Changing with the times

January 9, 2014

The newest member of our team of communications pros, Marce Gutierrez, has spent most of her career encouraging and empowering Latinos to become advocates for a healthier planet. She’s no stranger to the last minute call from an environmental organization, imploring her to produce a Latino voice to add some measure of diversity to a public airing of environmental advocacy. Marce and others who have shared her experience call it brownwashing.

In my own lexicon, our funders and partners have heard me repeatedly level the pointed observation that, in the realm of environmental advocacy, expanding the choir often entails the same kind of panicked entreaties Marce has experienced: “I need a priest, a pipefitter and a nurse at a news conference next Tuesday!” It is an unfortunate and telling scene because it shines a light on the transactional nature of many of our outreach efforts. It is a traditional advocacy tactic; one Resource Media is no stranger to deploying.  But at the end of the day, even after genuine efforts and incremental changes in course and composition, the “mainstream” environmental movement remains far too white, too old, too wealthy. This has plenty of moral implications.

It is also not the way to win.

So why am I, a 58-year old white guy, part of the insufficient status quo, raising this issue now? Because I lead an organization that needs and aspires to become part of the solution to this stilted, restrictive way of pursuing social change. We are a communications firm advocating strategies that rely on a broad array of voices who aren’t “the usual suspects” from inside the tiny green tent. We have several new communications initiatives that eschew the common wisdom that a sharp strategy aligns only with a sharp policy goal. Instead, we are exploring content strategies that are focused on getting key audiences to talk with each other about shared values. It takes time, but that’s the thing about moving away from short-term, transactional relationships.

We are also looking inward, a view that is likely to be more difficult and uncomfortable than any strategic shift. Hiring Marce was an important early step, as is our current posting for a communications strategist with experience in the broad realm of social justice. But, the real challenge for organizations like ours runs much deeper. Apollo Gonzales, who just joined our Board and has spent years wrestling with diversity and inclusion in both non-profit and for profit organizations, puts it this way. “Our assumption that having a diverse looking group means that all voices are heard is not a safe one to make. We have to be intentional in our efforts to include those voices too.”

How do we become aware of blind spots when we can’t see them? How can we make sure our workplace and professional culture are truly welcoming for people from diverse backgrounds, present living conditions and lifestyles? How do we integrate their perspective and expertise into our approaches, and evolve the way we do the business of social change? How do ensure that people who join us from different perspectives and life experiences are heard, not just seen? How do we come to reflect the America of today and tomorrow not the environmental movement of the past?

It starts with hard, honest conversations, which we have commenced internally at Resource Media. It also needs broader, open discussion among our friends and colleagues.  I hope this blog can be a forum for that, and for talking about the meaning of diversity as it relates to social change, even if the postings occasionally make us squirm.  It is the down payment that moving beyond simple, transactional relationships of convenience requires.

Scott Miller