Black Americans’ relationship with nature is rich and complex. It’s the foundation of Black folks’ history, stretching back over 400 years.

And Jerri Taylor, director of diversity in career pathways at Project Learning Tree, knows this well. She is the first Black American in a leadership role at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, one of the largest organizations focused on environmental education, forest literacy, and green career pathways. 

Being involved in environmental work might be in her DNA. It turns out Taylor’s own great-grandfather is known as a “hidden figure” in agriculture. 

During the 1930s, Berea “Burrie” Corbett was considered one of the largest Black landowners in the South. Corbett owned a 1,300-acre tobacco farm — made possible by $40 worth of gold coins he received from his parents.

His land was an important underpinning for the Cedar Grove community in North Carolina.

“I just knew that farming was something we did to survive and live, but I didn’t even know I could have a job in this,” Taylor says.

With the generational wealth Corbett amassed, he went on to build the first school for Black children in his community. He also founded a community center for at-risk teens and established a church.

Through her work diversifying the forestry sector, Taylor found out that half of her family members had jobs in this field.

There’s always been this view that you have to love the outdoors to work in this space. Because we have to be honest, the outdoors has not always been friendly to certain communities in a historical context.

Jerri Taylor, director of diversity in career pathways at Project Learning Tree

Exclusion from access to national and local parks and community pools evolved into a myth that Black people don’t belong amongst nature. Now, as more “green jobs” are created to support environmental injustice and the fight against climate change, Black folks are missing out on opportunities to be part of the solution for their own community.

They’re also missing the positive economic effects of potential good-paying careers that can help close the racial wealth gap and create generational wealth.

The ‘Green Jobs’ Diversity Problem

One expectation of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is the addition of nearly 1.5 million jobs each year for the next 10 years. Many of these jobs are focused on rebuilding vital infrastructure, advancing environmental justice, and tackling the ongoing climate crisis. 

As it stands, Black people are largely missing from sectors that seek to work on the projects created by the bill. 

Jerri Taylor, director of diversity in career pathways at Project Learning Tree Credit: Derrick Turner / Project Learning Tree

Environmental Entrepreneurs, also known as E2, reported that “clean energy has a diversity problem.” In 2021, they found that only 10% of workers in the overall energy sector were Black. In the fossil fuel industry, it’s 9%, and in clean energy, it’s 8%. 

Meanwhile, white people account for 74% of the overall energy sector, with Hispanics/Latinos at 16%, Asians at 7%, and both Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans at 1% and 2%, respectively. 

Energy is not the only sector where huge gaps in employment are found. As of 2020, Black folks represent less than 4% of conservation scientists and foresters, according to Data USA.

Project Learning Tree says “green jobs,” like a sustainability manager, have an average salary of $179,500, while an environmental educator has an average salary of $50,900. Both typically require a degree from a four-year college.

However, there are many jobs that don’t require higher education or only require vocational education.

‘Black Faces in Green Spaces’

Fixing the diversity problem is one of a few goals for BlackOak Collective, an environmental community for Black advocates, professionals, and students.

Kiera Givens in a black turtleneck
Kiera Givens, executive director and co-founder of BlackOak Collective Credit: BlackOak Collective

“It’s incredibly important for the organizations receiving and granting the money to think about how do we not only create jobs, but how do we do workforce development that ensures Black people are getting placed in those jobs,” Kiera Givens, executive director and co-founder of BlackOak Collective, tells Word In Black. 

Givens says it’s critical “that Black communities are receiving investment that’s done in a really thoughtful and meaningful way.”

The organization recognizes that Black communities are often the first to feel the effects of climate change. To get more Black folks seats at the table, they’re focused on recruitment, retention, and innovation.

85% of people get their jobs through networking, and when you look at the environmental field, it’s a predominantly white network. It’s not surprising that we still have not seen as many Black folks coming into the sector as we’d like.

Kiera Givens, executive director and co-founder of BlackOak Collective

Sharing opportunities with one another is a perk to being a member of BlackOak Collective’s free membership group. 

Givens says this industry has a low retention rate for Black people, partly because “they’re not finding that sense of community and belonging.” But they’ve seen success with retention through professional networking and mentorship.

This resource guide provides a look into “green careers” and “green jobs”

To make it easier for Black people to enter the profession, earlier this year the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Project Learning Tree, and Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences released a resource guide, “Black Faces in Green Spaces: The Journeys of Black Professionals in Green Careers.”

The guide features personal stories from 22 Black people who found their passions in forestry, and offers advice for those interested in exploring careers in forestry and conservation. It was largely produced by Black consultants, designers, photographers, and writers.

Taylor says one goal of the guide was to change the narrative so that Black youth have the opportunity to see themselves in these careers that are often not considered traditional for the community.

“When we worked on this project, we didn’t ask a question about mentorship,” Taylor says. “Every single person spoke about having a mentor because it opened their eyes to this path even being an opportunity.”

While making the guide, Taylor says it was important to highlight for parents that these jobs exist and that their children could make self-sustaining money from them. 

“Your [child] does not have to like the outdoors,” Taylor says. “But they can contribute to their community in positive ways.”