A Black Staffer’s Noisy Exit from a Green NGO

Resignation letter at Union of Concerned Scientists calls out dominant white culture in large environmental organizations

On this Juneteenth, it is fitting to lift up and celebrate a recent, significant emancipatory act that until now has ramified little beyond the niche trade press. I refer here to the dramatic early June exit of 26-year-old Black staffer ruth tyson from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), via letter e-mailed to all staff and also posted on Ms. tyson’s Facebook page. No ordinary missive, this 17-page document—An Open Letter to the Union of Concerned Scientists: On Black Death, Black Silencing, and Black Fugitivity—is a comprehensive critique of the ways its author experienced the workplace culture of UCS as oppressively and hegemonically white.  This culture made no room for her voice (“Black silencing”); provided no space for her agency (“Black fugitivity”); and offered no food for her soul (“Black death”).  Ms. tyson’s rhetorical act of courage, which was not officially released to the press, was reported only in Environment & Energy Daily.  It is profound, lyrical, and absolutely of-this-moment; I urge all environmentalists—and especially, white environmentalists—to read it in full.

Here, a brief historical detour is in order.  Ms. tyson’s perceptive and forceful letter is not the first cri de coeur of its kind in the recent America past. That came thirty years ago, when in 1990, a broad coalition of multiracial grassroots environmental justice activists, led by the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) of New Mexico, sent a searing 12-page letter to the then-largest ten environmental nonprofits in the U.S. (including, e.g., the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now Earthjustice)). That missive called out these organizations for (among other faults) failing to diversity their staffs, failing to engage indigenous peoples and people of color in decision-making, and failing to consult and involve communities in NGO program planning that directly affected them. This letter hasn’t dated much, and also deserves a full read.

It was the SWOP letter and the events it directly spawned, including the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. in 1991—not any endogenous, simultaneous institutional ephiphanies—that began markedly to transform hiring practices at targeted (and other) environmental groups. The result, as noted by my colleague Holly Doremus here, is that today there are a nontrivial and ever-increasing number of BIPOC staffing mainstream environmental organizations.  Although many present-day environmentalists are unaware of the SWOP letter and its crucial role in getting BIPOC in the doors of mainstream environmental groups, the sequence of events is surely unsurprising: as Frederick Douglass observed, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”

Fast forwarding three decades to Ms. tyson’s letter: the names of the Big 10 have changed a bit (the Isaak Walton League is out; the Union of Concerned Scientists, Nature Conservancy, and Center for Biological Diversity are in), but the same issues of structural and cultural racism remain. To be sure, there has been progress: there is more visible diversity in organizational photos, and in some enlightened NGO pockets (such as particular local or regional offices of national organizations), BIPOC are truly included, elevated, and celebrated, rather than simply represented. But for most major NGOs, most of the time: the gist of SWOP’s deep-culture critique of 30 years ago remains apt:

Although the environmental organizations calling themselves the “Group of 10” often claim to represent our interests [. . .]  [t]he lack of people of color in decision-making positions in your organization such as executive staff and board positions is also reflective of your histories of racist and exclusionary practices. 

The SWOP letter also noted a related and enduring programmatic problem: “Racism is a root cause of your inaction around addressing environmental problems in our communities.”  This is a significant issue, because although environmental justice organizations have the local knowledge to identify a community’s problems, they rarely have the funding and technical expertise to deliver the needed policy, technical, or infrastructural solutions.

Importantly, the problems that SWOP named, and that Ms. tyson now ratifies and updates, are not critiques specific to UCS (even though at present, UCS will surely feel uniquely exposed).  They are problems of large-nonprofit culture more generally, reflective of both broader culture and heavy reliance on private philanthropy, in which whites with (often, inherited) money drive many a programmatic decision. One could also supplement Ms. tyson’s list of organizational-culture grievances, such as “robotic” team meetings and unrealistic productivity expectations that produced burnout and undermined human connection, by identifying additional attributes of dominant white NGO culture that can make it particularly inhospitable to non-whites. For example, although an atheist myself, I have long been concerned about the insistently secular culture of mainstream environmental nonprofit groups, in which any employee’s faith based motivations for earth-saving work must remain well hidden. This small-tentism is culturally intolerant and also, tactically unwise.

The tactical error of structural racism, which should be as obvious as its moral infirmity, brings me to a final point.  When I spoke at length with Ms. tyson about her experience at UCS, her reluctant but personally necessary departure, and her gutsy letter, I was taken  by her synthetic intelligence, issue passion, and authentic voice.  However, I was even more deeply  struck—and saddened—by the thought that  UCS had had this star in its midst, yet managed to alienate rather than cultivate. Indeed, it was the sense of wasted capacity in this all-hands-on-deck planetary moment that seemed the episode’s greatest tragedy.

It is odd, then, to feel such hope in the present mess, in which a green group I have long admired, which is culturally similar to several NGOs for which I have worked, is on the receiving end of a harsh critique that appears well founded.  Yet I do feel a hope, and it is this: that by amplifying voices like Ms. tyson’s and forcing real institutional responses, we can usher in an era when Big Greens listen to—and not merely photograph—the talented BIPOC in their midst.


Reader Comments

18 Replies to “A Black Staffer’s Noisy Exit from a Green NGO”

  1. She was loved and cared for. Office culture is hard for young staff and especially for Black staff right now in this racist society. She exaggerated a lot of items in her letter for dramatic effect – she was in a lot of pain showing up. Staff are still struggling in this toxic spill she left. Wish her well and wish she was here instead and could handle a regular 9-5 like the rest of us poor souls.

    1. As a Person of Color that currently works at the Union of Concerned Scientists, let me be the one to tell the “Coworker” who commented on this article: you are part of the problem.

  2. As another Person of Color who currently works at the Union of Concerned Scientists, I stand with Ruth and the person who called out the first comment and its author as part of the problem.

  3. Coworker – you should identify yourself. Ruth had the courage to put her name on her comments. You are the problem.

  4. Coworker,
    Ruth gave up her job. Do you care enough to do the same? You are the problem.

  5. I agree with my anonymous brothers or sisters who are standing with Ruth Tyson, and I support their choice to remain anonymous. But to my colleague who authored that first comment, let me be clear: she was not alone, and is not alone. And now you have someone to come talk with to better understand why.

    1. Many of us at UCS know that ruth’s experience was real and not unique. I am profoundly sorry that she and so many others have suffered here. She challenged those of us who remain to stand up and change our organization, and we owe her and others nothing less.

  6. Coworker from 12:56,

    As a POC at UCS I stand with Ruth and the current growth and changes our organization is going through. It appears to me you must be feeling frustrated and isolated right now with the process of growth we are trying to go through here at UCS, and it’s keeping you from fully grasping the concept of it all. I invite you to reach out to me so we can chat openly and confidentially. I truly welcome the opportunity.

    I’ll leave it to you to figure out how to most comfortably get a hold of me.

    – Much Love

  7. I stand with Ruth and all the POC staff members at UCS.

    Side note: Few at UCS use a hyphen as semi-colon so frequently.

  8. I don’t know the UCS culture. I don’t work there and never have. But I read Ms. tyson’s letter (and followed a number of its links). It’s hard for me to separate appropriate, relevant grievances about additional labor she was asked for and being made a representative for her race, with the sense of entitlement and superiority she brought with her to the “job.” (Starting with her comment about not believing in “jobs.) She went into a nonprofit populated with scientific thought and was hurt that her meandering poetic emails weren’t celebrated and coddled. She admits that people were all busy, but is wounded that they won’t spend extra time talking with her about poetry and feelings — and that they are wrong because of that. She misses deadlines and doesn’t respond to emails because because because…someone else. Never her. She’s not understood. They should change. ‘They should let me [fill into blank].’ ‘I should get to [fill in the blank].’ The more I read, the more the mosquito-whine of the precious, wronged Millennial came through. Ugh. Good riddance.

    1. Absolutely. Most of these grievances are just that; pretentious and entitled. Sometimes people just don’t like you, it’s not always about race. That’s a vast assumption to think that every wrong one faced is because of your skin color. And it inaccurately paints every white person who surrounded one during their supposed plight in an offensive light. How’s that for poetry. Usually the people who are heard are experts or people who have some solid education or experience in their field, not low level staff members. That’s the way it is, has always been and will likely always be because people want to hear those who speak from knowing and facts, not emotional rhetoric. Especially when it comes to running an organization. And if you can’t handle basic responsibilities in your job description, then you simply haven’t earned influence because it demonstrates lack of care, motivation and dedication. It’s immature to use other people as excuses of why you’re not doing your job. Everyone faces hardships at work. It’s ridiculous to me that someone apparently wants to be heard so bad and wants to be included, yet complain when they’re put on diversity boards. What if the reason black people don’t make up a large number of the staff is because there aren’t enough qualified black people who are actually applying for the job..? It doesn’t mean that he organization is purposely filtering applicants out solely based on their skin color… and if they were that would be the fault of the hiring manager, not the entire organization, or the “white people”.

      1. And here are you are, challenging ideas that could potentially make the non-profit space easier for people of color, particularly Black people. I don’t know where you work, but as a current UCS staffer, you couldn’t be further from wrong. There are improvements to make in how staff are recruited, how HR complaints are handled (and not just swept under the rug by our HR director), how equity is ensured. “Complaining” about being put on diversity boards is valid, because it’s always the same people being chosen over and over again to help solve problems that the org has been *trying* (ineffectively) to address for years. But of course, “stupid white bitch,” I’m not shocked at your blind assumptions and lack of perspective. People like you are a part of the problem. ruth’s letter didn’t paint all adjacent white people as part of the problem. there are loads of white staff who have been making the same complaints for their colleagues for years. But you know what they say, “hit dogs gonna holler.”

    2. you’re right, you don’t know the UCS culture, you don’t work there, and you never have. Whether she was able to thrive in the office culture or not, it doesn’t excuse the racist experiences that she and several other staff of color have faced over the years. There were no “meandering poetic emails” and it would be irresponsible to describe her grievances as being “wounded that they won’t spend extra time talking with her about poetry and feelings.” UCS culture is very much convivial and laid back, and staff take any opportunity to do fun things and entertain one another…at least in some programs. Nothing ruth did was out of place or inappropriate for UCS, she just worked under people like you who label every grievance of a young staff member as Millennial pretentiousness. Why shouldn’t people get to take mental health days? Why don’t we look out for people who are clearly struggling? Why do we keep making diversity hires if we can’t support people of color once they walk through the office doors? This has been an issue with older (not Millennial) staff as well, many of whom were forced out, fired, or took another job because anywhere was better than here. Most of us are underpaid, overworked, and constantly disrespected by our higher-ups. Is that normal workplace culture? ruth’s descriptions of what happened to her illustrated the coldness and disillusionment that a lot of us felt once we actually started working. Job descriptions were written to “attract” more diversity, but nothing was done within to accommodate the shift in demographics, and quite frankly, it almost feels like some of us aren’t really welcome. But I digress, Environmentrix. Can’t repaint the full experience for you, but you couldn’t be more than wrong.

  9. Why are you not Capitalizing her last name? It is Tyson, not tyson! I have never seen this type of referencing in print before. It seems belittling and dismissive.

  10. To the Coworker who wrote this: “She was loved and cared for. Office culture is hard for young staff and especially for Black staff right now in this racist society” you are probably one of the people she wrote about. If she was loved and cared for, there would have been no problem. She was not exaggerating and age is not the issue. I am older…much. I can definitely relate. She was truthful, are you? Check your racist conceptions at the door.

  11. To those of you who denigrate her and talk about Millennial whining – do the words “White Privilege” mean anything to you? See my name? I do not see yours. Call me. I can expound.

  12. Wow, I found this thread after hearing a story on NPR’s Living on Earth show. Check out my Facebook wall and you can see more about me for reference. The comments here have degenerated to a low. Focus on the prize. Get the upper level of management to build the organization to make it the organization you want it to be. If the atomosphere there is as toxic as this thread, there is a lot of work to be done. This nation has a long way to go and do not feel like this is a one off issue at your operation. I have worked over the years in several organizations that display the bad behavior Ms. Tyson wrote about. I pray that we all find a way to push through this mess. Hope is needed in order to build a much better future. The culture usually starts at the top and exists because those who are a part of it tolerate it. Stop tolerating it. Fire off letters and emails, call the mess out in writing to the organization head, the unit leader, your supervisor, HR, and if need be the press. Start if you can. If you can not, then call on others outside of the organization to advocate on your behalf. Be sure to document in writing, and share every mess, no matter how small. Do this because we all need to work in an environment that is much less toxic than what we see now. Hang in there and dig your feet in, the struggle is real and you have many people’s attention.

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About Claudia

Claudia Polsky joined Berkeley Law in July 2015 as the first Director of its Environmental Law Clinic and Assistant Clinical Professor of Law.…

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About Claudia

Claudia Polsky joined Berkeley Law in July 2015 as the first Director of its Environmental Law Clinic and Assistant Clinical Professor of Law.…

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