriving these neighborhoods of accessibility.
Despite the fact that people of color generally poll higher than whites in support for environmental issues, getting these people involved in the mainstream movement and recruited to environmental NGO’s and government agencies remains a persistent challenge.
While environmental injustices have slowly contributed to underrepresented communities of color joining forces with the larger environmental movement to push for change, many more people of color may not understand how addressing this diversity gap may work on their behalf.
When Blythers was asked how he would address this problem, he offered using pop-culture as a method of outreach.
Blythers cited Green 2.0 as an organization dedicated to addressing this diversity gap.
The organization surveys environmental non-profits and grant-making foundations to examine why promises to address diversity in environmental movement recruiting has seemed to reach a plateau.
Blythers believed that there is potential to bridge this gap. The leaders of two prominent environmental organizations, the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council, set an example for people of color to not only get involved in grassroots environmental activism, but also to be the next generation of environmental leaders.