Alix Davidson’s fight for the environment started in the clearcuts.
During a camping trip as a college student 20 years ago in Olympia, Washington, Alix found herself looking over a hill one morning. The view on the horizon was striking. But not for the reason she’d expected. Ahead of her, she saw enormous stumps that were as tall as she was. When she turned around, these same Evergreens were still standing but destined to a similar fate. This provoked a rage and sadness she hadn’t experienced before.
“I felt a sense of devastation which morphed into a sense of mission and place,” the born and raised New Yorker says.
After her first encounter with the clearcuts, Alix knew she wanted to act. She started volunteering with the Earth First group on campus, and helped stop a land exchange between a timber company and the U.S. Forest Service. She also took a pick axe on a logging road in the middle of winter so that she and her fellow activists could chain themselves to trees when the loggers came by.
“When I think about where my career is now, I feel like I can take more risks because I have such a firm foundation. Once you’ve locked yourself to a logging road, you can do anything,” she says. “I know exactly why I’m in it. I know exactly what’s at stake.”
For Alix, it’s about more than the trees. One day, while walking in the clearcuts during an Earth First outing, she was remarking to one of her male peers about how there didn’t seem to be female leadership. He told her: “We’ll get to the women after we save the trees.”
This casual dismissal of the role of women leaders in the movement came as a shock to Alix.
“Expecting me to participate in my own oppression was out of the question,” she says. “It was clear to me that neither could wait.”
I wanted to grow old in the environmental community. I wanted to have a career. But I wasn’t interested in only working with white people. Alix became even more committed to the cause, wanting to prove to him and others that she could thrive - even if she was a woman. To that end, she stayed in Olympia after college and organized for the protection of national forests. She gave slideshows at libraries and gathered signatures outside co-ops for free, with small grants sustaining her every now and then. She was 22-years-old, engaged in the work, and didn’t mind that her diet mainly consisted of canned beans and whatever was growing in friend’s gardens.
“Poverty isn’t poverty when it’s chosen,” she says. “There’s a huge difference between choosing to live lean and being affected by the system.”
Her sacrifices paid off. Alix landed a series of contractor jobs, and then a staff position at the National Audubon Society, which brought her to Washington, D.C. A few years later she took a full-time position with a nonprofit that advocated for the protection of the ocean. It was a perfect fit for her skills and passion, as it connected Alix back to childhood summers on Long Island and Fire Island where she’d obsessively collect seashells, barnacles, and horseshoe crab skeletons to bring back to her Manhattan apartment.
But that job only lasted a year. They canceled the program she was working on, and Alix was right back to where she started. Terrified at the thought of being unemployed, she knew she’d found her passion and had to keep moving ahead.
The one tiny problem with the environmental movement
While Alix pursued a career in environmental justice, committed to breaking down barriers in women's leadership, she also had to contend with another challenge in the environmental movement: the lack of racial diversity.
“This isn’t pointing the finger at anyone in particular, but I knew that there was a whiteness and privilege factor at some of these organizations,” she says. “I wanted to grow old in the environmental community. I wanted to have a career. But I wasn’t interested in only working with white people.”
For Alix, a holistic approach to job seeking meant finding a place where diversity was valued.
“Growing up in a really multicultural neighborhood in NYC, the whiteness of the professional environmental community that I worked in always bothered me - it felt like an obstacle to achieving systemic change that would protect the forests I loved,” she says.
Lack of diversity in the environmental movement isn’t new. Those who’ve been involved from the get-go can tell you that it’s founders were typically white men, and its leaders have largely remained so.
Recently, a 2014 report by the University of Michigan points out that people of color comprise only 16% of staffing in the 293 environmental institutions they surveyed. And it’s not because these communities don’t believe the issues affect them or have no desire to make change. The barriers, the report finds, had more to do with the organizations themselves, including failure to reach out to minority-led organizations for hiring, unconscious racism and discrimination, and more.
“I think the environmental community tends to not have a systemic perspective on problems that concern it,” Alix says. “It hasn’t always seen the connection between economic, social, and environmental justice.”
Alix gives this example: Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, a community that’s majority Latino and black, is home to more than a dozen trash transfer stations. These stations are where garbage trucks dump solid waste into long-haul trucks to then take to a landfill. As result, neighborhoods have more than their fair share of traffic, noise, and noxious fumes that often blacken buildings and cause health problems such as asthma. Having a trash transfer station also means investing in the most basic community needs like grocery stores and parks fall to the wayside.
Communities of color shouldering the burden for waste is a pattern you see all over America.
This connection between the environment and social justice is something Alix has always been attuned to, and something she knew wanted to be at the forefront of her day-to-day - not as an aside.
“In one of my green jobs in DC, I was told that I had to attend meetings about increasing diversity in our ranks, on my own time. I loved the cause I was working for, but the organizational culture was a real mismatch,” she says.
So she got disciplined about finding an organization where having meetings about diversity was a regular part of the daily routine. She sat in a coffee shop at least four mornings during the week and worked at finding a job. She did informational interviews, religiously attended DC Green Drinks, enlisted eyes for her resumes and cover letters, and found support from other friends who were going through the same thing.
Alix found she was most lucky at places where she knew a staff member. Through connections from friends and friends of friends, she landed a series of short-term jobs where she got to see how a variety of organizations managed themselves internally without making a commitment.
“I care about dozens of causes, but I was looking for the right context where I could thrive as a person as well as an employee,” she says.
While searching Idealist, she found an organizing job at Green America, a nonprofit that’s all about sustainable economic action. She thought it was going to be another short-term gig - she’d never heard of them before - but it was where Alix ended up spending the next 11 years of her life helping bring more diverse voices into the movement.
How Alix is helping to change the conversation about diversity
From the initial interview at Green America where they talked about making sure communities of color were an integral part of the first Washington DC Green Festival, it was clear Alix had found her place.
“That first conversation I had with them was so powerful,” she says. “I just feel like we can’t win without these people. And not only we can’t win, but I don’t want to win without them,” she says.
Green America felt the same, and this synchronicity of values encouraged Alix to hustle and make herself indispensable to the organization. It worked. After just six months, they offered her a full-time job.
I believe if you have politics, you should wear them proudly. It came at the perfect moment, and not just for financial reasons. At that point, Alix needed a mentor. She found that in her boss, a go-getting woman who aside from being engaged in her majority black community outside of work, was also one of Green America’s founding members. This was important for Alix. Increasing the diversity in the environmental community not only meant reaching out to diverse cultures, but bringing more women into the fold especially when it came to leadership.
“In some ways we look like our predecessors and in some ways we don’t. When I look back over 20 years, in some ways we’re really winning,” she says, now 41-years-old. “I work now for an organization with strong and responsible female leadership. That meant a lot to me when I was 30 and applying for the job, and it still means a lot to me.”
At Green America, Alix has carried those convictions of equality and empowerment with her in the day-to-day. One of the first things she and her team did when planning the festival was to link social and environmental justice. The founding principles - sustainable economy, ecological balance, and social justice - are written on a T-shirt, for one.
“I believe if you have politics, you should wear them proudly,” she says.
Alix’s job has evolved from organizing the Green Festivals in DC and other cities to her current role as Certification Director, where she makes sure companies are upholding Green America’s standards in environmental and social responsibility. In all facets of her work past and present she’s kept race at the forefront. From making sure the festival attracted diverse speakers and attendees to actively reaching to black, Latino, and Arab companies, Alix pays attention to their voices. And not only listens, but follows their lead.
She had no idea that when she saw those clearcuts all those years ago it would bring her to where she is today. But she can’t see herself anywhere else.
“Mary Oliver, the poet, has this great quote: ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ ” Alix says. “Working for people and planet is worth my one precious life.”
By Celeste Hamilton Dennis