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Racial Justice and Equity in the Conservation Movement

The events of the last few weeks and this weekend – both in South Carolina and across the country – have been a sobering reminder of the threat and impacts of racism in our society. From the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others to the demonstrations in South Carolina and beyond, these last few weeks have shaken the souls of individuals, communities, and the country as a whole – causing particular pain and anguish among black individuals and communities as well as other people of color. In these uncertain, painful, and soul-shaking times, we at CVSC stand with those calling for justice, accountability, and an end to racial violence.

At the same time, the events of the last few weeks have forced CVSC to look at how we – an organization with a commitment to advancing racial justice and equity in the environmental space – have or have not lived up to our core values and our commitments. After all, we know that to change the world we must first change ourselves.

Last Year, CVSC revised our strategic plan and outlined our work through 2024. In this plan, we noted that “we believe that ALL people in South Carolina deserve clean air, clean water, access to unspoiled landscapes, and the benefits of clean energy. Yet, lower-income individuals and people of color are disproportionately affected by impacts from pollution and environmental degradation. If the voices of those most affected are drowned out or not included in the fight for pollution free communities, we cannot continue to say that we are fighting for the South Carolina we ALL love.”

We recognized – both then and now – that the environmental community in South Carolina and beyond has historically been dominated by white, affluent individuals. We also recognize that environmental work in South Carolina has long been divided into separate camps of “environmental work” and “environmental justice work.”

These things must change. 

To that end, CVSC committed in our strategic plan to address internal structures and processes so that we can become a more racially diverse and just and equitable organization. We also committed to change our external programmatic efforts and partnerships to ensure that environmental work is environmental justice work, without distinction.

As we reflect on our last 6 months of work under our new strategic plan, we see a combination of both successes and failures in our efforts. Yes, we’ve reached out to a more racially diverse constituency over the last Year and hosted an environmental justice town hall with state and federal leaders and environmental justice advocates. However, we have been slow to ensure our staff have the competencies and training to engage fully and authentically in racial justice and equity efforts. We have not forged the authentic partnerships with organizations led by and serving communities of color. And we have not put enough internal processes in place to hold ourselves accountable to these efforts.

We recognize that we have a long way to go on our journey towards racial justice and equity – both internally at CVSC and externally with our work. This work has been called “forever work” by our staff and partners, and we cannot agree more. We also cannot ignore the “urgency of now” and the need to act in light of recent events.

We say all this to acknowledge that we are imperfect, to acknowledge our failings, and to hold ourselves accountable in working to advance a more just and equitable environmental movement in South Carolina. But we also say it as a nod to the future and to the organization that we want to and know that we can become.

To ensure that both the environmental movement in South Carolina and our larger society are rooted in justice, accountability, and equity, it will require ALL of us to come together and work to advance these values. In the weeks and months ahead, CVSC will work to approach our racial justice and equity efforts with humility and recognize that there is much to learn as part of this journey.

To that end, I want to ask you, as a conservation voter and supporter of CVSC, to join us in this work and help to hold both CVSC and the conservation voter movement in South Carolina accountable. We must work to model the change we want to see in the world, and, as noted above, to do this we must first change ourselves.

Thank you for your commitment to conservation and thank you in advance for working to bring about the change that ensures ALL South Carolinians live in pollution-free communities and ensure they have the power and voice to keep it that way.

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