Activist brings diversity to green orgs

Marcelo Bonta helps color the environmental movement

  • Marcelo Bonta, executive director of the Center for Diversity & the Environment, on the Horsetail Falls trail in the Columbia River Gorge with daughters Kyra, 7, and Stella, 4.

    Micia Bonta
 

NAME Marcelo Bonta
AGE 37
HOMETOWN Sacramento, California
VOCATION Environmental leader
HE SAYS "Today's lack of diversity in the environmental movement is no one's fault -- but it is everyone's responsibility."

On a misty June day, Marcelo Bonta, a handsome man with black hair and lively brown eyes, stands at the door of an unusual reception hall. He's welcoming guests into a lichen-draped grove of cedars in Oregon's Mount Hood Wilderness -- a place already rich in biodiversity but sorely lacking in cultural and racial diversity.

Bonta wants to bring people of color into the woods as well as into the environmental movement. He hopes this grove with its towering trees, lush summer ferns and blooming trilliums will help inspire connections not just with wilderness, but between different kinds of people.

Bonta is executive director of the  Center for Diversity & the Environment, a nonprofit that works with environmental leaders and organizations to diversify their operations. The participants at today's retreat, "Exploring Power, Privilege, and Tools for Change," represent a wide range of nonprofits, land trusts, foundations and government agencies.

Today, just 11 percent of natural resource organization staffers and 9 percent of board members are people of color. One-third of environmental organizations have no people of color at all on staff. That disparity troubles Bonta and other minority leaders, especially given that by the year 2042, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that half the nation's population will be people of color.

"This significant demographic shift gives us a vision of how the environmental movement will need to operate to be successful," says Bonta, whose group will host the Environment 2042 Retreat this January. "They'll need to embrace a diverse society, or they'll lose relevance as they put themselves into a smaller and smaller box."

Bonta, one-half Filipino American, one-half white, grew up in Sacramento's white suburbia. His parents were active in the Filipino community and the civil rights and farmworkers' movements, but it wasn't until Bonta got to Yale University and experienced its multicultural milieu that he fully embraced his identity. That further solidified when he married his college sweetheart, Micia, a Jamaican.

He majored in psychology, but a lifelong affinity for nature and wildlife led him to intern at the Sacramento Zoo. At Tufts University, he worked at the Massachusetts Audubon Society and National Park Service while earning a master's degree in biology and environmental policy.

After graduation, Bonta landed what initially looked like a dream job on the conservation staff of a national wildlife organization, coordinating efforts to create state and regional conservation strategies and develop a diversity council. But Bonta -- the only person of color on the group's professional staff -- felt increasingly isolated among the white, mostly affluent conservationists. He had the education and the expertise, he says, but higher-ups refused to listen to what he was saying until his second-in-command -- who was white -- repeated it.

"Working on biodiversity issues was my dream," says Bonta, "but working for a predominately white organization and homogeneous movement was stifling and distracting." He felt unable to reach his full potential -- a common feeling, he says, "for people of color working for mainstream environmental organizations." He left that job in 2004.

Three events led him to decide, in 2005, to create an organization specifically designed to address the environmental movement's lack of diversity. He'd recently completed an environmental leadership program fellowship through the University of Michigan and co-authored Diversifying the American Environmental Movement with Charles Jordan. And then the first of his two daughters was born. Bonta did not want her to experience the same frustrations he had.

The fledgling Center for Diversity & the Environment provided resources and fostered connections to people and organizations. A grant in 2008 made it possible for Bonta to begin holding leadership development retreats. He invented an organizational assessment tool called an "equity audit," which analyzes what environmental organizations are doing -- and not doing --  to achieve diversity. To date, Bonta's group has audited four organizations, including the Columbia Land Trust, the Audubon Society of Portland and the Sightline Institute; three more are on his group's planning board. He also founded the Environmental Professionals of Color network, which today has nearly 200 participants.

Bonta has high hopes for his efforts. "Mainstream environmental groups say 'people of color don't work for our organization, so they don't care about it.' People of color say, 'I don't go on hikes. That's a white thing,' " he says. "I see CDE as the organization that's helping with the shifts the environmental movement needs to make to really be successful."

This story was funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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