Sri Lankan American Sanjayan, a lead scientist for Nature Conservancy, often finds himself the only person of color at meetings, the classroom, and even the field. Photo credit: Erika Nortemann / The Nature Conservancy, from,8599,1725017,00.html

As Earth Day approaches, environmentalists across the country are encouraging people to think green.

Have you ever noticed that most Americans in the green movement are white?

Sanjayan, a Sri Lankan American, is a lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy and one of the few high-ranking people of color in his field.  He comments on his experience being a racial minority in the green movement in this 2008 article of Time magazine:

An American of South Asian descent (like many people from his native Sri Lanka, he generally uses one name), Sanjayan often finds himself as the only person of color at environmental meetings, in the classroom, even out in the field. Conservation in the U.S. — and the environmental movement more generally — tends to be very white and relatively well off, from the leadership down to the foot soldiers. “Right now conservation groups do miserably (in diversity),” says Sanjayan. “That needs to change.”…

Sanjayan admits that being the only brown face in the room, as he puts it, has probably been as much of an advantage for his career as a detriment. People remember him from the blur of conferences and meetings. In international field work, not being white can make it easier to gain the trust of local populations — Sanjayan recalls an early field trip to an African nation in the wake of apartheid, when being white meant earning instant suspicion. But he admits to being troubled that at a time when the U.S. may finally be ready to elect an African-American to the Presidency, the country’s major environmental groups have yet to be led by a non-white. “It’s pretty surprising, and at the same time, not surprising at all,” says Sanjayan…

Fortunately, there are already signs that the green movement can be more than just white. At home in the U.S., a new crop of African-American activists like New Yorker Majora Carter and Oakland-based Van Jones are adopting environmentalism, fighting for clean air and water in the inner city or green jobs for the underemployed. Around the globe, Sanjayan notes, U.S. environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy have put local staffers in positions of authority. But more can and should be done. “As a conservation community, we badly need to do this,” says Sanjayan. Diversity — in all its forms — should be a green goal.

— posted by Debbie Chong


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