The Walton Family Foundation is working with the National Audubon Society to expand its successful Campus Charter Program to historically black colleges and universities. I asked Charles Allen III, Audubon’s community engagement director along the Gulf Coast, how environmental degradation often has an outsized impact on underrepresented communities — and how a new generation of diverse leaders could balance the scales of environmental justice.
Environmental issues impact everyone, but they often hit communities of color the hardest. Can you explain why?
In southern Louisiana, we often say that we are the poster children on the issue of sea-level rise. I grew up here, and our communities of color are right on the front lines. You don’t have to look any further than Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that devastated the Lower Ninth Ward. But we also have Native communities to our south and west that are now underwater due to wetlands degradation and sea-level rise. They face the tough choice of staying where they are or retreating further inland.
Just as the levees protect our people, wetlands provide a critical line of defense in protecting us from storm surge.
For our communities in southern Louisiana, the wetlands give us so much — the seafood and other wildlife. They are inextricably tied to how we live, how we cook and how we enjoy life. We have to do a better job of protecting our natural environment because communities of color are those most at risk when it is threatened or damaged. That’s true not just in New Orleans and Louisiana but across the country.
Often our communities have been left out of the conversation.
What barriers do you see for people of color who want to enter the field of environmental work?
I’m a native of New Orleans who has been working in the environmental arena for 20 years now, and that’s a question I’ve always considered: Why aren’t there more people that look like me? Talking to my colleagues who are also people of color, one reason is that maybe enough wasn’t done in our educational experience to expose us to such career options. But often, our communities have been left out of the conversation. Like any significant issue that affects all people, it is critical that we diversify, become more diverse and inclusive. The environmental movement should indeed reflect the communities it serves.
How is Audubon working to engage communities of color better?
I say all the time, don’t go into a community unless you know you will be able to relate to their needs. It’s about showing respect and empathy. A number of folks in our communities may not know all the details and intricacies regarding restoration projects that are being designed and slated for implementation in their respective areas. All too often, communities have expressed to us that they didn't feel adequately engaged and respected. We are trying to change that narrative and reality going forward. We need to build credibility within communities of color. We need to listen to people and earn their trust. My work focuses on engaging communities of color about issues like wetlands restoration in their backyards, so they know about the benefits and have a voice to ask questions and share their concerns.
We are working with ministers in our area and helping them inform members of their congregations regarding such work. We are talking about the job opportunities that come with restoration work. We are showing people how to get involved and have their voices heard about projects that will impact their lives.
What types of programs do you envision running for Historically Black Colleges and Universities in southern Louisiana?
I’m an alum of Xavier University [an HBCU in New Orleans]. Expanding student chapters to a campus like that is a great way to enhance the academic experience while helping students possibly chart their paths to more environmentally focused careers. Audubon’s focus on HBCU campuses is a recognition that there is value in HBCUs and this type of engagement work.
As we work to build our programming and partners, the focus could fall on bringing knowledge and information regarding bird species to campuses, planting trees in communities to attract and enhance bird habitat in urban areas and getting students involved in public processes at the community level.
When we bring this programming to campus, students see themselves as part of it. It might inspire them to take environmental coursework and use their experiences as a pipeline to graduate-level programs in the environmental sciences and environmental policy realm.
What are your hopes for the students you engage as these programs get underway?
Whether they are studying to be a successful doctor or dentist or teacher, I want them to see themselves in this work. Bringing environmental content and programming to campus allows students to see themselves in this work and see themselves making conservation a career. Whether you live in an urban or rural community, our environment ought to shape how we vote, how we live, how we conserve. It’s our common ground and it behooves us to do right by it.