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Research Digest on Integral Human Development,
Solidarity, Sustainability, and Related Global Issues

Vol. 6, No. 4, April 2010
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Making "Green" Organizations Multicultural:
Debunking the Myths About People of Color

Jim Bonilla
Associate Professor of Conflict Studies
Hamline University School of Business,
St. Paul, Minnesota

First published by Common Ground Publishing in
The International Journal of Knowledge, Culture, and Change Management
Volume 9, Number 12, 2010
Reprinted with Permission

Abstract: The author sought to understand the absence of significant numbers of people of color from the ranks of traditional outdoor and environmental organizations. Using a review of the historical, organizational and cultural studies literature the author was able to identify four pervasive myths that inhibit people of color from greater participation and leadership. Results indicate that stereotypes, distorted and historical omissions as well as limited organizational development are major contributors to a self fulfilling prophecy that people of color are not interested in joining “green” organizations. The author presents information to counter these myths, and concludes with four recommendations for diversifying not only traditional environmental and outdoor organizations, but the broader green movement as well.

Keywords: Diversity, Multiculturalism, Organizational Development, Change Management, Green Movement, Environmentalism, Outdoor Recreation

THE FUTURE OF the environmental movement and the legacy of America’s great outdoors will soon be in the hands of a new generation of Americans, one very different from the generation that preceded it. Demographic shifts in the U.S. population point to the inevitable fact that people of color will become the new majority within twenty years (Enderle, 2007; Chavez, 2000). Bonta and Jordan (2007) note, “As of July 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are 100 million people of color living in the U.S. We are doing a poor job of connecting to them, even though numerous polls and surveys show people of color support environmental issues, in many cases, at higher levels than the general public (p. 14). Even more disturbing is the MELDI (Minority Environmental Leadership Development Institute) study of 158 environmental institutions which found that 33% of environmental organizations and 22% of government agencies had no people of color on staff (Taylor, 2007). Another study found that people of color make up only 11% of the staff of 61 mainstream environmental organizations (Environmental Careers Organization, 1992; Stanton as cited in Taylor, 2007).

Since the release of Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” campuses across the country have embraced “going green” as the next wave of student activism. However, oddly noticeable is the absence of racially diverse faces among environmental and outdoor organizations (Taylor, 2007; James, 1995). Edmondson (2006) has observed a paucity of “black and brown faces in wild places.” This article explores a number of the organizational barriers and myths that inhibit the participation of people of color as future leaders of America’s traditional environment movement. It also briefly surveys the history of the traditional environmental and outdoor movements as well as the emergent environmental justice movement to set a context for critical organizational analysis. It then presents four prominent myths that inhibit recognition, outreach to and greater participation by people of color. The author presents information to counter these four myths, and concludes with four recommendations for diversifying not only traditional environmental and outdoor organizations, but the broader green movement as well.

A Brief History of Diversity and the Environment

The intersection of race and the outdoor environment has a long and troubled history in the United States, dating back to its founding and to conflicts between native peoples and the Spanish explorers looking for “empty land to people” (Takaki, 1994). In his groundbreaking book, A History of Multicultural America, Takaki goes on to describe in painful detail the forced removal and near extermination of Native Americans from their ancestral environment to make way for the Europeanization of the West. Klingle (2007) frames early environmental conflicts as class-based, namely wealthy, landed gentry promulgating game laws that severely limited hunting by poorer, rural residents to the benefit of urban, upper-class sportsmen. New York City’s Central Park in Manhattan is one prominent example of this racial and class conflict. It was created in 1853 as a nature preserve for wealthy, upper crust New Yorkers at the expense of people of color and immigrants whose communities were torn down to make space for recreation.

Using the power of eminent domain, the city acquired 840 acres located in the center of Manhattan, spanning two and a half miles from 59th Street to 106th Street (in 1863 the park was extended north to 110th Street) and half a mile from Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue. In the process, a population of about 1,600 people who had been living in the rocky, swampy terrain--some as legitimate renters and others as squatters--were evicted; included in this sweep were a convent and school, bone-boiling plants, and the residents of Seneca Village, an African-American settlement of about 270 people which boasted a school and three churches. (Waxman, n.d.)

By the 19th century in both America and England, white women in large numbers were making their presence felt as environmental leaders in the fight to preserve and protect endangered bird species and their disappearing habitat from over-hunting and over-development. This shift toward inclusion of women is an example of an early diversity issue in the nascent environmental movement.

Race as an issue first became associated with the environmental movement in the public mind in the 1950’s as comparative health studies revealed rampant health disparities between people of color and whites. For example, in the late fifties and early sixties, Caesar Chavez and the farm workers’ union highlighted the use of toxic herbicides and their effects on Latino farm workers as well as on those communities surrounding the farm fields where the poisons were sprayed. The term “environmental justice” came into existence in 1972 when graduate students from the University of Michigan obtained jobs with the United Auto Workers where they played a major role in organizing a conference entitled Working for Environmental and Economic Justice and Jobs held at Black Lake near Onaway, Michigan. According to Bryant (2008, personal communication) this was the first time the term “environmental justice hit the national radar screen.”

With the emergence of the environmental justice (EJ) movement the traditional (white, middle class) environmental community began to hear a different set of voices and concerns, one that is still reshaping its future (Lewis & James, 1995). Along with the emergence of the EJ movement in the 1980’s came a new generation of researchers and academics that began to challenge some of the myths that up to then were prevalent among white, middle to upper middle class environmentalists and higher education researchers. As both an environmentalist and researcher of color myself, these are myths I continue to hear being repeated by many people of color about ourselves as well as by white environmentalists.

Myths about People of Color & the Environment

Myths about people of color and women in organizations often serve to inhibit or limit their collective access to organizations (Chesler, 2004; McCracken, 2000), including access to outdoor and environmental organizations. Myths also give rise to a host of stereotypes. In their five-stage model of multicultural organizational development, Jackson & Holvino (1988) point out that myths can illustrate how racially diverse or monocultural an organization is. For example, in their Stage Three organization (EEO/ Compliance) a common myth is that people of color are not as “qualified” as their white counterparts. At an even earlier stage (“the Club”) people of color are treated as “tokens” and often complimented as “not like those other people of color.” Even environmental organizations at Jackson & Holvino’s Stage IV (Affirmative Action) that have made progress in becoming more racially and/or culturally diverse suffer from a phenomenon where people of color are still treated as “invited guests” versus full fledged members entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as their white colleagues.

So if myths can play a major role in inhibiting greater participation by people of color in organizations, what then are the unique myths that seem to restrict environmental and outdoor organizations from attracting and retaining diverse populations? In reviewing the various organizational stages of multicultural development, this research found that myths perpetuate a cycle which keeps people of color in their designated places and limits the organization's ability to attract and retain diverse staff, board members as well as clientele. As Adams, Bell and Griffin (2007) point out, “Stereotypes are sometimes based on historical information that is taken out of context” (p. 60). Among the common myths and related stereotypes about people of color and the environment, four stand out from the literature for their especially pernicious effect in shaping organizational belief systems and behaviors which can block access for potential environmentalists of color:

Myth #1: “They” don’t care about the environment or the outdoors

White environmentalists are often heard lamenting the lack of people of color at traditional, outdoor environmental meetings. It is also not uncommon for White outdoor enthusiasts to comment on the lack of people of color participating in outdoor recreation (Worbel & Long, 2001).

The conclusion inferred by our absences is that we don’t care about the outdoors. Where does this stereotype come from? Certainly for many urban folks of color, wilderness recreation may seem initially unattractive. As one of my African American teaching assistants once confided, “I don’t go anywhere where there aren’t street lights and sidewalks.” For some African Americans whose families escaped the rural South, going camping may seem like an invitation to harassment by hostile rural whites. But to therefore conclude that all people of color are ipso facto unconcerned about the environment is inaccurate.

On the contrary, people of color come to the environment with a great concern for the health and well being of natural spaces. Certainly, few would accept this stereotype to be true of native peoples. Mohai & Kershner (2002) and Ferris & Hahn-Baker (1995) have observed that when it comes to the environment, the best Congressional voting record belongs to the Hispanic and Black Congressional Caucuses. When the environment is defined more broadly to include things like city parks, lead free paint, clean air and safe playgrounds, concern for the natural environment by people of color equals if not exceeds that of their white counterparts. And Latinos are more likely to vote for the environment than whites, but less likely than blacks (Davis, 1992; Ard, 2006). For urban based communities of color, environmental issues are of major concern, especially when the term “environment” includes clean air, lead-free paint, cleaning toxic “brown fields” and keeping urban parks open and safe for youth.

White communities that plan parks and recreation projects can often ignore or render the interests of communities of color invisible, assuming that leisure and the natural world are of little consequence to racial minorities. Such myths carry with them an inherent double standard whereby people of color are judged by one set of environmental standards and whites are judged by a different, less critical set of standards. For example, until gasoline hit $4.00 a gallon in 2008, how environmentally conscious were SUV owning White Americans? In a survey of Detroit residents, Mohai (2003) found that “contrary to what might have been projected, percentages of blacks and whites who mentioned a nature preservation issue as among the most important environmental problems facing the country were nearly identical (31 percent vs. 33 percent)” (p. 17).

Myth #2: Except for American Indians, people of color have little history or exposure to the outdoors.

As Adams, Bell & Griffin (2007) observe, most stereotypes and myths carry with them a grain of truth. But closer examination of people of color in the environment reveals a different reality, a more complex truth. If one were to scan texts on outdoor or environmental education, beside Native peoples, people of color are rarely, if ever, represented in our histories of the outdoors. It could therefore seem to the casual observer that people of color are invisible or played a minimal role in our outdoor heritage. A closer examination reveals a different truth. Edmondson (2006) interviewed African American park rangers who point to the proud tradition of African American soldiers (called Buffalo soldiers) who served as the nation's first park rangers. Even this history is not without its own tragic subplot, as these very Buffalo soldiers were often charged by white politicians with evicting Native people from their ancestral lands to make room for national parks. In Kentucky, many of the caves that are the heart of Mammoth Cave National Park were initially explored by Stephen Bishop, an African American, during the 19th and early 20th century. African American slaves led tourists on trips into the caves as early as 1838 (National Park Service, 2008). Most revealing is the rich outdoor tradition of African Americans and Latinos as cowboys in the Old West, America’s internationally recognized outdoor icons. By some estimates, African Americans and Latinos constituted up to a third of all cowboys on the Texas cattle drives of the time (Porter, 1998). Imagine how differently young African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans might relate to the outdoors if they were to see people like themselves honored and celebrated as early outdoor enthusiasts?

It is important to acknowledge that a very real concern exists within and between some communities of color, namely that the outdoor environment has historically been associated with demeaning labor, indentured servitude, marauding Klansmen in white sheets and plantation slavery. While historically true, access and entitlement to America’s great outdoors is an important civil right due all Americans. By only acknowledging that part of our outdoor history fraught with suffering, we risk denying ourselves and our children a sense of ownership to our rights to clean air, breathtaking vistas, awe inspiring wildlife and spiritual renewal that millions of visitors from abroad come every year to America to savor.

Myth #3: Young people of color are not interested in careers in environmental fields.

An often cited excuse for not recuiting a diverse staff is that students of color are lured away from careers in the environment/outdoors by more lucrative paying jobs in the private sector. Taylor (2007) reveals that, nationally, approximately 70% of undergraduate environmental programs are populated by white students and 30% by students of color. While she notes some leakage of students of color at the graduate level, more students of color in her study expressed a desire to work in environmental fields than did white students. Taylor’s work further contradicts this myth by revealing that African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos in higher education are indeed willing to work in environmental non-profits at rates equal to their white counterparts, and at comparable salaries as their white classmates. Habib (1996) echoes this finding in her study of 50 young urban environmentalists, Urban Youth Environmental Activists: A New Spirit Rising Among Us.

People of color and women have long faced the reality that managers in organizations tend to hire candidates most like themselves (Allison, 1999). This tendency is further compounded by these myths which serve to reinforce stereotypes that people of color are not interested in the environment, and they wouldn’t be happy with the salaries offered even if they were recruited to apply.

Then there is the dilemma of retaining promising leaders once they enter the organization. When it comes to retaining new employees, perception follows attention. Referred to in the literature as the Pygmalion Effect, Livingston (1988) describes this as a phenomenon showing that managers motivate their subordinates based on their conscious and unconscious beliefs. For example, when math professors operate with the unconscious belief that “girl don’t like math” (Brush, 1991) or when male managers assume that females have limited interest in leadership careers, their responses become uniformly unsupportive. Students of color exploring outdoor and/or environmental career paths can find themselves struggling against the lowered expectations of those who should be mentoring them for future leadership roles.

Myth #4: The environment is a “white, middle class” issue and draws attention away from civil rights issues.

A fourth myth, particularly prevalent among some in communities of color, holds that the environmental movement is competing with the civil rights movement and drawing attention away from more urgent problems faced by their communities. This myth has benefited from a certain amount of cultural staying power and is still heard, especially among some older activists of color.

To the contrary, research by Bryant (1995) finds that people of color are disproportionately likely to be the victims of environmental pollution. He observes that, “while money moves upwards, pollution moves downward” (p. 8). Ferris & Hahn-Baker (1988) note, “Environmental Justice activists are on the front line of struggle in the U.S. to battle pollution, waste, and environmental degradation of human health. Communities of color are the first and hardest hit by the contamination, and the battle to preserve the environment will be won or lost in these neighborhoods. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, ‘Preventing pollution that harms one will ultimately protect everyone’” (p. 71). Recognizing this, civil rights issues have become increasingly tied to environmental quality, giving birth to the emerging environmental justice movement. Alston (1990) points out that the growing strength of the EJ movement shows that civil rights and environmental concerns “are not inherently exclusive, but can be seen as compatible and complementary” (p. 35-36).

Indeed , if social justice and environmental justice are complementary, why has the mainstream environmental and outdoor movement remained so overwhelmingly white and what can be done to counteract patterns of organizational exclusion?

Barriers to People of Color in the Environmental/Outdoor Movement

Lack of role models can serve to send the symbolic message that people of color don’t belong in a field or related organization. Sonnert, Fox and Adkins (2007), among other researchers, point out the importance of role models for encouraging women to pursue careers in science and engineering. An often repeated legend among women in science is the influence of Marie Curie on subsequent generations of French girls. While less than 5% of American women pursued chemistry during the early 20th century, almost a third of French chemists were women. The difference was that a generation of young French women had come of age with the image of Madam Marie Currie receiving the Nobel Prize for her work with radiation. Unless young people of color are exposed to positive role models of people of color in the outdoor and environmental movement, patterns of invisibility and exclusion will persist. Another barrier to greater participation is that some people of color feel forced to choose between their outdoor interest and their ethnic community. For example while studies have shown that students of color are as interested, if not more, so than their white counterparts in careers in the environment (Taylor, 2007; Habib, 1996), research by James (1993) indicates parental pressure can serve to either dissuade from or engage students in the outdoors. In their 2006 study of Latino participation in the Dodge Nature Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, Hong & Anderson (2006) found that reaching out to Latino parents was important in getting parents on board with organizational efforts to involve Latino youth and their families in the outdoors.


Racial stereotypes and racism serve to close or limit organizational access for people of color (Chesler, 1994; Jackson & Holvino, 1988). When those stereotypes evolve into unchallenged myths, the result is the perpetuation of organizational monoculturalism. Stereotypes and myths about “The Other” have the effect of freezing an organization’s development by institutionalizing a self -fulfilling prophecy that undermines the best of intentions to change the organization’s racial profile.

How can outdoor and environmental organizations begin to make themselves more racially diverse? What follows are four steps that can be taken in sequence to begin to alter the organizational cultures of predominantly white environmental groups. These four strategies have proven effective in both the private sector as well as in the higher education community for over two decades:

1) Educate the leadership - A key step unique to the environmental community in developing more racially diverse organizations must be the deconstruction of the four myths outlined above. Outdated perceptions unconsciously serve to preserve the monocultural nature of today's organizational leadership. As environmental and outdoor groups wrestle with changing demographics, Job #1 must include re-education as to who will be the next generation of stewards. Ferris & Hahn-Baker (1995) are particularly concerned about the future peril to the environmental movement in ignoring the resources people of color can contribute to the protection of the natural world. They point out that, “environmentalists must capitalize on the different perspectives, skills and traditions greater diversity would bring to their movement” (p. 70). For example, an Anglo board of directors looking to replace a retiring member is less likely to recruit among the Latino community if they believe that Latinos don’t care about the outdoors. Likewise, a white college recruiter for parks and recreation programs won’t think to recruit graduating Hmong or Somali students if the recruiters are under the delusion that young people of color don’t especially care about the environment. These emerging young professionals can be powerful resources to departments, towns and cities trying to adapt to the changing leisure preferences of their increasingly diverse communities.

2) Grow a Critical Mass of People of Color - Diversifying organizations is not a new challenge requiring radically new solutions. Many Fortune 500 companies, for example Deloitte and Touche, find myth busting is a necessary first step to developing a critical mass of the underrepresented in their organizations (McCracken, 2000). By critical mass, the literature suggests a floor of 15-30% of the organization is peopled by underrepresented populations (Kanter, 1977). Jackson & Holvino's (1988) work in multicultural organizational development makes it clear that “critical mass” is a necessary step in the developmental process of creating a more racially diverse agency. Not until white leadership in both academia and the non-profit sectors begin to debunk these stereotypes can there be genuine progress toward multicultural change.

3) Grow Role Models and Mentors - While a formidable task, it is not a task without models. Managers that believe in the possibility of changing their organization’s racial profile are essential (Bonilla, 1992). Organizational and departmental incentives to reward those efforts need to be in place to send the correct organizational signal that leadership is serious about achieving its diversity goals (Enderle, 2007; Bonilla, 1992; Jackson & Holvino, 1988). It is often the case in successful change efforts that white leaders first model non-racist behaviors as well as mentor people of color. Equally critical is that they are organizationally rewarded for these efforts. In both the higher education and the private sectors, developing a set of cultural competencies among leaders has become a high priority. Later in the process, as the organization moves along the continuum of stages (from monocultural to multicultural) and hires and retains a more diverse critical mass of staff or faculty, it can then provide mentors of color to its increasingly diverse students, staff and constituencies.

4) Evolve The Organization’s Agenda - An important lever in attracting a new generation of environmentalists of color will be the evolving agenda of traditional environmental and outdoor organizations. Some environmentalists may resist the broadening of the traditional environmental/outdoor agenda to be inclusive of the concerns of folks of color. Yet the explosive emergence of the green movement provides an important window of opportunity. Much like the election of the country’s first “green” and African American President, the environmental movement faces a new era of potential promise as well as challenge. The time is ripe for ensuring that the next generation of environmental stewards is able to assume the mantle of stewardship.

Given the accelerating appeal of the environmental justice movement within the larger green environment movement, some theorists and practitioners have already begun to make explicit the linkages between equity and our natural resources.

Preservation of a wetland as a habitat for environmentally stressed wildlife easily meets the conservation test, while development of low-income housing to provide habitat for environmentally stressed people would not fall within the typical environmental agenda. Combining these concerns within the broader environmental agenda would be one of the most positives outcomes of a partnership between the movements… Development and implementation of inclusive environmental policies are critical to achieving the basic goals of the environmental community: preservation of the planet’s ecosystems and the natural order. These goals are compatible with equal protection for all people from environmental hazards (Ferris & Hahn-Baker, 1995, p. 71).

The future sustainability of the environmental and outdoor movement, not to mention the future of the planet, hinges on the next generation of stewards. The demographics are clear: the population of people of color will surpass the population of Whites in a very short time. We can learn from the experiences of those organizations and institutions in the private sector, the military, and higher education that have shown the way. Many of these institutions have made significant strides toward achieving greater organizational diversity by examining barriers in recruitment and retention policies, unreasonable and inequitable expectations about what counts as “qualifications,” and surfacing subtle or unconscious patterns of discrimination based on stereotypes and myths.

We have made great progress in civil rights in the last 50 years, but until participants in the traditional environmental movement acknowledge and act on the racial and economic disparity in its ranks, there will be no more environmental movement of consequence. It is that simple. We cannot afford to raise yet another generation of young Americans of color who do not feel and have not been able to experience their American right to the great outdoors. Unless we act, the outdoor environment will suffer immeasurable decline. That would be an irreplaceable loss. As Bonta & Jordan (2007) note, “As the nation continues to diversify, the environmental movement is left with one of the greatest challenges it will face in this century. In order to become an influential and sustainable movement for generations to come, it needs to successfully address its diversity crisis” (p. 13).

Analyzing the myths about people of color and the environment has made it clear that there is no contradiction between being an environmentalist and being a person of color. The lack of people of color in environmental organizations has much less to do with the interests or desires of people of color, and much more to do with the subtle organizational barriers that inhibit our full participation. As a Latino, I am both an environemntalist and a multiculturalist. As a role model, President Obama will undoubtedly attract a new generation of racially diverse enviornmentalists, but it is up to all of us who care about the environment to ensure our planet’s sustainability. We must educate our environmental leaders, grow a critical mass of people of color in outdoor organizations, provide role models and mentors, and continually reassess the environmental agenda. The benefits of being in the outdoors are many; it can rejuvenate the spirit and enhance health and well-being. Most of all, the beauty of the natural world inspires wonder. That is a gift we must give future generations. The author wishes to thank the following individuals for their insight and invaluable feedback in the development of this article: Professor Bunyan Bryant, University of Michigan; Professor Mark Chesler, University of Michigan; Professor Peggy Knapp, Hamline University Center for Global Environmental Education.


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James Francisco Bonilla is an Associate Professor of Conflict Studies in the Hamline University School of Business in St. Paul, Minnesota. He also co-directs the Hamline University Race, Gender & Beyond Faculty Development Project. He is a nationally recognized consultant in the area of organizational diversity in higher education and brings to his work two decades of experience working with a broad array of organizations on issues of diversity. He is a current member and past Chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the National Conference on Racial & Ethnic Diversity in American Higher Education. His current research looks at racial diversity in environmental and outdoor organizations and myths that keep people of color from fuller participation in the emerging Green Movement. Dr. Bonilla received his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts' School of Education in Organizational Development. His dissertation research was entitled Walking the Walk: Towards Creating More Multiracial Institutions of Higher Education. He received his undergraduate degree in outdoor education from the State University of New York at Cortland. Dr. Bonilla currently teaches graduate courses in Organizational Theory & Behavior and undergraduate classes in Conflict Studies. He can be contacted at jbonilla@hamline.edu.


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