How One Milwaukee Org Is Boosting Diversity in Environmental Work – Next City

How One Milwaukee Org Is Boosting Diversity in Environmental Work

Youth in the Cream City Conservation Corps connect with the outdoors and train for jobs in the environmental field. (Photo courtesy August Ball)

Despite the fact that environmental racism means that people of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental issues—from air pollution to living near highways and interstates—environmental organizations remain overwhelmingly white, comprising 88 percent of staff and 95 percent of boards of environmental organizations. In Milwaukee, Cream City Conservation is changing that by running workshops and trainings with environmental groups and organizations who want to boost equity within their organizations and, by extension, the work that they do in order to reach as many people as possible in their work.

While diversity consultants abound, Cream City stands out among the crowd. Rather than integrating diversity into a means of meeting company goals, the efforts of Cream City Conservation and Consulting’s founder August Ball are intersectional and focused on the ripple effects of environmental inclusion, stemming from her 14 years experience in the environmental field as a woman of color.

Ball came to notice that many of the opportunities for development in environmental organizations are built around middle class norms, such as the idea that employees can float large expenses for conferences and workshops on their personal credit cards until reimbursement comes in.

Ball found her way to consulting after a series of coincidences. Her job at the Student Conservation Association (SCA), which connected teens with the outdoors through activities like camping and trail building, had evaporated after SCA shuttered due to lack of funding. But the River Revitalization Foundation, which had awarded a grant to SCA, hired Ball to fulfill the grant deliverables they’d originally written for SCA, so she could continue a summer program helping teens learn about careers in forestry.

“It was meant to be this one and done thing,” she says. “What ended up happening was my colleagues in the environmental industry kept saying, ‘Hey, we noticed your students [and staff] are people of color and you retain them so well. How do you do that?’” Ball began taking coffee meetings before realizing that she could charge for her services and use the money to pay kids to work in park services.

(Photo by Chris Hyler of Hyler Media, courtesy Cream CIty Consulting)

Ball had already taken another job, so her intention was for Cream City Conservation and Consulting to be a “side thing,” but interest continued to grow. In 2018 she resigned and committed to consulting full time. Today, up to 60 percent of the proceeds from Ball’s diversity consulting for environmental organizations — in conjunction with funding from partners like the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee — goes to funding training and employment opportunities for youth in environmental industries, dubbed the Cream City Conservation Corps. It’s through these intertwined approaches that Ball is making a diversity dent in Milwaukee’s environmental sector.

Much of her consulting work, for organizations like the U.S. Forest Service or Milwaukee County, focuses on shifting how these entities recruit and retain talent by addressing unconscious bias.

Ball sees it as paramount to start with an assessment of each organization to unearth the specific areas where the organization is falling short. She then structures the rest of her work around giving them concrete tools to avoid the performative pitfalls that some diversity trainings can succumb to and the frustration that can bubble up if organizations don’t get the resources they need to replace their old ways of working.

Her initial assessment is a three part process that includes a organization-wide survey that helps to uncover the group’s readiness and willingness to even engage in equity-related topics in the first place. Another part of the initial phase focuses on belonging and intersectionality. In this phase, “we can pull out data points. If I wanted to know how single mothers with a non-visible disability feel about their sense of voice and opportunity for advancement, I can pull that data out as long as I have a minimum sample size,” Ball says.

She then segues into a crash course in equity 101 in order to get everyone on the same page while recognizing that not everyone is “in the same place on their journey or has a shared language around oppression, racism, and allyship for example,” Ball says. “Often I find we struggle to move the needle because we aren’t even on the same page when it comes to interpretation.”

After subsequent workshops that can cover topics spanning allyship to social identities and intersectionality based on each individual organizations current status and goals for the future, she moves into a focus on diversity and inclusion in recruitment specifically that covers everything from how job descriptions are unknowingly loaded with gendered or ableist language (we’ve all seen the “must be able to lift 50 pounds” requirement at one point or another) to rethinking culture fit. “It’s getting past the whole idea of ‘would I want to have a beer with this person?’ We all want to enjoy the people we work with but that kind of thing can lead to groupthink and surrounding ourselves with people who are clones [of us],” Ball says.

One of Ball’s previous clients, the Wisconsin Conservation Voters, have since not only increased their staff and board diversity, but have also instituted a program called Wake to connect young professionals of color to environmental issues through monthly social events that range from visits to an arcade to presentations from representatives from the youth-led Sunrise Movement.

Across a year and a half, the organization worked with Ball as part of their efforts to focus their work on people rather than places. “To be more people-focused, one of the things you have to think about are the people who are affected [by environmental issues]. They have to be part of the discussion and decision making in the organization at all levels,” says Kerry Schumann, the executive director of the Wisconsin Conservation Voters.

“The board in particular loved the trainings,” Schumann says. “We have a politically diverse board. After one of the trainings, a Republican board member came up to me and told me he loved it, that [Ball] was great and that he learned so much. That’s the reason, I think, that [Ball’s] work matters.”

Schumann is careful to say that the organization’s work to be more diverse is an ongoing effort that will never be over, but the organization has made some substantive changes. The group’s process for hiring board members has shifted from a referral process to an open application. When it comes to hiring staff, the organization is “intentional about the relationships we have. When we’re recruiting, we’re sure to circulate job postings broadly to places and people we might not have in the past,” Schumann says, and that’s all after scanning every posting for alienating language.

“And it works — I’ll say it works,” she adds. “The candidate pools were getting when we hire today are not the pools we were getting a couple of years ago.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve updated this article to clarify Ball’s relationship with SCA after the organization shuttered.

Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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