Ruth Tyson, Sustainable Food Advocate and Community Organizer

Amy Westervelt interviews the woman who went public on systemic racism in the environmental movement.

by | Sep 22, 2020

In June 2020, Ruth Tyson left her job coordinating the Good Food for All coalition for Union of Concerned Scientists, penning an open letter to the organization that critiqued its treatment of her, other employees of color, and its general approach toward inclusion. In August a handful of other employees shared their stories as well, and calls for changes in leadership grew louder.

It remains to be seen what changes will be made, but UCS is far from the only environmental organization grappling with how to be truly inclusive. The movement as a whole seems to be going through something of a racial reckoning, but Tyson says whether big green groups shape up or not, she’ll be in the fight for climate justice for the long haul.

This Q&A is part of an ongoing series in the Drilled Podcast about the evolution of the environmental movement. You can read more about the series, and access other interviews, here.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Amy Westervelt: I’d love to start with a little bit about you and your background and how you got to working on environmental issues.

Ruth Tyson: Sure. So, I think it’s always been just a longing I’ve had just connecting to nature. I grew up in a community where it wasn’t really a thing, you know, like we didn’t really go to parks. I had a small kind of backyard growing up and I would just spend all my days out there just laying in the grass. And sometimes I would go into the woods, which wasn’t like a public place. It was just, I had this urge to just go walk and just view the trees. So I’ve always just had this desire to connect with nature on a kind of visceral level. And as far as environmental activism, I also just saw what was going on around me, you know, as a middle schooler, high school, they’re just like, oh, we should recycle, you know, as the messages we got. But I understood on a deeper level that our planet was in trouble. I think that was around the time when climate change started to become a popular term. And it just felt like it was a heavy, important thing that I felt like wasn’t being addressed with any urgency from folks around me or from, you know, government officials or anyone. When I went to college, I joined the Student Environmental Action Coalition and we did lots of different campaigns on our campus. There were a few to stop a natural gas export facility that was being built in the city that our college was in. And so we had a whole campaign against that. We launched like a Meatless Mondays campaign to reduce our school’s carbon footprint. And those folks were also involved in our campus community garden. And that’s how I really got involved in the food aspect of environmental relationship. So they encouraged me to go volunteer. And I thought it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done, like just watching this seed turn into this thing that you could eat, you know, a beautiful and nutritious thing that, you know, through putting intention and care and being in relationship with the earth, you know, being able to sustain yourself through that. I also studied sociology and minored in environmental studies because of those interests. I was just really interested in people and societies and how they operate, how decisions are made.

And then once I graduated I did some professional activism with a nonprofit that was trying to stop some proposals in my home county, Prince George’s County, a predominantly black suburb of D.C. So as D.C. was being gentrified, you know, black folks being pushed out of the city and into Prince George’s County, which is right on the border of D.C., we also saw power plants that were in existence within D.C., I believe there were three at the time, being shut down. And then there were three proposals in Prince George’s County. It was also like incinerator proposals. And so I was organizing with a nonprofit that was trying to shut those down and get community power behind that, get folks aware of it, because it’s a thing that, you know, you’re not really conscious of if you’re just trying to live your life. You know, these proposals were mostly secret if you weren’t really paying attention. Then I just started feeling more passionate about the food aspect of environmental justice instead of the big scope of like let’s save the planet. So, I started working at a tea shop that was owned by a black Jamaican woman who was a fifth generation herbalist, and I also was working for black-owned mushroom farm in the city as well. That was the first time I was exposed to some really not mainstream mushrooms and that kind of changed my life. I learned so much, about the farmer’s market and the food ecosystem, and then I really wanted to teach. I felt like I wanted to share the knowledge that I was gaining with my community on a deeper level and particularly with youth. So this opportunity came up with Food Corps, which is an AmeriCorps program where I could work in D.C. connecting kids to healthy food in schools. And so I intentionally applied for a school that was predominantly black in Wards seven and eight because I wanted the folks there, the kids there to see people who look like them, doing the kinds of things that I was doing, gardening and, you know, being concerned about the environment and things like that. And so I ended up getting that position for a year. The kids were really passionate and interested in it. But, you know, I would ask them, so you love this Swiss chard, are you going to eat it at home? And the kids would look at me like, Miss Ruth, wow, my mom would never buy this. And it wasn’t a matter of like they just didn’t want to, you know, the neighborhood I was in didn’t have a lot of access to grocery store, like it was physically just difficult to get to the grocery stores. It was also like the local grocery store didn’t have fresh produce. It was like very clearly a food apartheid situation. And so I was like, OK, I want to make a bigger impact. That’s when the job description came to me for the Union of Concerned Scientists, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity for me to both make a bigger impact because it was looking at policy on a federal level and how we can actually change the realities of the parents, you know, that I was seeing who aren’t able to access fresh, healthy, affordable food for their families. I wanted to make that level of impact. And it was also allowing me to maintain connection with grassroots folks who were on the ground and really rooted in community building relationship with them, which was something that I never wanted to give up. I didn’t want to be just working in an office and not really connected to folks who were doing the work, you know. And it had a racial justice focus. And, you know, it just seemed perfect from the job description. And I imagine you saw this story from then on in the letter.

AW: I appreciate you taking me through your career leading up to joining Union of Concerned Scientists. So, do you feel that UCS, or the environmental movement more broadly, has responded well to you making these concerns known? Are you seeing people start to make real steps forward on addressing racism within the climate movement?

RT: Folks have realized the importance of racial justice and the organizations, the larger organizations, have adopted it as a priority. And I’m using that term very loosely.

AW: Are you using air quotes I can’t see right now?

RT: Yes, yeah. So the organizations that are doing that, I think it is more about the image. It is about noticing where the trends are and where the funding is. And, you know, just like these more superficial ways of creating strategic visions. It’s not to the core that the leadership in the organizations really understand the importance of it, at least that has been my experience. It’s definitely staff who are putting pressure on from the bottom up that are like, “oh, hey, I am actually a person of this identity and I see the way that you’re operating.”. But on the leadership level, I think that just the nature of especially these really large NGOs is very difficult to to transform because they they are intended to sustain themselves. And they are rooted in histories that have been operating a certain way for so long, so they’re like ‘Why would I change? I have this expertise in this particular area.” And particularly an organization like the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is very much about science and hard facts, getting things done perfectly and maintaining their brand and not wanting to ruin the image, you know. And so, I think that the resistance there makes sense in some ways because with the leadership that they have currently, it doesn’t make sense for them to be leading that work. You know, like it doesn’t make sense for white men to lead racial justice work. So to answer the question, I’m disappointed in the way that UCS leadership has responded.

Almost immediately staff started responding, you know, because usually on people’s last day, they’ll send an email that’s like this is my last day, it’s been so great working here, here’s how you can stay in touch and my version of that was this 17-page letter I wrote about how stressful this experience was for me. And so people read it pretty quickly. I was surprised by how fast the responses started coming in. And a lot of folks just immediately were like, we need action, leadership: what are you going to do? You need to be accountable to this. We need this organization to shift so that we aren’t losing great people. And I also highlighted other stories from folks I’ve witnessed being pushed out of the organization. So, it was very clear this is a trend, not just this individual, anecdotal experience. And there’s potential for it to keep happening in the future. And so they responded. At first it was like, thanks for sending this. But it didn’t seem like it was directed to me, more so directed to the people who were responding. It was a crowd control thing; give us some time to read this and really process what the next steps are. Then a friend of mine sent me the statement that they put out … which, they never sent their statement to me, but it was in direct response to my letter. And in response to the Black Lives Matter movement that was, you know, pretty big everywhere at that time. And it was just so superficial. And it did exactly the things that I suggested that they NOT do, which was overburden people of color to tell them what to do about it, and to make them feel better about it.

AW: Has it made you feel you don’t want to work on environmental issues or just that you need to find a different organization. What’s your plan now?

RT: So, I consider everything that I do to be working in alignment with the planet’s best interests, so whatever I end up doing, that’s going to be a priority. But I am pretty certain that I’m not going to be working for another environmental nonprofit.

AW: Is there anything that you would like to see these sorts of big environmental NGOs start to do? I don’t know, any one thing that they could do that would indicate there’s some kind of movement on this?

RT: It’s a good question. So a lot of them claim to be doing this work that’s led by grassroots folks, led by BIPOC folks on the ground who obviously know what is best for their communities and that they are just supporting it through information, through monitoring what’s going on on the Hill and how folks can engage. But in my experience, it just felt like it was on the side, you know, like something that was just sprinkled on top of the important work, you know? Let’s push out the fact sheets and the reports that are coming from the higher ups. But then they wanted to also incorporate the needs and wants of the BIPOC folks that they wanted to shift into supporting more in their work, but there wasn’t as much time dedicated in folks’ work plans to support that work. At UCS, I was the only staff member who was dedicated to that work fully. And I was burnt out, you know, like I felt like I had seven jobs. And I was also supporting the other institutional work that felt like less of a priority to me. So I think that one thing that they could do is actually put their money where their mouth is, not just saying that you do this justice work and sharing your factsheets sheets that mostly advance your goals. But really, where have you been? The communities you say that you’re serving, how about pausing and actually, before you even do your strategic plan for the year, getting some feedback from them about ways you should prioritize your resources and your information, your expertise to better serve them over the next year? You know, how can we actually be in a reciprocal relationship that’s not just transactional? How can we actually build power together?

So yeah, I think doing that and also actually paying people for their labor. Hire and pay staff that are actually dedicated to the justice work, more than just a few that are overworked.

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.