Diversity in the Sierra: Addressing the Green Ceiling

Environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts in the Sierra Nevada have no shortage of passion, knowledge of the region, and connection to the landscape. I am inspired and lucky to work and play with these people on a daily basis. There is, however, one attribute this group is unavoidably lacking: diversity.

COMM iStock EditorialuseOnly Whitney 2015 copyDialogue about diversity in the outdoors and environmental field is a hot topic both statewide and nationally. Outside Magazine recently focused its cover story on exploring how people of color are building a more inclusive outdoor community. In California, a major theme of the campaign supporting Proposition 68 was improving access to parks and outdoor spaces for historically underserved communities. Several pending state policies are aimed at making it easier for disadvantaged youth to enjoy State Parks. As a result, I am curious to explore this issue in the Sierra Nevada.

In a region where almost a quarter of the population is non-white, I find myself asking how is it that when I look around at nearly every regional conference, meeting, or trailhead I see almost exclusively white faces? What ideas, perspectives, and issues are we completely missing by working largely within in a homogenous group? Are we ignoring the needs of minority communities? Is our work self-serving, even exclusionary?

Full disclosure, I am a white male who was fortunate to grow up with considerable privilege. I am not an expert on equity and I do not often talk about race or racial inequality. However, after living in the Tahoe-Truckee area for nearly four years, I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I now find myself consciously aware of interactions with a non-white person on a trail, in a meeting, or at a bar. I spent most of my life in the relatively diverse Bay Area and Sacramento and I don’t remember having this awareness. I’m almost positive it is a result of these interactions being fewer and farther between for me now.

I wanted to dig into the numbers to see if our region was indeed more diverse than my interactions led me to believe. I used a 2011 Sierra Nevada Conservancy Report on demographics, 2017 census data estimates, and education data to learn the following:

  • The Sierra Nevada region as whole is about 24% nonwhite with significant variances by county. 
  • Mono County and the Sierra portions of Tulare and Fresno counties have the highest Latino populations. 
  • Areas of Amador, Madera, and Kern counties within the Sierra have the fastest growing Latino populations. 
  • Native Americans make up about 2.1% of the region but some counties, like Alpine and Inyo, have much higher populations (22% and 13%, respectively). 
  • Students at the Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District are about 36% Latino and nearly 60% white.

These numbers confirm my perception that the region is more diverse than it may seem. They also beg the question regarding why regional environmental NGOs and public agencies largely don’t reflect this demographic proportionality. This is an issue that persists nationwide. According to Green 2.0, the percentage of nonwhite staff at environmental organizations and agencies has never broken the 12% to 16% “green ceiling” despite people of color making up 36% of the U.S. population.

I recently attended a workshop focused on privilege, power, and equity of rivers and river communities in the U.S. The group, all of whom work in the environmental or outdoor fields and about 50% nonwhite, debated whether it should be people of color who lead efforts to diversify our sector and the outdoors in general. A consensus arose: the responsibility lies with those in our fields today, white and nonwhite alike. The most powerful rhetorical question of the conversation to me was “if not us, then who?”

There’s no silver bullet. I do not know how to bridge this diversity gap. However, I do feel it is an issue that deserves more attention than it gets, especially in our region, and I plan on investigating it further in a series of upcoming blog posts. I hope you’ll join me.