I was raised in the segregated Deep South in Jackson, Miss., and was not yet 12 in 1963, when Bull Connor used firehoses and snarling dogs in an effort to prevent students from demonstrating outside of Birmingham’s City Hall.
In June of that same year, civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, was assassinated in Jackson. Later that fall, four African-American schoolgirls, ages 11 to 14—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol McNair—were killed by a white supremacist who bombed their Birmingham church during Sunday morning services. The following summer, civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were found dead, buried in an earthen dam in Mississippi.
These heinous crimes caused America to pause, if only for a moment, and embrace “the better angels of our nature.” In July of 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed. The march from Selma to Montgomery, where John Lewis and others made “good trouble,” led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Exhausted from the hard work of this racial reckoning, America may have too quickly believed its work was done.
Even though there were many signs along the way, this illusion largely held until it was utterly shattered by the killing of George Floyd, who spent his last moments pleading for breath, his neck under the knee of a police officer. His death—one of many similar cases in recent years—was the tipping point, spurring national conversation on deep-seated systems of racial injustice and prompting many of us to act.
The Environmental Law Institute (ELI) is no exception. Founded over 50 years ago, its goal is to make an impact on environmental law, policy, and management, both domestically and abroad. Like many organizations following the death of George Floyd, ELI’s president, Scott Fulton, and I, as ELI board chair, issued a public statement expressing our outrage.
Being Part of a Movement, Not a Moment
We quickly realized that outrage was not enough. We wanted ELI to be part of a movement, not a moment. Howard University School of Law professor and ELI board member Carlton Waterhouse charged us with going beyond neutrality to become actively anti-racist. Led by board members Vickie Patton and Brenda Mallory, our board met to address the issue of race in our country and how ELI should meet this challenge.
We quickly acknowledged that, before demanding the world to change, we needed to see change in ourselves. I needed to change. As the first African-American board chair of ELI, had I done enough to address racial disparities on our board and on our staff? Had we done all we might do to address environmental justice? Was there more I might have done?
The incontrovertible answer to these questions is that we had not done enough to effect transformational change.
Over time, we have undeniably made incremental progress. For the first time in our history, the ELI board has achieved gender parity—equal numbers of men and women. Over 40% of our board members represent racial and ethnic minority groups. Our staff is also becoming more diverse, as we more aggressively invest in internships for minority students interested in environmental issues. ELI’s staff has been overwhelmingly supportive of our efforts to improve diversity, reminding us that we are not yet who we wish to be. But, we are on our way.
Aiming for Transformational Change
At this inflection point, we wanted to ensure that ELI would go beyond this progress to achieve transformational change. We agreed upon a number of near-term actions:
- Hiring an environmental justice coordinator to provide dedicated leadership, drive focus on environmental justice in ELI’s programming, identify opportunities for thought leadership, and design our strategic and organizational approach;
- Creating an environmental justice law clerk position in partnership with Howard University to build a pipeline and a platform for attorneys of color to lead this important work; and
- Creating a pro bono clearinghouse to match communities facing environmental injustice with law firms willing to volunteer their services.
We also set ambitious long-term goals for meeting our anti-racism charge. We committed to redouble our efforts to hire and develop diverse staff. We pledged to expand relationships with ally organizations and institutions to learn from new voices, reach new audiences, and collectively pursue the greater good.
We further plan to invest in future practitioners through the ELI Ambassadors Program, a national effort built upon collaboration with law schools and colleges—particularly those with diverse student bodies, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities—to catalyze the next generation of environmental lawyers and professionals through mentorship, counseling, and career development.
Perhaps the most important thing we are doing is holding ourselves accountable. We have publicly released our board statement on race and accountability road map, identifying action items and timelines, which we will use to assess our progress in annual reports. As we have learned from, been inspired by, and followed the good ideas of others, we share this information so that others may use it as they see fit.
Ultimately, we all have a role to play in making transformational change. Like Evers, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, we face an urgency for reform that will not be denied. We must act. Now.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Benjamin F. Wilson is the chairman of the environmental law firm Beveridge & Diamond P.C. He has been the board chair of the Environmental Law Institute since 2016.