The Journey Ahead: Washington Environmental Council on COVID-19, Race, Environmentalism, and the Role of Historically White-led Nonprofit Organizations

Written by Washington Environmental Council CEO Alyssa Macy

In my reflections and recent discussions about what is happening in the world around us, I have been referring to the “great pause” triggered by COVID-19 – the slowdown of the planet in the face of the pandemic. This has been a time of struggle, loss, and fear, and has daylighted many of the injustices entrenched in our society. It has also been a powerful time of reflection, re-evaluation of priorities, and making intentional connections. The “great pause” is now being followed by what I am calling the “great reckoning” – a mass movement spurred by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis. As a nation, we are having to reckon with the systemic and institutional racism that pervades our society.

Disasters like COVID-19 reveal deep inequities in our communities, exposing decades of environmental racism and injustice that have left Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) more vulnerable. The connection between COVID-19 mortality rates and air pollution in BIPOC communities is undeniable, exacerbated by increased coronavirus exposure risk among farmworkers and other essential workers, and existing health disparities in BIPOC communities. We are seeing these inequities face to face in a way that has never before been so obvious, and we as a nonprofit sector have to reckon with what it means for our work. We must center the voices of the most impacted communities going forward.

As an Indigenous woman, I’ve seen how climate change impacts my people and other Indigenous people around the globe. I have never viewed environmental work as separate from social injustice in my community. I have always understood our survival as Indigenous peoples to be interconnected and dependent on the land and the environment. Traditional cultural teachings have always honored the many gifts of mother earth, and we make decisions in a way that honors both our ancestors and future generations. Indigenous peoples are the original environmentalists.

With that framework in mind, we are also in a moment of deep reflection on how to show up as a historically white-led (HWL) organization. We are asking ourselves what changes we need to make to be good, authentic allies with BIPOC communities, to be effective in our work, and to be relevant in this time of great change. As WEC continues to advocate for policies that fight climate change, clean up toxic pollution, and restore our forests and shared waters, we must further integrate equity and racial justice as core principles of our work and follow the lead of the most impacted communities. We have a short window of time to take bold climate action in order to address the impacts of climate change – and we must do that with those most impacted at the center. BIPOC communities have already voiced what we can do, and as a leader among HWL organizations, it is our responsibility to listen and to act. This is a substantial cultural shift for most HWL organizations, and there is a lot of work to be done both internally and externally. However, we will only succeed when we are truly building a movement based on the pursuit of justice for all, and showing up in authentic ways. This vision aligns with one of a world that has made it through this pandemic: not only a healthy world, but one where equity and racial justice are central to the ways we solve problems and govern ourselves.

Washington Environmental Council is a nonprofit, statewide advocacy organization that has been driving positive change to solve Washington’s most critical environmental challenges since 1967. Our mission is to protect, restore, and sustain Washington’s environment for all.