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Groups seek help in fighting pollution

Organizers look to add diversity

PITTSBURGH — Thousands of young environmentalists from across the country are heading to Pittsburgh, planning to strengthen the green movement by involving more people of different races and backgrounds.

The four-day Power Shift conference beginning Friday takes on some traditional issues in a new way. Organizers are fighting coal mining, fracking for oil and gas, and climate change but doing it through sessions such as ‘‘Racism and the Climate Movement,’’ “Sex and Sustainability,’’ “Young Leaders from Puerto Rico’s Frontlines,’’ and ‘‘Lessons from Transgender Activism.’’

Power Shift, the Sierra Club, and other groups are making a concentrated effort to reach working-class black, Hispanic, and Asian communities in an effort to change the typically mostly white and upper-class membership of national environmental groups. The meeting in Pittsburgh is the first Power Shift conference outside of Washington,where conference organizer Energy Action Coalition is based.


Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, chief executive of Green For All, said the lack of diversity in the environmental movement is ‘‘shocking.’’ She said it’s important to note that ‘‘communities of color really have a strong environmental record, they just don’t have a strong connection’’ to national groups.

‘‘We just didn’t call it environmentalism. We just did it to survive,’’ she said of such practices as recycling.

Ellis-Lamkins said the challenge for the environmental movement is to get minority and working-class people to expect and demand both good jobs and clean air and water.

About 8,000 people are expected at the meeting, which includes training sessions and evening music concerts.

Conference spokesman Whit Jones said the group does not ask attendees to list their race so a breakdown on those attending is not available. But he estimated hundreds of students are coming from historically black colleges and universities.

There’s little debate that minority communities suffer from excessive pollution. A 2012 report from the NAACP found that in areas near the 12 most-polluting coal-fired power plants in the United States, people of color were about 76 percent of the population.


Allison Chin, a past president of the Sierra Club, said environmentalists will not become a more diverse group ‘‘without us rolling up our sleeves.’’ She said the Sierra Club has launched programs to provide environmental training, scholarships, and even jobs to those from minority communities, as well as a Spanish language website, Ecocentro.

That kind of outreach helped attract Erica Thames, a 23-year-old woman with a multiracial background who lives in Inland Empire east of Los Angeles and now works for Sierra Club.

‘‘In the past, the environmental movement has been upper-middle class, white male. I’m really excited that it’s getting more inclusive,’’ said Thames, who’s working on a project to bring rooftop solar panels to her heavily polluted, working-class community, which also suffers from high unemployment.

Bill McKibben, a leader in the national climate change group 350.org, said in an e-mail that diversity is critical to the fight to limit damage from climate change.

‘‘It’s people on front-line communities who are crucial to leading this fight — and the hardest hit front-line communities, not surprisingly, are full of poor people and people of color,’’ said McKibben, who plans to speak at the conference.