making a change

Issue in Focus

California Latino families are conspicuously vulnerable to chronic and acute health conditions caused by climate change, traffic, and toxic manufacturing. Not surprisingly, research shows that Latinos hold highly favorable views toward stronger environmental regulation and are eager to take action to improve the air and water in California. Despite their greater exposure to harm, and their eagerness to drive positive change, few Latinos are in a position to marshal their community’s support on behalf of environmental causes and organizations. The environmental movement would benefit from recruiting Latinos to their boards of directors, and by retaining them through meaningful inclusion practices. As fully engaged board members of environmental nonprofits, Latinos would facilitate more community-oriented and impactful environmental action, helping the sector bring a cleaner environment to Latinos, and a better quality of life for all Californians.

Latino families in Los Angeles County and throughout California are disproportionately harmed by air and water pollution, mostly as a result of living near freeways and toxic industrial sites.  Higher housing costs and climate change exacerbate the already hazardous living conditions of many Latino families.  In June 2018, the California EPA released its latest measure of pollution and the vulnerability of Californians by age, race, and ethnicity. In sum, the report “…shows clear disparities with respect to the racial makeup of the communities with the highest pollution burdens and vulnerabilities.  Latinos and African Americans disproportionately reside in highly impacted communities while other groups tend to reside disproportionately in less impacted communities.”  The report found that this disparity “…becomes even more pronounced for Latino and African American children under 10 years of age.”  The reality of Latinos suffering disproportionately from environmental degradation and pollution has long been recognized by most environmental and Latino community activists.  In 2012, NCLR (now UnidosUS) and the Sierra Club released a joint study on the impact of pollution on Latinos.  At that time more than “… 43% of Latino voters said they lived or worked near a toxic site, such as a refinery, a coal-fired power plant, an incinerator, an agricultural field, a major highway, or a factory.”  This figure increased from 34% in 2008, and is undoubtedly higher today.

The U.S. EPA shows that seven California oil refineries placed among the top ten sources of industrial greenhouse gases and toxic emissions.  Most of these sites are located in or near areas with substantial or majority concentrations of Latinos.  Public health studies consistently find that Latinos suffer from asthma at rates up to thirty percent greater than non-Hispanic whites.  Forty-seven percent of respondents to the NCLR/Sierra Club study reported that they, or someone in their immediate family, was suffering from asthma, and 2-in-5 (41%) say they, or an immediate family member, has dealt with cancer. Today, federal agencies are moving to ease regulations on polluting industries–a policy trend that could lead to even greater public health disparities among Latino families.

The harmful effects of pollution experienced by Latinos have influenced their views toward environmental issues and their support for addressing the causes of environmental conditions. At rates far higher than non-Latino Americans, Latinos favor action to curtail pollution, toxic industrial sites, and climate change. The NCLR/Sierra Club study found that more than 90% of Latinos voters agree that they “have a moral responsibility to take care of God’s creations on this earth – the wilderness and forests, the oceans, lakes and rivers.” Air and water pollution was the top environmental concern of U.S. Latino voters in 2012, according to the study, “…with 61% saying it is among the top two environmental issues for them and their families.” When that study was conducted in 2012, Gallup found that more than three-quarters of Latinos believed climate change was already occurring—at the time, barely half of all Americans agreed. More recent studies affirm the strong support Latinos showed for the environmental movement in 2012. Latino Decisions released findings from a 2015 national survey of Latino registered voters, a study that intentionally overrepresented California respondents. This survey found that nearly 80% of Latinos “…believe it is extremely or very important to protect our nation’s wildlife, public lands, and endangered species.” Fully 78% of Latino respondents supported state standards to prevent climate change, and nearly 60% believed that stronger environmental laws would promote economic growth and job creation. More than eighty percent of California Latinos reported that they were somewhat to very worried about global warming—a problem two-thirds of whom believed is caused by humans.

Despite their disproportionate exposure to pollution, and their overwhelming support for environmental causes, Latinos are virtually nonexistent in the movement’s leadership and are rarely consulted by environmental activists or organizations in addressing environmental issues.  Nonprofit board members play a critically important role in all facets of how the environmental movement confronts the issues that affect the lives of millions of Latinos in California, most notably in the hiring of senior staff and how these teams shape strategies and prioritize policies, initiate legal action, and facilitate coalition-building to drive public advocacy.  In 2014, a study by Dr. Dorceta Taylor of the University of Michigan found that Latinos held only 1.2% (or 21) of the 1,684 board seats at the 191 conservation/preservation nonprofits that responded to an online survey.  Similarly, Latinos held 40 (or 2.3%) of the 1,723 board or staff leadership positions for which racial/ethnic data were provided.

The actual representation of Latinos in environmental sector leadership roles could be far lower.  According to a follow-up study Dr. Taylor released in 2018, only 2.2% of U.S.-based environmental groups included board ethnic diversity data on their 2016 Guidestar profiles.  In fact, the percent of environmental sector organizations reporting data on board racial diversity on Guidestar declined by more than 255% since 2014 (from 5.8% in 2014 to 2.2% in 2016).  As in other sectors of the nonprofit industry, Latino underrepresentation in the boardroom is attributed primarily to a lack of Latinos in the talent pipeline.  However, the failure to identify and engage Latino board nominees may result from recruiting tactics, which often mirror the environmental sector’s staff recruiting model.  In her 2014 study, Dr. Taylor found that the 97 organizations reporting how they recruit staff, predominantly (“sometimes”, “frequently”, or “all the time”) rely on either word-of-mouth (67%), recruit from amongst members or volunteers (58%), or recruit from environmental networks (52%).  Conversely, 76% of the 93 organizations responded that they either “never” (67%) or “rarely” (9%) recruit at minority professional associations and meetings; while 68% either “never” or “rarely” recruit from minority-serving colleges and universities.

Latino activists and Latino-led environmental groups are rarely invited to participate in environmental coalitions and advocacy networks, which are a core element of the sector’s effectiveness in policy analysis, legal advocacy, and strategic collaboration, according to Dr. Taylor’s 2014 study.  Eighty percent of responding environment nonprofits reported that they “sometimes”, “frequently”, or “very frequently” participated in coalitions, and 91% participated in sector networks.  However, only 20% reported “frequently” or “very frequently” collaborating with ethnic minority groups—and most reported that they collaborate with minority groups either “not at all” (39%), or “seldom” (26%).

There may be room for optimism, if the good intentions of Dr. Taylor’s respondents are credible.  Of the 53 organizations reporting, nearly 74% believe that an initiative should be undertaken to develop a pipeline of ethnic minority and low-income residents in activities, staff, or board—and 50% they would be likely or very likely to support such an initiative.  Another 68% said there should be a training program for ethnic minorities and low-income residents interested in working with environment groups, while nearly 40% said they would support the initiative.

Latinos LEAD is meeting a well-documented and growing demand for diverse leadership in the environmental sector.  Latinos LEAD board recruiting and candidate training services will help nonprofits in the environmental sector honor their institutional values, achieve their strategic goals, build productive connections with their target populations and partner agencies, and promote meaningful professional development of Latino leaders in their communities.