Of at least 200 riverkeepers in the nation, Fred Tutman is the only one whos… (Marvin Joseph/The Washington…)
An earlier version of this story misidentifed the Natural Resources Defense Council as the National Resources Defense Council. This version has been updated.
Fred Tutman was a lonely man when he picked up the telephone that day.
He was the tough-talking protector of Maryland’s Patuxent River, a courtroom brawler who took on anyone who contaminated water, but he couldn’t shake a nagging hurt that he was nearly invisible within his own profession.
He called Marc Yaggi, director of the Waterkeeper Alliance in New York, last May. “Am I the only African American riverkeeper?”
The answer was yes. Of at least 200 riverkeepers in the world, Tutman is the only African American.
“We have a lot of work to do” in the area of diversity, Yaggi said in a recent interview. He said he has reached out to Tutman, who was certified by the alliance in 2004, “to try to figure out ways to increase our diversity.”
But Tutman is not unique in his feelings of isolation. Minorities in the nation’s largest environmental organizations said in interviews that they feel the same way.
In fact, they say, the level of diversity, both in leadership and staff, of groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is more like that of the Republican Party they so often criticize for its positions on the environment than that of the multiethnic Democratic Party they have thrown their support behind.
Some of the groups say they are working toward greater diversity. “I think that the concerns are absolutely well founded,” said Adrianna Quintero, a lawyer for the NRDC. “It’s taken too long for environmental groups to work closely enough with minority communities.”
Kim Coble, vice president of environmental protection and restoration for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the organization strives for inclusion, even though the percentage of minorities on its full-time staff is only 4.5 percent in a region where they represent nearly half the population.
“The environmental movement has a bit of a reputation as being a wealthy white community, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation works hard to counteract that,” Coble said.
The reputation is deserved, said Norris McDonald, president of the African American Environmentalist Association.
“This goes back a long way,” McDonald said. “It’s why I founded the [association] in 1985. . . . White groups weren’t hiring black professionals, and when they did, it was a hostile atmosphere. There were a handful of black professionals in the environmental groups then, and there are a handful now.”
Around the time that Tutman, now 54, was certified as a riverkeeper, the African American Environmentalist Association issued a report card for 26 environmental groups based on their diversity for 2003-2004. Eighteen declined to respond to the request for the makeup of their staffs, and most of the others received poor scores.
The association hasn’t issued a report card since because it was an exercise in frustration, McDonald said. “We moved on.”
They formed scores of smaller groups in low-income communities under the “environmental justice” banner and say they address issues that big groups do not: toxins leaking from power plants, urban food deserts where grocery stores don’t exist, efforts to pave over urban green spaces where children play.
They operate on shoestring budgets. A 2001 report on the origins of the environmental justice movement found that it gets only 5 percent of the conservation funding from foundations, while mainstream environmental groups receive the rest.
“We essentially have a racially segregated environmental movement,” said Van Jones, co-founder of the nonprofit Rebuild the Dream and a former adviser on green jobs to the Obama administration. “We’re too polite to say that. Instead, we say we have an environmental justice movement and a mainstream movement.”
The Sierra Club, billed as the nation’s oldest and largest grass-roots environmental organization with 1.3 million members, was founded in 1892. Like groups that followed, such as the Nature Conservancy in 1915 and the National Wildlife Federation in 1936, they were largely white, upper- and middle-class, and focused on the protection of wilderness areas.
Two decades later, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” alerted Americans to the impact of pesticides and toxic pollution on the environment.
Acting on Carson’s revelations, the mainstream environmental groups helped to push chemical warehouses, pesticide companies and coal-fired power plants from rural and exurban areas, and many polluters migrated to low-income urban areas where people of color live.