There is no epic report, online article, or twitter hash tag that can capture the true essence of this diversity crisis.  Nor can they suggest solutions towards a more even participation of our increasingly diverse country. The only way to really understand what’s going on and gain insights on what you can do about it is to RECOGNIZE DIVERSITY AS A LIVED EXPERIENCE.

The very first interview posted on this blog back in April 2013 was with scientist, Yasmin Lucero. She mentioned, “I grew up in Oakland, one of the most diverse places in the world. And that diversity is very front and center and you have to deal with it. It really influences this issue of, “How do you deal with conflict? How do you deal with a difference in opinions? How do you think about it, feel about it, and how do you take care of relationships when people are different from you?”No tool kit, diversity training, or podcast can get you to a place of genuine understanding and ownership of your place in the spectrum of diversity in the environmental movement; you have to live through it.

As a woman of color working in the environmental movement, I am taking a stand against the harmful diversity practices that serve to “educate the majority” rather than “support the minority”. I want us to kill this idea that minorities serve as a resource for mostly white organizations to check their "diversity box" or to strategize a plan of action that might bring more color to their staff and participants. I'm calling for a shift the way panels are conducted and and an end to diversity trainings.

In the 15+ years that I’ve been involved in the sciences and environmental movement, I’ve been asked more than a handful of times to sit on diversity panels or contribute to some symposium on a diversity topic. And each time I find that there are similar questions and almost completely predictable outcomes. The questions often being about, “How did you get involved, what keeps you motivated to stay, and best of all, “How do we get more people like you into our programs/orgs?” The big RECRUITMENT question! One predictable outcome for me was feeling important in some way, having to exemplify myself as a ‘leader’, which in reality just translated into “look! I’m surviving the culture shock of being in a mostly white organization”. Another result was that I relived my academic/organizational journey to an audience of mostly white people because they asked me to. And last, there was nothing more that helped push my environmental career further by participating on these panels. I just kept the hamster wheel of a conversation going.

After all these years of “diversifying” my career field, I realized I was harming myself by sitting on these panels. Now I realize this practice is harmful for allpeople of color. Sure, it seems empowering and a good networking gig to be up there, but in general, I see these panels put together as resources that predominantly white organizations need in order to do at least one of the following: show examples of how they are reaching their “target audience”, gain insights from us on how to do “community outreach”, or prove to others that there are people of color out there doing work, see? How exactly does this serve to directly support our career success?

In a last ditch effort to find some sort of benefit to diversity panels, I participated in one (and final) earlier this year for a wilderness exposure organization. I was recommended by a friend to participate. He too sat at the table with me. I thought, let’s just see where this can go. Perhaps there might be something different that can come out of this one. Plus, I had some good friends up there with me. Sure enough, predictable outcomes. But one thing I did do differently was I took that stance at the end to shapeshift the panel. After the prescription-like questions were asked and somewhat remedied by our responses I chimed in one last time. I stated, that panels are a difficult position to place people of color in; to ask us to sit on and to testify our careers as successful participation and that we have some sort of knowledge on how to get you to be a more diverse organization. This is tokenizing, I reminded the crowd. I went on to say that being a person of color is a lived experience, as is working in a more diverse workplace. I expressed, that earlier in my career I would do my diversity work as a panelist talking to a mostly white audience. Then, there came a point where I realized that I needed to work in diversity, within my community(with the panelists) because that’s what supports me. I further encouraged the people of color in the audience to keep building relationships with each other and that our alliances are what’s going to count in the long run. Recognize that there are good allies to work with and bad allies to be cautious of. But we have to find a way to work that truly supports us.

And as far as diversity trainings go, I’ve organized enough of them with environmental organizations to know that these must die as well. I now realize that my impetus to organize trainings and workshops was to cope with the oppression and disappointments I experienced as a woman of color trying to conform to the majority. I felt I needed to do something about the disparities; to help the white people realize their impact and dominance on people like me. That was working to diversify; that was working with an expectation that other people can change their attitudes towards people of color in just a few activities addressing white privilege and oppression. Often times it just caused a defensive tone towards me or instilled white guilt in the form of comments given to me afterwards.

To work in diversity means I’m working within my diverse community and supporting the work of other people of color to bring our participation to a norm. I find areas for collaboration with other leaders of color and support and mentor younger folks that are passionate. The idea and resource sharing, even program development happens in the context of including cultural aspects and celebrating diversity rather than approaching it with a “lack of” mentality (which often leads back to "checking the diversity box"). Good allies play an important role in supporting people of color with similar intention and cultural awareness.

There are plenty of people of color out there doing great work and have been for many years. We don't need to resort to organizing panel discussions or diversity trainings to help us cope through this reality of a homogenous workplace. We have each other. The stories and interviews on this blog are meant to relate to, get to know, and build relationships with others so that we’re supporting each other through those tough times of disappointments, oppressive behaviors, and amongst other things, avoiding the route of having to educate the dominant culture.

Exposure Without A Camera


Ron Saunders

Photographic Artist

Bayview Library Me Detail

I came across Ron and his artwork at a community market. I was actually at the market to check out all the vendors and see if I can put together a group of neighborhood restaurants and artists for an upcoming  event centered on food justice in San Francisco's Bayview/Hunter's Point area. Earlier that week, my friend Nancy told me about a neighborhood artist I should reach out to, whom is also part of a collective of black artists called the 3.9 Collective. Not knowing what he looks like or even making any initial contact, we met while we were both talking to folks tabling about a community garden. 

After that brief introduction he walked me over to a wall of his artwork and spoke about the unique technique he uses with plants and plant parts with light exposure. I was instantly intrigued. In some cases I didn't really know what I was looking at until he explained. But the images were captivating in color and the use of plants to add texture, I thought brilliant and a great way to see nature.

Here's my interview with Ron, diving a little bit deeper into his journey in art and his role in this amazing collective, the 3.9 Collective of San Francisco...

RS: …in order to affect change your going to have to be visible to the mainstream. Otherwise how are you supposed to affect change?

RR: Yes, how are you going to get the movement to move?

RS: You can be on the fringe, but for those people have to be out, they have to be recognized by the mainstream. Like the Google buses in SF as an example, it’s a small group protesting but they are very vocal and its to get the mainstream to hear.

RR: So what really interested me in interviewing you is first of all, I’ve always seen art and nature is one. From a background of science research and academia then to now, community organizing…we’re all doing the same thing as we work closely with “environments”.

Let’s bring art into the conversation. I’ve seen your amazing work at the Bayview Opera House with plant parts and photography. I also want to touch on the 3.9 Collective you started in San Francisco.

RS: Well, my background is in landscape architecture, have Masters in this and I’m registered as a landscape architect in California. My Master's is from University of Pennsylvania, and I graduated in ’82, the same year I moved to SF.

I’ve always been interested in nature and plants. As kid I used to go to Georgia to stay with my great aunt where she had property. My family would garden and they had lots of farm animals. I was connected to nature at a very early age and it affected my thinking in terms of careers. But not knowing what landscape architecture really was until my junior year in college. I was originally going to be an architect until I took an elective called Landscape Architecture. So I said, oh I’m going to be a landscape architect and an architect. So applied to both programs; landscaping and architecture and only got into the landscape program. And I’m glad I did landscaping because I found architecture to be way too rigid and I became more interested in being what they call, ‘being a steward for the land’.

I worked for large corporate landscape and architect offices. The last big one I worked for was Skidmore Owings and Merrill; an international firm that built at least 1/3 of SF’s downtown skyline. I was able to work on some really good projects and one big project in SF was on the landscape master plan and urban design of Mission Bay. It was odd to watch it come alive, seeing people occupy this industrial landscape that used to be a train yard. I’ve gotten used to  it now and it’s getting more normal now to see people jogging, walking their dogs, strollers, etc..

RR: So that was a fairly recent? Or was it more like the first design of that area because now The Blue Greenway is built?

RS: Yes, actually Mission Bay planning project started in the 70’s and in the first plan, residents in Potrero Hill protested because they didn’t want skyscrapers blocking their view of the Bay Bridge. Then it went to another firm, they did the plan, and Skidmore was hired to review that plan and fine-tune it. After that I left Skidmore in ‘90. In the 2000’s it started developing and there was always the idea to have a stadium and activities right at the entryway of Mission Bay. Mission Bay is about 300 acres of land, its big and mostly landfill.



After I left Skidmore, I did consulting with a firm in Oakland on a regular basis on anything from residential garden design, urban design, and master plans. After leaving them 7 yrs ago, I decided to focus more on residential garden design. And I found that more rewarding because I’m working directly with a client who’s getting the benefits of my services and it’s their private space that they get to enjoy as well. I always work with people who are open to the idea that what I give them is a very flexible design where yes, I can tell you where the paths, plants, and the patios, but understand that this is your yard and you have to change the plants because plants are living things. They change. They’re not going to stay little, they’ll get big and eventually they’ll die and you’ll have to replace them, etc…

So in the Bayview, I live in a development of 125 single family houses where we sit on 17 acres of land and 11 acres of it is landscape and most of the landscape is hills that surrounds development. Being a Landscape Architect, and seeing the property experiencing erosion in places very visible to passers by and homeowners, I informed the board that its time to do some improvements. So for the last 6, almost 7 years we’ve been doing planting to deal with erosion issues. And also by improving the landscape, people are noticing that there are changes happening and they like the beautification and it also inspires them to take think about gardening in their own yards. So again, even though residential, it’s a large scale and I’m used to doing large scale. I try not to think about the scale so much as the planning and at the same time, educate people. We’re trying to get some farming areas implemented. So we planted some fruit trees in hopes of getting some people inspired to help and say, “oh I want to come out and help and do some planting”, but that didn’t happen. But other homeowners on another street expressed interest in doing some gardening so we’re going to put in some fruit trees and work with owners to see what kind of vegetables do they want to grow.

RR: And that’s home. You’re working with your neighbors on your street.

RS: Yes, that’s home. I’ve been in the Bayview since ’85. I moved to SF in ’82. I’m glad I held onto it because property values have gone up.

RR: To put it into context for folks, what did Bayview look like in ’85 and how much change has happened?

RS: Oh, it’s a tremendous amount of change. I mean, the gangs that used to hang out on the street…they’re gone. Now you have old retired people, who are drunk and hang out and have nothing else to do. A lot of the vacant lots that were there are being in-filled with new condo projects. So there’s a new generation of homeowners, but all these new homeowners are all aging. They’re people in 50’s-60’s that don’t want to leave so in order to live in the city they’re looking for affordable housing and the Bayview is one of the best areas. It’s easily accessible to the freeway and downtown so they’ve taken an interest in improving their environment. They’ve taken it to contacting the chief of police to say they aren’t going to tolerate certain things.

There’s been a movement to improve Mendell Plaza, which used to have a street running through it but the city closed it off and people have decided to occupy it and give it back to the people. Some very positive changes happening. There are also younger people coming. Those who live in the city and don’t want to leave, they live in the Bayview. And we’re talking about mostly white people coming to the area because it’s affordable. They can buy a 3 bedroom house in the 500K’s with a garage, backyard, sunlight, option to garden, etc…

RR: Your thoughts on that as far as seeing the change in community in demographics in what we’re seeing now?

Pincushion seeds.

RS: Demographics are changing from majority black to majority Asian. So Bayview at one point was in 90% Black and there have always been Asians there. If you look back on records of the early 1800’s, you can see that there were Chinese shrimp fishermen there. The German, Irish, and Italian, were out there. Some of them moved away but they’ve always been there. The Blacks came in the 40’s to work the shipyards here, in Oakland and Richmond. Then those jobs disappeared then things really got bad because then they became highly unemployed. Some one said to me that the largest ethnic group right now is 40% Asian. I don’t know what it is for Blacks, but if you take public transportation, on the T, you can see at any one time, 25% of the riders are black, the rest Asian and White. It’s changed.

RR: In general, SF has a high number of Asians. But in Bayview Asians are increasing more?

RS: Yes, and there’s good and bad to that. The down side is yes, the Black population of SF is leaving but they’re not only leaving Bayview, they’re leaving the Fillmore or wherever they’re located in SF they’re leaving. They don’t feel welcome or that the place supports them. If you feel there’s no community for you, they’re not going to come.

There was a recent article in SF Examiner published about discouraging their black friends from moving to SF. It said, come visit, see it, enjoy it, but don’t live here; you won t get the support you would get living in Chicago or NY and Oakland. So it’s interesting and it's not going to help the city. The city is supposed to be a diverse culture.

And government makes a difference. The city government in Oakland has been promoting and supporting diversity. And they know that supporting Art Murmur is going to be a boon to the city because its part of the culture. If you go to NY, arts are highly supported. In SF, the arts are not supported. Sure, people want to go out and support the opera and they want to support the major museums, but in order to keep those institutions alive they need feeders. And if those feeders disappear its not going to support the greater institutions.

RR: This is a good way to segue into this collective that you started, the 3.9 Collective. Through our mutual friend, Nancy I came to know this collective, but interestingly enough I was also doing a lot of environmental-historical education with an organization in the Bayview/Hunter’s Point neighborhood. So, knowing and teaching more about the history of SF communities and the environmental justice legacies there and also experiencing first hand the sudden changes of demographics in the city, when Nancy shared with me her being a part of this collective as a black artist, I asked her to explain it to me. And she said the 3.9 was in reference to how many black people are left in SF.

RS: Well, in 2010, right before the census came out there was a report in the Bayview Reporter said they were estimating that the black population in SF is going to be 3.9%. And that’s where the 3.9 came from.

There were several articles that came out with projections of declines of 50% and still declining. The official percentage that came out in 2010 said that 6.1% of SF’s population is black. And the thing I find interesting about that 6.1% as their official number and 4 years have past since then, what I’m hearing some of the news reporting, which is surprising, is that they’re been saying that the black population of SF is 4%. But its definitely less than 6% because blacks aren’t coming, they’re leaving. And the ones that are leaving now seem to be moving to the East Bay, but during the first “” boom in 2000, there were people who inherited their homes from their parents that were there in the 40’s decided it was time to sell. The said, let’s get 700K for our house and move back to the South where our family came from and get a lot more for your money. You know, buy a house with some land and still have some money left over. So there was that “exodus”. There was another exodus of people that took advantage of the subprime mortgages and moved to Antioch, Pittsburgh, etc… because they wanted to get out of Bayview. They did see it as a good environment to bring kids up in. So there was this mass exodus, then we had the tech boom crashed and the leaving stopped.

But in 2000, one of the things that signaled to me that the Bayview had changed, was when I saw a white man, walking down the street wearing leather chaps and walking his poodle. I said, “That’s It! The Bayview has turned a corner and its not turning back!” And its been true! It’s absolutely true!

But cities go through cycles. And the same thing is happening in NY, but you know NY has the outer boroughs where the populations are still supported; Brooklyn, Queens, etc…

It’s been interesting watching this figure get closer to what the original estimate was based on someone else’s report and its not being addressed. I think one of the things that’s come out of this, because there’s this income inequality people realize is going on, is that it’s not just affecting blacks, but all of the working class people in SF. Sure, you can use the Google buses as a symbol but there really needs to be protests to city government officials. The supervisors, the mayor, etc…Those are the ones setting the policies and those are where the protests should really be directed. If you want to affect change, and policy change, the change is happening on the government level. I mean, look at Twitter, they got exemption from their payroll tax and they came to SF because of that. And now there’s a backlash because they’re supposed to give back to the city. And they’re starting to and they have been actually, it just wasn’t getting publicized. So now they’re starting to publicize that, like the volunteer work that their employees are doing. And that was the agreement for them to be able to move into the city, was to give back to the community. But you need the other companies to jump in on that agreement too, like to Google’s and IBM’s, etc…

The employees are young and young people want to be in the city; it’s vibrant. So employers and major corporations are realizing that the intellectual property are in the major cities and they support that. But they also need to realize that the workers that support those environments, like to secretaries, administrative staff, who don’t have tech experience have to live somewhere. And if they’re going to continue servicing them, where are they going to live?

RR: There have also been those communities that have been there a long time and don’t want to be displaced by al lot of that development.

RS: Which is happening to renters. This Ellis Act is just not working. It’s working for developers who want to come in, but for those who have been here for 20-30 years, all of a sudden they have to go.

 RR: Given all this change and the pressures on SF communities with this change, how did the 3.9 Collective come about in relation to giving support to the black artist community.

9 Hands Blue(4SQ)

RS: I met an artist, William Rhodes whom I met at and event at the Bayview Opera House. He moved from Baltimore over 4 years ago and he was asking me, “Where are all the black artists because every time I meet a black artist they tell me they live in Oakland?”

And I said, “Well, they’re here in SF, but they’re all scattered.” So he suggested we form a group and that’s how it all started. We started to reach out to the black artists that we all knew. He knew Nancy Cato, I knew Rodney Ewing, he knew Sirron Norris. So it started with the 5 of us and we decided we needed to work on making ourselves more visible by having shows, contacting our networks and spreading the word that there’s a group of black artists in SF who are asking our  our existence to be acknowledged. We also wanted it to be a group to be visible to support other black artists who might be in other neighborhoods in SF and might feel isolated. We wanted to provide a support system for folks to talk to people who have experience with the art world in SF and basically form a black community of artists here.

It was interesting because people we knew very well, who live in Oakland, wanted to be part of a group. And we were pretty adamant about saying, “It’s very easy for black artists to get together in Oakland; there are a few communities of black artists there. What we’re really trying to do is to pull black artists in SF together. Sure, we can form alliances with you, but how about supporting all the black artists in SF before they all leave?”

The group grew to about 20 and we continue to do shows. It gets challenging to keep people together because of group dynamics, but one of the things that we wanted to do was more community outreach and work with kids. William is pretty active right now in teaching kids at the Bayview Opera House and is an artist, in their Dare to Dream Program. We’re also at Bayview’s monthly event sponsored by the SF Arts Commission called Third on 3rd. There are always 2 members from the 3.9 Collective out there working with the kids so they can see that there are black artists here in the city to say, “Yes, you can do this. Yes, you need support and yes, it’s difficult doing it by yourself and don’t think you can do this by yourself.”

We want to have this exposure to the black community as well because it introduces them to art. People in general don’t like going to galleries and museums because there’s a certain environment there. So what I’ve started to look at is public art opportunitites. In 2010 I was awarded a commission to do permanent artwork for the new Bayview Public Library, which opened in February 2013.

I realized what I was trying to go after was trying to find a way to reach a broader audience and public art is a really good venue for that. Because people go to libraries and airports, they see art. You can’t not see it. Its very competitive, but I decided to keep plugging away at it. I have work at the Laguna Honda Hospital and also at the Public Utilities Commission new headquarters.

RR: In your artwork, your using plants and plant parts in the darkroom in this very unique technique. Can we get into the technique?

RS: The basic idea is that I’m using silver photographic paper so black and white images are created. However, I don’t use a camera and I don’t use film. I take objects and I lay them directly on the paper and expose them to light. When they’re exposed to light, the object on the paper becomes a white shadow and everything else around it goes black. So you end up with a silhouette. That’s the basic idea and they’re called photograms.

I use plant materials, natural materials, and salt. At the Bayview Library I’ve used salt, water, sugar, and cotton. I wanted to think of things that would connect to the neighborhood and the people of Bayview.

Cotton Head (sepia)

So for the shipyard in the neighborhood, I used water. But I also started to think about, what are we made of? Where did I come from? What am I, who am I? These questions also came about because my mother died in 1998 and I’m an only child and both my parents are no longer alive. Naturally those questions stared to come up and prompt me to start this project. I started with using the human figure first but decided I needed texture. So I looked at the plant world, which I was already familiar with as a landscape architect, and decided to collage the plants with the figure because they are a part of us, we are a part of them.

And because black people were slaves at one point, I decided to use cotton balls as an expression of our past. People may not recognize the cotton in the collage,but I use different things to express our inner being and of our histories as well.

RR: In this broader context of working in the natural environment or using natural materials, how do you see yourself working in this “industry of environmental work”?

RS: As an artist you don’t really think about connecting to other systems or institutions. You think about creating your art first. And that’s what I did. It was about ‘how do I express myself and who I am and where I came from?’ It became more universal. But at the same time, by me focusing on images that are just plant material, I realized it’s also talking about the environment. Because the series I do with plants is called, The Secret Life of Plants, I wanted people to realize that there’s something different about this ‘tulip’ that I’m looking at. Why can I see all of these lines? It’s not that you have to understand what those parts are, but as opposed to looking at a cut flower sitting on a table and you notice it because it looks beautiful or smells good, I wanted people to see the inner aspect of the plants. It’s looking at it at a deeper level. Thereby questioning when you see a rose or a tulip, let me look at it a little closer and see what kind of patterns are in there and get a better idea about nature. And begin questioning the things we take for granted, like nature.

The other day I read that we don’t even know what’s in our oceans. Only 5% of our oceans have been explored. When I read this, I said, you’re kidding me! What do you mean? We’ve gone to outer space and but we haven’t gone to the deepest parts of the ocean?”

So my photography is really there to try and educate people about the environment and take a closer look. You become curious. When I take an onion and slice it and take a photogram of it, you see concentric circles, but people don’t know what it is! Even master chefs will look at the image and question, what is this? You don’t see it because you’re either not looking very closely or you’ll take the food and think about how to put it in your dish, you’re not really looking at the essence what that plant material is.


RR: Or coming from a different perspective. Different people are coming to the image each in a different way. Not a lot of people are used to seeing things through a photogram. But seeing your spread of photogram on the wall, it was fun to try and guess what I was looking at.

You also talked about ‘taking things for granted’. We take the world for granted and how much knowledge we don’t know about the world. Can you speak a little bit more about that feeling of curiosity comes from? We don’t always go there, you know?

RS: I was always a curious child, so that curiosity I had wasn’t squelched. It’s interesting looking at these kids in the Bayview that have these young parents. And they don’t let these kids explore and therefore, they haven’t explored themselves.

I met this young mother who is taking her child to a Chinese school so that he can be exposed to other cultures. And you can tell she really wants him to have more than what she had or has. And she can really see that the city has changed and the world has changed. And if you don’t give kids an opportunity to explore and look a things that are outside of your world, you’re going to be left behind. You’re going to be closed off.

So for me, having that curiosity about life, people, adventures was very natural for me. Not saying that it wouldn’t be natural for other people, but I also think that people have to be exposed to environments that they might not be comfortable with. Simple things, like Bayview kids never seeing the Golden Gate Bridge or Golden Gate Park because their parents never took them there for whatever reason. So, sign your kids up for a day camp where they can go out and be exposed to these things. Because I think kids are naturally curious and they want to go out there. It goes back to the parents. And if the parents can’t do it, there needs to be a mentor or somebody that can lead them in that direction.

For two summers I did a summer camp at the Headlands Center for the Arts. On the other side of that facility is a public

Of This Earth_Feet Leaf

housing development called Marin City. Someone decided to give money to that community so the kids can have an afterschool program. And the kids didn’t know what was just over the ridge, on the other side of the mountain. There’s the Marine Mammal Center, all this science stuff. So, we introduced them to art where we had them write a story  and draw pictures about their home life as a way of communicating therapeutically and letting go of this stuff they needed to let go of and share with people so they’re not traumatized.

And also as a plug, I’ll say I have a Master’s degree in Social Work! I was going to work part time as a social worker and do part time photography, but things didn’t work out that way and I ended up doing the landscape design work because it gave me more flexibility to travel and play around with my photography. So it’s been interesting that I’ve been able to come full circle back to the thing that I really like a lot. I like helping people. The 3.9 Collective is still talking about who we can collaborate with to do art programs to expose kids to professional artists.

RR: Well, I appreciate having your perspective on your work in the environment. Your photogram images are really speaking for it self when I see it and now that I’ve been able to sit here and have a conversation with you. So, thank you for sharing this with me and everyone who’ll be reading this story!


To find out more about Ron and his artwork, please visit:

His website

Press Release for Bayview Public Library





To Nature, With Love

Conrad Benedicto & Catherine Salvin
Founders and Teachers of the
Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative (WALC)
Balboa & Downtown Continuation High Schools, San Francisco

My relationship with WALC at Downtown Continuation High School started when I was working at LEJ. I was impressed by LEJ's education staff of color, but what impressed me more and excited me even more once I got hired, was the opportunity to collaborate with the WALC program. It felt like home and where I wanted to be as an Environmental Educator; working with folks that I felt in my heart “get it” when it comes to the “people of color (POC) experience” in environmental work. The partnership immediately clicked and integrating WALC’s curriculum with LEJ’s was a natural fit and organic process. After LEJ I worked briefly with WALC at Downtown HS and to this day still maintain a great relationship with Catherine and the program.

Catherine and Conrad have been educating mostly at-rick youth of color out in nature for over 15 years! How is this program NOT a household name in the world of environmental education? And to know that there was a partnership between Catherine & Conrad that preceded the creation of WALC, I was all the more curious to know their story.

So when I sat down with them in their beautiful home in the Excelsior District of San Francisco, Catherine and Conrad taught me this...It’s fairly simple, this thing called Love. You fight for it, do the work, and find that place where you relate. 

*We’ve also heard a previous speech from Conrad from a post back in September 2013 called, A Race Critical Environment

RR:  Start with background of WALC. You are the partnership that created WALC. How did this thing start for you guys?  How did you meet?  How did the concept meet?

CB:  The concept was shot down initially…

CS:  We met at UC Santa Cruz in 1989…

RR: I’ll want a picture!

CS:  When we were skinny!  [laughter]  I was really involved in the Asian and Pacific Islander Student Alliance (APISA) when I started UCSC. Conrad [also a UCSC student] came to APISA because he had gone to Woodrow Wilson High School (WWHS) in San Francisco.  They were closing down Wilson, a comprehensive high school (HS) in favor of an academic HS, so it was not a just thing.  He came to an APISA meeting to get us to help him save WWHS, which was an inner city HS serving people of color (POC), Asian immigrant students, Filipino immigrant students, Pacific Islanders, Samoans especially. He made a case to us to help him save his [former] school.  We did.  We came to San Francisco (SF), went to school board meetings, called school board members, etc... So that’s how we got to know each other.

CB:  It ended up being a “stay of execution” because it closed down two years later anyway.

CS:  That was our first year in college.  We both ran for the educational rights committee (ERC) co-chairs at end of that school year. So the next year we continued working on education issues at UCSC and statewide, especially recruitment, retention and representation of students of color (SOC). The year we were co-chairs was the year we got together. The year after that, I was the chair of APISA and we were at UCSC from ’89 to ’93.

The dominant culture at UCSC is white hippie culture, where people are vegetarians and they hang out in the woods and there’s this place called “Elfland” in the trees where all the hippies go.  We were doing race-based work…nowadays people call it social justice work. Very lefty, racial equality-liberation-anti-colonial-type of work.  I had gone into Santa Cruz (SC) as a vegetarian, but doing the work I was doing I thought, "POC eat meat, so in fighting for racial equality you are rejecting the dominant culture, which was white hippie culture—not just white culture, but white hippie culture. So I started eating meat again.  Even though I had grown up going outdoors and doing outdoorsy things, in SC the environment was the realm of white hippie culture.  When I was Core Chair of APISA was when the officers were planning a core retreat and Conrad suggested going camping and I actually uttered the words, “No, only white people go camping!” I put my foot down, and we didn't go camping!  It was totally undemocratic. I was the chair, and I put my foot down and spent those two years saying “no” to camping.

RR:  Catherine, you’re from the Bay Area?

CS:  Sort of.  I grew up in five different states—CO, MD, MI, back to CO, NM—then moved to San Jose (SJ), CA in 8th grade, so spent 8th grade through Senior year in HS in SJ, then never went been back to SJ, ever.  I went from SJ to SC, then from SC to SF.

RR:  OK, Conrad, you were born and raised in the City?

CB:  I was born and raised in the Philippines, immigrated when I was 13, went to WWHS, then ended up in SC.  I chose UCSC because I imagined myself studying there because of the trees.  I grew up in the Philippines so being out in nature was just what it was—it’s always been a part of me.  Santa Cruz was a really interesting time; it reflects the fact that we were kids trying to define what we were.  The most important thing during that time in terms of finding ourselves was this identity, the social justice, racial, and ethnic identity.  It’s a little sad that in developing a strong sense of that we had to let go of some things that had been part of our lives since the beginning.  Saying, “I’m from the inner city, and it’s urban youth of color".  I did go through that, but what happened to the little boy with mosquito bites running around with slippers on the islands?  A large part was that the dominant culture that was pro-environment was still so alienating.  If culture in SC had not been alienating but more diverse and inclusive and understood our experiences we would have embraced it, but we found ourselves in opposition.

CS:  There was no dialog about the linkages between social justice and environment. All environmental dialog at UCSC was tree hugging and saving Elfland (which they were cutting down to build new college buildings).  Today we can talk to inner city kids about what the interest of POC is in the environment, the importance of involving POC, the impacts of environmental degradation on POC and indigenous people…but at that time, there was absolutely no discussion.

CB:  The environment that was defined was very euro-centric; did not speak to needs of POC.  It was about land rights. That what was “environment.”

CS:  Nobody made that bridge.  We took classes on colonialism and imperialism. That discourse is about land rights and the importance of protecting it, but there was no bridge between the environment and how protecting land rights of indigenous people is related to environmentalism.

CB:  “Environment” was meant at that time as “leaving it alone,” humans don’t belong…you had to be an elf to be part of the environment.  Most environmentalists now hopefully don’t think like that.  But you went to Humboldt.

RR:  I understood that redwoods needed to be saved, we shouldn’t cut old growth, the concepts of preserving for sake of preserving…but I was not necessarily in that stage of understanding myself enough to connect my identity to what was going on at  Humboldt and those kinds of values.  I did feel disconnected, like “me and my friends are not going to sit in a tree“. I was gung-ho on being a biologist and I took pride in being unique from my peers. I took pride in going to Humboldt because it was unique.  But I did not really understand racial dynamics and racial differences at that time.  Where I grew up it was ethnically diverse, where I hardly saw white people. I grew up around a lot of immigrant families and  being around Asian and Latino people was what I was used to seeing.

CS: My primary identity in SC was as a woman of color (WOC) and an activist. Everyone was really focused on brown power, black power, yellow power, red power…an exciting time to be an activist because it’s not like that anymore.  At that time, it was much further left than it is now, and there was a sense of excitement and urgency around the different campaigns that we took on and statewide networking that was happening.  Because we were involved in the statewide networks we were also connected to “adult” activists outside of the university involved in coalition building. We went to Watsonville to hear about farm worker unions, went to the Bay Area to listen to Jesse Jackson speak about Rainbow Coalition work.

CB:  Getting professors of color hired at UCSC.

CS:  Yeah, lobbying for ethnic studies. I was not thinking of the environment. I was thinking of how to get an ethnic studies department at UCSC or how do we retain SOC at UCSC, which at that time was the least diverse of all UC’s. Most SOC felt alienated, because it lacked diversity to such a huge degree. SOC easily connected with one another. There were no tensions between Asians and African-Americans, or Latinos and Native Americans, or whatever.  If you and an African-American person were the only two POC in the class, you were going to connect and you were going to be friends and you were going to study together.  It was a formative time because it helped us position ourselves in coalition with other POC’s.  Coming to SF to teach, it’s important you know how to work with all POC.

CB:  So all that activism, together with some of the classes, gave us a good foundation in race/class/gender analysis…I think things are different now in SC and around the country because of the kind of activism that was all about self-determination and coalitions back then. A lot of cultural shifts and political and economic gains that might have been made, we’re sitting on it now.  That’s why people are talking about cultural competency now, and hiring consultants to make their organizations more diverse.  Why is that the culture now?  It’s because of that activism that was happening back then that was really focused on racial solidarity and racial equality.

CS:  Racial solidarity brings us to the roots of WALC [the Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative].


CB:  Also, all that stuff we talked about is stuff we needed and our students still need now.  You can’t really be a well-adjusted person in this country, a POC, if you don’t have a solid understanding of race and all of that.

POC, whether immigrant or not, that’s part of problem:  You don’t feel like you fully belong to this country, that this country is yours.  You have to make that step if you really care about those trees, or open spaces, the environment in general beyond what you experience in your neighborhood.  Racial analysis is important for me in becoming an environmentalist again.  Having that identity again was when I learned the history of Filipinos/Filipino-Americans in this country; it allowed me to feel like, to state that this is my country too—and by country I don’t mean the flag, I mean the place, the land.  When you think about your students and [the question of] “how am I going to nurture that sense of stewardship and responsibility for land,” it’s gotta go hand-in-hand with a good historical analysis of racial dynamics, gender, and class.  Our students wouldn’t feel half as invested in the beautiful places we take them to, and all the parks and various areas we ask them to be stewards of…if they did not get other information/knowledge which is the thing we bring to our classrooms from our background.

I say, “Look at the historical evidence:  It’s quite clear that every one of you comes from a community that is connected somehow to the history of this country, has contributed and struggled. “This is your land.”  When they get that, and those experiences out in nature, and get science and art, then they get a complete experience that speaks to them and allows them to say "environmentalism can be part of who I am"—in a way we could not say in UCSC.  That’s what WALC is, in a nutshell.  WALC is a program built by teachers of color (TOC) for diverse student populations because that’s what we can bring…analysis that allows students to embrace the environment.

CS:  Even though WALC is an environmental organization, its roots are in our work around race.  You should start with the Unity Club, Conrad. Tell the story!

CB:  WALC was first the Unity Club. It was me wanting that camping experience that she had shut down in college, a club we started at Balboa HS.  And the whole purpose was to build friendships across different ethnicities because there were a lot of racial tensions and fights along racial and ethnic lines at that school.  The idea of the Unity Club was to promote the unity and coalition mindset [CS: the solidarity] we had in SC. The idea was to take kids out of their environment (school), and take them places where they can develop friendships and relationships that they can then take back to school. Then maybe we can begin to change things a little bit, like the climate at school.  That was the “proto-WALC”, the basic idea of "let’s take kids out in nature".

RR:  When did that start? What year?

CB:  Probably, 1995 or 1996.

RR:  It was just a club, an extracurricular thing?

CB:  Yes, we met during lunch, we had bowl-a-thons and food sales up on the 3rd floor to raise money for our trips.  The teachers used their own cars, borrowed gear, etc.  We raised money for one camping trip at the end of the year.

RR:  Were you [Catherine] at Balboa too at that time?

CS:  No, I’ve always been at Downtown; we’ve both only worked/taught at one school. Conrad’s been at Balboa since 1994 and I’ve been at Downtown since 1994.  So, before I say how WALC started at Downtown, you [Conrad] should say how Unity Club became WALC.

CB:  It has always been about social justice and critical race analysis and academic success.  Then thinking about what the vehicle is through which we could more effectively teach, WALC grew organically from the Unity Club. When you take people out to nature, they ask questions.  All of the analytical frameworks and WALC themes grew out of those experiences.  The environmental education component was way we discovered to do what we wanted to do, better.  For the Unity Club to become better we needed to deepen their understanding and connection to the places we were taking them to.  It so happens that all those environmental education concepts—diversity, interconnections, sense of place—go hand-in-hand with the social justice and critical race analysis we were trying to teach and that we saw as critical to our students’ success.  So that’s how Unity Club turned into WALC. We changed the name to WALC, “Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative.”  That’s when we started applying for grants to fund the club, and it became an after-school program that offered credit for participation. If members attended all the trips and after-school meetings, they could get credit.  That was the beginnings of the academic nature/angle.  Then Catherine decides…

CS:  Conrad always says what I do is I take his ideas and make them better!  At the time Conrad started WALC with other teachers at Balboa HS, I was working on trying to restructure Downtown HS.  When I first started Downtown in 1994, it was a small version of a comprehensive HS, with a six-period day.  At a continuation school, you have kids who have been unsuccessful at a comprehensive HS. To think they will suddenly become successful just because they’re in a different, smaller version of what they were not successful in is not sensible. Downtown HS at that time was very much like that bad Hollywood movie about an inner city high school…

RR: Dangerous Minds?

CS: Well, but without the transformative teacher part, more like fights in the hallway, melees, and horrible attendance. A small group of teachers wanted to try something different, but met a lot of resistance.

For Conrad, the roots of WALC were about coalition and solidarity-building, but for me it was all about educational reform.  This continuation school was not meeting the students’ needs or offering a true educational alternative. They were failing and dropping out and we had graduating classes of 20 or 30 kids.  It was just not right.  I went into education to try to “do something” for SOC, inner-city students, and at-risk students. I submitted a proposal on how to restructure the school, which was to move to a project-based model where we work in teams and offer interdisciplinary project-based curriculum. When trying to figure out what my project would be, WALC made sense to turn into a project.  So WALC’s second year as a club at Balboa was its first year as project at Downtown. The next year Balboa restructured into “pathways” where Juniors and Seniors choose a pathway in which three periods out of their six-period day are integrated.  After a year of WALC as a project at Downtown, it became a “pathway” at Balboa.

CB:  Yeah, while they were going through a reform process at Downtown, Balboa was going through something similar, a restructuring of our 11th and 12th grades. We had some key grants that first year from EPA that helped as seed money for all of our equipment.  A lot of the grant-writing that we had to do helped to develop a lot of our philosophies.  The roots of this has always been about ethnic studies.

CS:  It has always been about the kids, first and foremost, not the environment first and foremost.  We were all TOC creating a program for SOC to try to make their education more effective.  WALC just finished its 14th year and has had the same goals and pedagogical principles since the start of our grant-writing. Our first goal is to increase the academic success of our students.  And being able to take them outside and expose them to nature is a vehicle for that, but it has always been about the kids first and foremost. “What do we want for them, what do we want to teach them, how can we teach them best, what can we offer, what can we give?”  It’s always been about that.  WALC never came from “the environment is important so therefore we should make our kids learn about it” perspective.


RR:  Environmental organizations are talking about this big buzzword of “cultural relevancy” or the “relevancy” of their programs or even "any environmental work has to have relevancy with their target audiences”.  When it’s youth, it’s the terms of the environment and who usually has that access rather than on the youth of color that they want to serve. Working on the terms of the students is really what teachers do! It almost seems laughable that there are environmental education programs now scratching their heads wondering how to implement relevancy. 

The dominant cultures are making it so it’s not on our (students & POC) terms so we work towards being included.  How does that play out when you are teaching students? You are doing things on their terms, but other groups giving the same kind of knowledge and exposure and experience are usually not. How do you strike that balance?

CB:  Well, we’ve been asked a lot by other organizations to share our philosophy and pedagogy because they want cultural relevancy.  And we do share and we’ve done whole-day workshops where they get everything we give our kids so they see how we do it.  Our answer is always the same:  Cultural relevancy can’t be achieved with a workshop.  The kind of analysis we bring comes from a degree.  We read tons and tons of books on history, politics, economics.  We’re activists, so we always ask these teachers that want us to share, for that kind of commitment. We tell them this is about scholarship. You have to learn, have to read those books, take a class. You can’t just manufacture relevancy from a workshop. It’s not a magic bullet.

Think of what we ask of our kids, our immigrant kids that we want to succeed in this country.  What did I have to do to be able to navigate mainstream culture effectively?  I read all the damn books! I know Shakespeare, I know US History, that’s what our kids have to do.  To make something relevant to them, you have to go the opposite way as much as they have to. You have to put your nose to the grindstone and learn.  We did that as environmental educators and we did not come in with that expertise. We took classes and read books, spent summers in the mountains learning geology, fluvial geomorphology, put in time because we knew it was crucial to making the program solid and legitimate as a scientific academic program.  Catherine is a national board-certified science teacher. She had to do that in order to make this program work and be effective and she wanted to!

The whole “cultural relevancy of environmental programs and environmental education” is a deep kind of problem that I think workshops are not going to solve. There has to be a sea of change in terms of how to even get your certification as an environmental educator. There has to be some sort of ethnic studies component, you know?

CS:  There was not an ethnic studies major at UCSC, so all the activists majored in American Studies with an ethnic studies pathway.  We were all essentially ethnic studies majors.  None of us came into WALC as science teachers, but because we believed in WALC and wanted to do right by our kids, we did our homework, took summer and weekend classes, and…

CB:  We scouted.

CS:  We never took kids to places we hadn’t been to and studied first.  Especially in the beginning years of WALC I would spend hours and hours out and still to this day!  If you want to do a geology unit, take the summer class in the mountains. It goes back to the foundations of WALC. You have people who are ethnic studies majors who get into education because they want to serve SOC and create an environmental program that has roots in ethnic studies, but also because of our background we understand this is an academic program and it is our job to teach the kids and we need to teach a rigorous scientific curriculum.

We call our trips field studies, not field trips. Students have to do assignments and field journals and study the places we go.  The primary goal is to increase academic achievement of at-risk kids. How do you capture their attention and engage them in academia? Being out in the field can do that for kids.  It’s about how the environment serves them, not how they save a tree or plant a plant. We use the environment as a way to engage the kids in their education—because of that, we’ve learned and we’ve studied.


CS:  The kids need a sense of place and attachment to somewhere bigger than they are and that will serve them and help them get their bearings and navigate as they go into the world. It’s not dragging kids out and saying “Hey, plant some plants.”  Through our curriculum and field studies we are fostering a sense of ownership and stewardship. This land is theirs, belongs to them. It always has.

Because we have that bigger picture, we can engage our kids. The larger context of “what it means to plant or compost, what it means to communities, to your people historically, to do this work and forge these connections with the land”, it’s a different context.  For other organizations trying to be relevant, I’m not sure…because their framework is so different, their starting point is so different. I’m honestly not sure how successful they will be, especially if they’re not willing to read the books and study and be scholars of the connections of POC and the land and the environment, it will be very, very challenging to engage POC.  I even think the term cultural relevancy is inappropriate; it’s not about culture, it’s about what are your people’s historic connections to land, your rights, the effects on your communities of environmental degradation?  All of these issues are historical and political. Not just “Hey, in my culture, we make tea out of a plant”. Even if that’s important, that’s an issue of being connected to the land and your people’s history in a place, not just about the tea being cool, it’s about a bigger context.  I think that the concept of making it cultural is not taking it far enough.

CB:  I think if you want to replicate this strategy, I would not necessarily recruit from the “environmental education department”, I’d go recruit in the ethnic studies department.  Honestly, we were at an advantage because all the stuff we talked about that we had to learn, that stuff was fun! Because we were out in nature we were learning, and that was an advantageous situation for us because yes, it was a sacrifice but we were willing and it was fun.  Whereas if you’re an environmentalist now and you grew up learning all that stuff and, I guess, having to take a course in African American history, Asian American history…

CS:  It would potentially be mind-blowing though! I agree learning science is fun, but there is also an element of steely determination to become a legitimate science teacher. There were the fun classes, but there was also the studying, the research, the book learning, it still was hard work.

CB:  I’m just saying, they’re at a disadvantage because they’re not camping and hiking…but race analysis is always tricky…especially for white people.  What’s harder, a white person learning race analysis or a POC learning environmental education?  The white person has a harder task because of all that baggage and stuff they have to get over in order to finally get to spot where it can work.

RR: Not only are you talking about all the scholarship and work to be effective, but you guys have lived it. You live an identity that you take with you in the work that you do.  So that also speaks to the success of the programming and how passionate you are…students feed off that as well.  The dedication they see in their teachers will reflect on them as learning individuals in the classroom. From being in the classroom or in field with WALC, it does take empathy to recognize what needs to be done as far as teaching on their terms and being a person who has lived the experience of being a POC in society.

I want to move more into more of the diversity topic and approaching the students first, then broader into the bigger profession of environmental work.  As working with the students, broadly, has the issue of diversity ever come up in the many years you have implemented the program?  The content you’re teaching, or out in a field study trip?  Like, the issue of a not-so-diverse environmental movement?

CS:  Diversity is something that is explicitly part of curriculum. The Downtown and Balboa WALC’s have different curriculums, because of the different structures, but both address lack of diversity historically among environmentalists or the environmental movement.

I have four semesters of curriculum, each with an environmental theme. One of them is my Activism unit, Struggling for Sustainability: Preservation, Restoration, and Environmental Justice, that you [Raynelle] did with us. In that unit we make it a point to explicitly study how we perceive environmental movements or environmentalists.  We surface all the perceptions of environmentalists as being white hippie tree huggers and then we proceed to study movements and activism all over the world in different countries. In third world countries, the US, the environmental movements among Native Americans fighting for land rights and we explicitly have curriculum about who accesses nature and wilderness and why.  There’s been more and more scholarship in recent years about the issue of access of POC to the environment like Mexican Americans and the Environment, Brown and Black Faces in America’s Wild Places.

I actually study with kids, things like the buffalo soldiers as early protectors of wilderness, and how that counters perceptions of the relationship between African-Americans and the environment. We study what environment and wilderness means to different people.  It’s not just that it comes up again, it’s about scholarship. Not about sitting around the campfire talking about how we feel being the only POC in the park, it’s about studying why we’re the only POC in the park and not the only POC that care about the environment.  It’s an explicit, very purposeful study.   Conrad teaches a US History class that is essentially an ethnic studies survey.


CS:  This is all assuming they’ve learned the lessons [laughter]…much more ideal at Balboa than at Downtown, but not for lack of trying…

CB:  This is the ideal version; in the middle of February I’m still just some guy trying to teach them about some damn court case but by the time they graduate , it’s starting to come together.

CS:  I think they understand that disconnecting POC from land has been a tool of oppression, colonization, and imperialism. So when we take them to connect with the land, they will reclaim what is rightfully theirs and everybody’s.  What we do has that context:  Land was taken from all of our peoples, so how do we reclaim the connection, the rights, honor the people this land was taken from? We do that by forging relationships with the land again.

CB:  At the very least they can ask, “why are you wanting to kick me out of here, this land is un-ceded” At the very least, we can have them imagine Yosemite National Park as being part of Mexico once.

RR:  So when you talk about prepping them for what they’re going to experience at the park in the context of the history of land, what happens when they actually come across some incident of discrimination being a large group of urban kids in a national park?  (1) Can you describe an incident where that has happened?  (2) How were your students prepared for that incident given they had been prepped with history of racism or other historical events?

CB:  Yeah, that’s a great question.

CS:  There’s a lot of incidents.  The most popular incidents are people accusing us of doing things we didn’t actually do. If we camped next to a loud boisterous group that was violating quiet hours, or beer cans strewn about, the Park Ranger comes to us.  Or the bathroom is TP’d and they assume it’s our kids.

CB:  Yeah, that totally has happened.  In terms of how they handle it, we always tell them, “look, you have to hold yourselves to our standards. It doesn’t matter if people are going crazy at the campsite next to you, we have our own standards. We have to hold to our own standards because you already know people are going to have expectations of you. You always have to defy those expectations.”  That’s always part of camp orientation at the beginning of a trip.  More often than not, they [the kids] are good. All the time it’s not us! It’s some crazy frat boys that we have to ask to be quiet but rangers come to us first, so teachers have to go to the next campground and show them where the whiskey bottles were.

We’ve had docents say to us when we arrive to a site, “a ranger is going to meet you at the gate and he has a gun.”  So things like that…


CS:  There’s also the “Are you supposed to be here?” type of reaction. We’re doing habitat restoration and they want to make sure we’re not plant vandals.  “Who told you you could do this?”  Even at McLaren Park in San Francisco, surrounded by neighborhoods of color, a Recreation and Park Department person has to vouch for us.

CB:  Adults have to be adamant and stern to people harassing our kids. It is really frustrating and still messed up to have to have a higher standard. It’s wrong to be blamed, just wrong.  There was a cultural competency workshop with national park rangers, talking about this issue, and there was movement on the part of some of these rangers so some good came of it. Some partner programs at Yosemite and Sequoia…there’s been an effort.

CS:  But it still sucks to go through that…

CB:  Yeah, it still sucks to go through it, but it’s just something you deal with before, and not just sit around and talk about because that is completely an inadequate response.  It’s just a reminder to our kids and to us that this critical race analysis is vital to be able to help them feel like these places are theirs as well, as they’re obviously made to feel exactly the opposite.

RR:  Have you experienced those interactions actually have a negative impacts on students’ engagement with the environment?  Have they felt…and then been like “I don’t see a place for me in this work”?

CS:  I’ve had kids gone through the whole curriculum and still think nature, environment, wilderness are for white people.  Even though we’re academically teaching them otherwise, they still really feel that the environment is the realm of white people.  And probably not just from incidents, park rangers, but from a whole lifetime of collected experiences.  We are competing with their whole lives, not just what we teach them in a semester or two years.  But we also have kids that believe us by the end and want to go into environmental work and see a place for themselves there.

CB:  They end up taking their kids out.

CS:  Programmatically what’s happened is we’ve learned to be self-sufficient.  When we first started WALC, we thought, Oh, there are ranger programs and docent programs. But because of earlier experiences of them not liking our kids or not being interested or even afraid, we have to do our own education pieces. We’ve created an organization and program where we do and facilitate our own programs because we cannot be sure others will have a rapport with our students.  It’s very rare we get someone ready to meet our kids with an open mind and an appropriate curriculum. The plus of it is self-determination in an academic environmental education program. We will create and deliver our own lessons ourselves for our students, rather than entrusting a stranger who may or may not be able to work with SOC, to teach and treat them appropriately.  That is the biggest programmatic effect of various forms of discrimination. We’re bound and determined to be self-sufficient.

RR:  Given that, it’s empowering to realize self-determination in the work, but is there potential or hope that one day, you can rely on other organizations or trust there’s competent staff and curriculum to work in partnership with more agencies as WALC develops in years to come?

CB:  That’s a good question…

CS:   I think they have to start hiring our kids. There would be more potential for collaboration and trust if they had more diverse staffs. I always ask if they have a POC they can send to us if nothing else. People understand the language of role models.  Our kids need role models.  The best way to start serving POC is to have staff represent the populations of people you are trying to serve and have them empowered to develop programs, curriculum, and relationships with groups, programs, teachers, and classes.

If environmental organizations are really serious about involving POC or SOC then their staff needs to reflect that.  It’s not hard to find them. Go to cities and schools, or farm country. Go to where POC are and create internships and summer jobs and pipelines to positions that will eventually serve those kids. It’s an investment, I think.  For me personally, that’s a way I would feel more comfortable with outside providers, if they had staff of color.

CB: Although there is some hope organizations that already exist can change and hire POC, the eventual solution will not come from those organizations "changing".  The eventual solution will come from more people like us creating organizations, then we work with each other.  That’s really where it’s going to come from. Otherwise I just can’t see the sea change happening in the mainstream environmental organizations that exist.  A lot of them are only doing it because of funding pressure [CS: That’s true; RR: “mandates”]; a lot of funders say, “Where’s your cultural relevancy, where’s your cultural competency in these environmental education offerings?”

CS:  “Who are you serving?  Why aren’t you serving a population that reflects the state of California?”, etc…

CB:  Yeah, it’s all grant-driven, and they’re going in directions they’d really rather not go, really…because…

CS:  They’d be perfectly happy to just do what they’ve been doing the past 50 years, and just keep doing it.  [CB: yeah]  Their whole premise is opposite of our whole premise.  We’re starting with the students and they’re starting with the place. We’re trying to figure out how to serve the students, and they want the students to serve them.  The whole premise is wrong.

CB:  Not to say organizations like that are useless and have no value…diversity’s good, right? We just need more organizations to be established that are coming at it from this angle.  It’s going to happen, it’s already happening.  We exist!  Other organizations exist and they may not have our model of taking kids out, but doing environmental justice campaigns in the neighborhoods,  [CS: grassroots campaigns]maybe it’ll get better. That’s history, right? We cannot rely on mainstream environmental organizations to change.

CS: No, absolutely not. We have to do it.


RR:  People are recognizing with some studies and statistics out there now that in a certain year, the nation will be mostly POC. Recognizing the change is going to come, that’s the tough thing.  There are so many POC who are “the only ones” right now. I’ve heard so many stories….I’m one of them!  Certain times in my work I’ve left an organization or work with a particular group because I didn’t feel like I had the proper support to be successful. But how can you have that support if you’re the only one (a minority)?  Giving it time, and also making it an intention to centralize that aspect of including people who have not been included before?

CS:  That foundation of dominant culture of “environmentalism is white people;” the idea that they need to start being inclusive is sort of like integration. That doesn't change the power structure or fundamentally change anything at all. It still leaves the power with white environmentalism.  There is such a thing as POC environmentalism, in fact, there are more environmental justice organizations per capita in the African-American community percentage-wise or proportionately than there are nature/preservation organizations among white people.  One problem is that people don’t see all of that when they see environmentalism. The other problem is that POC working on environmental issues who work grass-roots and on the ground or have campaigns they are trying to accomplish don’t have time to help white people diversify, and why would they want to? They have much more pressing issues and communities to serve.  Coalition–building can happen among environmentalists of color. There are not necessarily that many coalitions happening between POC doing nature/wilderness and POC doing environmental justice (EJ) work, so more of those bridges can happen.  LEJ had a model of uniting ecology with the EJ piece and that could be an important place of unity.  Without the mainstream environmentalism and the white power structure, there are still coalitions and bridges that can be formed and built to create a community of POC working on environmental issues.  That has more potential than asking the dominant power structure to be inclusive.

CB:  And that is a framework I would rather work in.

CS:  I remember, we did this series of workshops for the “Adopt-a-Watershed” organization, an annual summer leadership institute, 1-2 weeks.  We did this intensive series for them about POC and environmental activism where we tried to change the way people saw environmental activism.  So Native Americans fighting for land rights is a form of environmentalism because whatever land they’re able to protect they’re going to take care of it better than people who steal it from them to develop it.  Looking at farm workers unions (UFW), Filipino , Mexican ,and Latino farm workers, one of the workers’ rights they’re pushing for is fewer pesticides, which are making them sick and giving their babies birth defects. Can we look at that as environmental activism because to the extent they’re successful in reducing the use of pesticides the environment will benefit.  And I remember a woman at the end saying, “These people are not environmental activists. Maybe they’re EJ activists, but that’s not environmental activism”. And I remember thinking, “OMG, you missed the whole point!”  Why aren’t EJ activists considered environmental activists??  Theyare environmental activists! Why feel the need to separate preservation/conservation from EJ activists?  If that is the dominant framework/culture of environmentalism, that says EJ activists are a different kind of environmental activist, then we can ally ourselves with EJ and expand EJ to include nature, wilderness, access, environment.  That would probably have more potential.

RR:  Any last thoughts you guys wanna give on the work you’ve done, specifically on the issue of diversity, or last thoughts you want to give our readers?


CS:  “Everything we teach you about nature, you can apply to yourself,” is one of our mottos. Diversity is one of those things.  We tell our students that themes in nature apply to yourself and your community and your history.  We’re not just teaching about nature for nature’s sake, but because it has applicable lessons.

CB:  If you look at what needs to be achieved by the environmental movement and how will we achieve them, all that stuff will not happen unless there is diversity. That is where the power will come from; if not diverse, it will not succeed. If the ecological lesson and the history lesson hold true.


In the Heart of a Minority


Charles Nilon

Professor of Urban Wildlife Management

University of Missouri 

Charles Nilon encourages a group of Kansas City area school choldren to listen to the sounds they hear on a walk along a nature trail near their school. Photo by Steve Morse

Charlie really showed me that as a faculty member, it is a safe place to talk about the challenges, down to the details of being a minority in Ecology. I sat down with him, just like the previous interviewees, and caught up with him after having that first deep discussion four years ago. 

What we talked about in this interview brought us back to that safe conversation space. Not only does his life experience speak to what he’s lived in his heart, but his place at the University of Missouri puts him in the thick of “A” minority experience. If it was anything that I learned from him it’s this; that his story and words lead my heart to better understand what might be happening in other places of the country where the diversity of communities looks much more different than what I’m exposed to here in the Bay Area. Take for instance the statistic he provides; for a campus (University of Missouri) with a faculty population of 3-4,000 (much like UC Berkeley or UCLA), less than 1% were minorities for a long time. Today, Charlie is one of two faculty of color in his department. 

He’s an inspiration to me in the ways in which he has motivated himself to succeed as well as how elegantly he’s played that important role of working with colleagues that may have different perspectives than him and especially what his students have brought to the table.

 RR: The last time I spoke to you was about 4 years ago. Are you still at MU and in the same capacity?

CN: Yes, I’m still here at the MU campus in Columbia and I’m halfway through my 24rd year here! I started June of ’89. In fact I interviewed here 25 years ago this week. So I’ve been here a while. Things are going well here, I think the things career-wise with research, teaching and things like that are going well. I think the issues of being faculty at UM… there will always be challenges there, in terms of the setting.

RR: How did you get interested in Urban Ecology going back to even your younger years and where did your inspiration came from?

CN: I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. Born and raised there. Growing up I did outdoor things. My dad would take me fishing, walking, hiking. We watched animals, walked up creeks. So I did that kind of stuff growing up. And I was also a Boy Scout. So I was always interested in the outdoors.

What was funny was, I never connected that interest with anything beyond just liking the outdoors, like

getting a job. When I was in high school and elementary school I don’t think I ever thought about that for a career. Interestingly enough, my outdoor experience was always kind of urban/suburban. Growing up in Colorado we went up to the mountains, but most of the real contact I had with nature and hands on contact was in an urban setting. We used to go looking for turtles along the creeks in town and I had a friend who lived across the street from me. He had a teacher who taught him about birds in 3rd or 4th grade. So we looked around the school for birds in this place between 2 neighborhoods.

Then when I went to college at Morehouse College in Atlanta, I was a Biology major. I liked science but I had no experience looking at Ecology as something you do. When I got there I thought I wanted to be Pre-Med. But after a year I liked science. I didn’t want to go to medical school and my advisor at Morehouse suggested I volunteer somewhere.

My dad was an English professor at the University of Colorado so I grew up in an academic household. He helped connected me to Jan Linhart in the Biology Department who was a Forest Geneticist. They were looking at bark beetles on Ponderosa Pine right on the front-range. So I volunteered with him one summer to collect pollen samples. And I don’t think I did a particularly good job, but I volunteered and spent a couple of days a week in his lab. While doing that, I made contact with a graduate student who had been a Wildlife major as an undergraduate. For the next couple of years I thought about that as a career. And that’s how I came into Ecology and Conservation.

Now the urban part came about this way: I’ve always liked cities. My family was the only one in our family living out in the West. On vacation we’d always go to Alabama or the East Coast so we always went to big cities. When I got to graduate school (Yale School of Forestry) and started working on my master’s degree, I started thinking about the interest I had in cities. And I became interested in linking my interest in nature with my interest in cities. For my MS, I worked on a project suggested by a faculty member, where a graduate student wanted to look at wildlife in New Haven. I got involved in doing that for a master’s project. We went out to different neighborhoods of New Haven and trying to look at what species were there. So from the time I started my MS to now, it’s just expanded.

It really came from having an interest growing up, exposure to outdoors growing up and being exposed to the city.

I was at Yale for an MS, worked for 2 years for Missouri Department of Conservation. I started in a temporary wildlife biologist position that became full time. I went back to get a PhD at State University of NY in Environmental Science and Forestry. That was on an urban wildlife project. My advisor was Larry VanDruff, who started a lot of the urban wildlife research that was carried out at US universities. While I was a graduate student I was a coop student with the USDA Forest Service Northeastern Forest Experiment Station on their urban exposure to wildlife ecology and urban ecology.

RR: You grew up in Colorado until college and found a home in Missouri through professorship.

CN: And this is pretty much home now.

RR: In the context of time, you went to grad school and figured out your pathway. What was the landscape of Urban Ecology like then? Was it a new and upcoming concept or had it been there for a while? I ask because I see that a lot of the times urban environments are kept very separate from what natural sciences regards as “environment”.

CN:  When I went to Yale, there were three faculty members who where interested in urban areas. Steve Berwick, a Wildlife Ecologist, and Bill Burch, and Stephen Keller who were both Social Scientists. The person I did a project with at Yale was interested in the wildlife side of Urban Ecology. I think he had a legitimate interest in urban areas, but I don’t think he saw this as a core part of what his work was. When I got to my PhD, Urban Ecology was viewed very differently.

SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry had several faculty interested in urban ecology. They viewed it as a big, organized discipline that goes back to the 50’s and 60’s in Europe and in Asia, then continued in the US beyond that. I'm a Wildlife Ecologist. Urban wildlife is a subfield of Wildlife Conservation that at least goes back into the mid-70’s. So, when I was in graduate school (MS) in 1978, by the time I started, Urban Wildlife Ecology was well underway.

I think that wen i was in grad school most ecologists viewed urban ecology as viewed by most ecologists as a separate from mainstream ecology. It was viewed as very, very applied and not really relevant to any Ecology. To give an example of that, Wayne Zipperer and I were in graduate school together at SUNY. ESA was in Syracuse that year and we led an urban ecology field trip. That was the first urban ecology field trip ever done with ESA.

RR: After working at Stanford I moved onto working in the non-profit sector in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco. The environmental justice issues were “in your face” and surrounding us everywhere. To me, that is urban ecology as well. But a very strong component of environmental justice is how society plays a part in how we see the environment. Do you find that, because environmental justice is so clear with pure data, that there are connections to race and economic classes to our land use? And how similar or different is that kind of lens to what you do in Urban Ecology as a discipline?

CN: I would say that with my research has a very strong environmental justice focus, but that’s really just developed in the last 15 years. Some of the delay was coming from a tradition in ecology that there’s the value of science as being objective, and this objective where environmental justice was just advocacy.  And from my experience, I’d see these things, but never quite related the justice issues to what I did. I say. Once I got to MU and started taking on research projects I started to see the links between my research and environmental justice. Leanne Jablonski and George Middendorf have been a big influence on me in this area. 

When I was at SUNY a faculty member in the forestry department studied vegetation in yards across the city of Syracuse. And the thing that stood out of the study was how much of a justice component there was to that low income African American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods were different than other neighborhoods, and upper income neighborhoods. I was thinking about that in graduate school and after I finished, that definitely influenced me a lot more. So now the environmental justice lens is really a big part of what I work on. A lot of the research that I do I try to intentionally look at neighborhoods focused on the nner city and try to understand people’s day to day interactions with nature and how that shapes the Ecology of cities. So that’s one thing I’m interested in.

RR: So, you growing up in Colorado I know that there’s a very, very low percentage of African Americans here. Did your upbringing influence any of that work you do in environmental justice and do you go back finding yourself connecting to you being a minority in Colorado?

CN: Yes, definitely a couple ways. One thing that my dad was interested in was history. And I used to get

Charlie with his parents probably 1957. "Proof that I got my exposure to urban nature"

my hair cut by this guy in Denver, named Paul Steward. He was a barber who started this Museum called the History of the Black West. We’d go over there and talk to him and see all these pictures. He would talk to all these people in the community that grew up in Colorado. They would talk about going to “Red Rocks” or these other places outdoors. Even though I grew up where there weren’t many black people, I grew up knowing that there was a connection with nature and people doing things outdoors. I didn’t see that being involved with natural as something unusual.

When I went to Morehouse, an HBCU in Atlanta, that was the first time I experienced being around a lot of black folks that didn’t really get into nature. And it was interesting to experience that at Morehouse where most students were pre-med majors.

A role model for me was Ted Washington, a wildlife biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. He had gone to Colorado State University. I met him during graduate school and I saw myself doing that kind of work. Steven Keller is a Social Scientist who did a lot of human dimension stuff. When I was in his class it was interesting because he went through a lot of literature and did a lot of research about attitudes towards nature. A lot of research said, "Black Americans have negative attitudes towards nature”. And I remember being in his class and thinking, okay, I get what he’s saying on the one hand, but I think there’s something missing about what he’s saying.

RR: The statement that Keller made about Black Americans having negative attitudes towards nature... When you said there was something missing in that statement, what did you mean by that?

CN: A lot of the ideas that people in conservation and in ecology view engagement with nature very much through their own lens. So, they say, okay, “you’re interested in conservation, that means you spend money to join the Sierra Club”. They have an image of what that person’s going to be like. People might be engaged in nature in other ways, for example Judith Li at Oregon State University's Fisheries and Wildlife Dept. wrote a book, To Harvest, To Hunt. What she was saying was that when biologists talked about what people fished for or how they interact with nature, the model was always from people in the recreational lens. They don’t think about the fact that say, people particularly from China, eat different kinds of fish. So when the Chinese came to San Francisco, they ate different kinds of fish. They would fish for different kinds of things. So there's that mainstream model of saying, “Here’ s what you do if you fish”; the idea that everyone’s experience with nature is uniform. It results in people assuming you are alienated from nature or want to be separate from nature. Questions are often asked in a certain way to have this outcome. 

I think about gardening. My own family like my dad’s cousins from rural Alabama (more rural folks) liked to hunt. They gardened, hunted, and did all those kinds of things. I think if you asked them about their views on ecology and nature and all that, they probably wouldn’t say a whole lot, but if you ask them about the things they do, they do a lot of different things outside. So I got interested in those kinds of things, like how do people interact with nature. What Judy did in this book, was talk to some people in Portland and surrounding areas to talk about what their experience with nature. She was trying to see "What was your experience?’ instead of saying, like those in academia would tend to say "Your experience should be this".

RR: It reminds me a lot of how I would communicate to youth or sometimes in my presentations about the environment. Everyone has his or her own definition of what the “environment” is. And it might not necessarily be what the larger group says it is and there’s always going to be value in different definitions of "environment. That’s not to say that any of these definitions are invalid, but it kind of plays out that way in our world. That’s where I see some of this conversation about diversity because the majority of folks come from one perspective on defining these things, like what "Ecology" is, what "environment" is, what "successful careers" are. Then the challenge is, while we recognize there’s the minority voice that hasn’t been heard loud enough yet to make that included in the norms and conversations, how do we reach a point where it’s a shared movement towards continuing the work. Because there’s a lot of, “they see it this way” and “we see it that way”.

CN: We can look at ESA and what SEEDS has done for the organization. In some ways, maybe not so much the perspective of the students of SEEDS, but I think SEEDS has changed the culture in two ways. (1) If you go to ESA now, versus going to ESA 20 years ago, its completely different, the people look different (2) SEEDS brought in students and faculty who have different ways of looking at ecology they’re all Ecologists.

ESA has always struggled with this idea that you’re only a real ecologist if you get a PhD and you’re at a university teaching. One thing that SEEDS has done and something you are doing with this project, is saying that people have all these different pathways they take and saying that most people who belong to ESA aren’t traditional Ecologists. That’s one thing I always remind myself of is that majority of the membership aren’t necessarily big people doing research at a big university. There’s a diversity there of community colleges, agencies, consultants, people who do outreach. So that vision of what people are is a lot more diverse then we often think.

RR: I think there is progress there in the way our world is moving towards a more diverse atmosphere and make up of folks. It’s inevitable that it’s going to have to progress with that and hopefully it will be in the time frame that is beneficial for ESA as an organization to change perspectives.

 CN: I think that where Ecologists struggle a lot is in that notion that “no one cares about what we do”. Ecologists understand the issues that people really deal with in their lives, and they see how Ecology relates to that. Like when you talk about what’s going on in Hunter’s Point in San Francisco, there are a lot of issues going on there. People recognize that there are a lot of things going on there.

One of the issues we talk about in my classes is talking about pollution, or exposure to lead contamination. We talk about St. Louis and the Missouri River. We have a lot of lead contamination risk with lead-based paint and over-housing, and that’s an ecological issue. There’s a social issue as well, but understanding how lead works as an element and how it cycles is an ecological question. So understanding how you get exposed to lead is something an Ecologist would be involved with. I think that idea when you engage communities, working with residence, raising issues, those are things that can bring things together. Because seeing that there are diverse perspectives of what Ecology means between two people is really important.

Charlie PhD advisor, Larry Van Druff and PhD student, Tommy Parker

RR: Your location now and your experience…What are the demographics of your area?

CN: Missouri is a Midwestern state has 2 big cities St. Louis and Kansas City (2-3 million person metro cities). There are 4-5 cities in the 150-200K population range like Columbia, Springfield, and Independence. Missouri has 10-12% African Americans  and a small Latino population in Kansas City, and immigrants from all over. There's a very small Asian, primarily Chinese American population. And St. Louis has the largest Bosnian population in the US.

Columbia mimics the state in demographics. There are lots of people who have lived here for a long time, several generations. The university’s main campus (Columbus) out of 4 other campuses, is the main research and teaching location with 35,000 students. Until the 1950’s MU did not admit black students. The first black student in the 50’s, they hired their first black faculty member in 1975. The overall number of faculty of color, US born, is under 50.

RR: What’s the total number of faculty on campus?

CN: 3,000-4,000 faculty, similar to what Berkeley or UCLA has. The minority faculty was under 1% for a long time. Before coming to MU I was working as the urban wildlife program coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. I was encouraged to apply for the job by the Department Chair, who I knew.

If I were to generalize the experience of most faculty of color at MU, in some departments minority faculty have been really successful. They’ve had really successful careers. I think that in other departments other people have had really difficult times. Some of this may be do to the culture of the department, but very much an individual experience.

I'm in the School of Natural Resources. It has roughly 40 faculty members. I was the first Black/minority person hired.A black woman was hired just after me, received tenure, and let about 10 years ago.

In terms of the research, as I’ve include more of the environmental justice components to my research, my graduate students have been much more diverse than most other faculty in my department. My students say that a lot of other grad students would ask “Why are you interested in that, why are you studying that?” And it’s been an interesting experience for my white students who have also been asked why they are interested in environmental justice.

RR: So it’s like a default to question why you’re there instead of accepting it as just another topic.

CN: And I think it’s changed. In general I like my experience, and I like the people. I think some of my frustration is from being here a long time and seeing that there are some things that change and some things that don’t. It’s this frustration that people SAY diversity is important, but they don’t seem to recognize the things which help to make our department more diverse.

RR: It just doesn’t seem like a norm that people even think about the importance or impact of what it might be to have a more diverse workspace. And so it’s never put in the front of anyone’s efforts. It’s just kind of on the side... over here. That’s a very common frustration that I’ve experienced working with diversity programs on a deeper level. There’s good intention there, but there’s no knowledge of what to do with the information from the people.

So your student did a thesis on this. What happened to the information that she gathered? Is anyone using it now and how is it being implemented?

CN: I'll give you an example, Lianne Hibbert was on of my grad students who did an evaluation of the first cohort of SEEDS students. Remember that the first cohort of SEEDS students all came from HBCU institutions.  There were two parts to the program. Campus SEEDS chapters were important to students because they provided a support network.  SEEDS also did a lot of work with faculty members at the SEEDS institutions with the idea that if faculty were engaged they would engage students.  The faculty development part of SEEDS was not continued.

Lianne found that what really got students motivated was the community component and justice component. She said that “our campus did something with our communities” and that was something she found on all campuses all across the board for all the schools. That was something that developed independently from anything that was initially planned. So students said that they wanted to do something that would really get them involved with communities.

The bigger part of your question is…I think that the people who ran SEEDS at that time recognized what she did, and they also recognized some of the results of what Alan Berkowitz (who started SEEDS) did. I think that recognition is reflected in SEEDS emphasizing campus chapters. On the other hand, I think that SEEDS had a harder time understanding the bigger picture of what went on at HBCU institutions, particularly the role of faculty mentors. And I think that at times ESA as an entity struggles with the idea that there is "A" minority experience and forgets that students of color are a very diverse group.

RR: Well, it almost sounds like they know what “a minority” is, but they don’t know what diversity is.

CN: Yes, that’s what I was getting at. They’re missing that piece.

RR: Yes, that was a common frustration with my peers because some of us recognized this missing piece. When I first started, this community was like heaven! I needed it. And it just kind of fizzled out when we started graduate school. We recognized their strategies of engagement and community building and we wanted to keep that there. But ESA as an organization limited their focus in where they wanted to bring those opportunities; only undergraduates. Especially the I grew close to. We wanted to keep these things going and voice ourselves and participate more with SEEDS. But because they limited their outreach strategies, some of us didn’t really see that as relevant for us as graduate students.

I actually worked really hard on it for 2 years and convened a cohort of alumni to get excited about SNAP (SEEDS Network for Alumni and Professionals). And I think alums are continually excited when they hear about it, but what I found is that I got burnt out from it because of what you said before. They recognize that there are things that are beneficial to diversity, but don’t quite know what to do with that information. So I was left with an alumni group that was all volunteer run. I mean the point is to keep that pipeline and pathway continued on into professionalism and not keep the effort in only getting undergraduates engaged. The point of even pitching this to SEEDS and saying, “Please invest in this area and let’s work together to try and find resources to do this. But it was a response like, “Yes! This is all good and great, we’re cheering on the graduate students, but we just don’t know what to do with you guys.” And I feel like, really? We’re screaming for help!

CN: That raises a good point because one of the things we talked about was about that very first cohort. A bunch of us were impressed that, WOW, there were PhD’s that came out of this!

I should mention that in addition to her masters degree, Lianne was hired to assist in in depth interviews of all the first SEEDS cohort.  That first cohort was 40 people. They would have started in 1997 and by the time Lian interviewed them in 2002, everyone was still involved in Ecology in some way. But ESA was questioning whether SEEDS was effective in their efforts because they weren’t getting enough PhD candidates from the program.

The first cohort included people of very diverse outcomes and careers that benefitted from SEEDS. There were Masters students with jobs at state agencies, medical students that were interested in public health because of SEEDS, etc…but ESA was questioning whether this really addressed diversity. For example, if someone was in SEEDS and becomes a doctor or a high school teacher and both really address environmental issues, is this a success?

The big questions still is... What does diversity actually mean and what does it mean to actually have a field that’s more diverse? 

RR: There’s also something to be said about increasing numbers and participation. But in real life you’re going to have to interact with people and realize the context of diversify the field you’re in. What can you say, from your personal experience, how to navigate that in a healthy and constructive way? Like you are now are still one of very few in your institution, people of color. In the day to day, what does that mean?

CN: What I’ve found is that, you lead multiple lives and there are multiple things you do. I recognized early on that in anything, in order to be effective you have to do the things you are expected to do as part of your job. So at the university it’s about teaching, research and services, that’s what your paid to do and that’s where you’re evaluated on. I understand that you have to be able to show that you’re doing that. And that’s part of what drives me to do the work. I try to think about how diversity works to uplift my teaching, research, and services. I’ve tried to look at what my interests are, what are important things to me, and how I can incorporate that in the things I do. For example, I was really worried at first about doing work related to justice issues, that it would be really, really different. But I found if I showed that as being a part of my teaching, research, and service it helped me navigate through.

My perspective has always been in first recognizing that I have a right to be at this university. I’m part of the MU and my experience isn’t of just a minority at UM, but that I’m part of UM and its culture and its changes. Second, I’ve tried to look at it as what I bring to my department, how that strengthens the department. I’m interested in broadening it and making it a different place. So those are two things I try to look at.

RR: That’s your motivation and something you remind your students of. Have you ever experienced that inspiration? Have you experienced a time where a student of color has been inspired by just seeing YOU as their instructor?

CN: Yeah, I have seen that and it’s kind of strange. Like Tommy Parker, he was my PhD student when I was at the University of Louisville. We used to talk about his experience. It is inspiring for me to see that I have been able to see that I impact people’s experience. I recognize that you do serve as a sort of a motivator. Ted Washington who is in Colorado in the Forest Service while I was in graduate school, Bob Williamson who was at Tuskegee University working with the Forest Service. Knowing that these guys were my motivators and to say there are these guys that I might have talked to once and told me, “Yes you can do this, so man, here are some of the scrapes I had along the way…”

RR: Have you had any experiences where in your work and support of students, has the context of having a discussion about diversity been challenged by your department?

CN: I think it has come up in different ways, but I try to be outspoken about diversity in the department. I really saw this come up when more students of color came to the department. When two graduate students were working on their PhD’s, both of them had a particularly difficult time with faculty members who they felt challenged everything about their experience; their dedication, intellect, everything they did. I don't think that the professor was doing this intentionally, but I think that the students perceived that they were being singled out and that their perspectives on their experiences as students of color in our department were being dismissed.

So, I’ve had to speak in that way. What I’ve seen in my department is that our faculty is still trying to figure out what diversity means. Like, they can’t quite “get” who people are. But my role here is really to say, “Okay, just like majority students they come with all these different backgrounds. You have to recognize that with minorities you have this diversity too and what they might bring with their experiences.”

RR: It just becomes this awkward social interaction when you ask what the ethnicity of this student is, or these other questions to get to know someone. You have to be so careful not to offend anyone.

With graduate student, Tommy Parker.

RR: Last things you want to mention?

CN: Well, I think it’s really exciting and really interesting to do this interview! And I’m always interested in this whole diversity thing and how fields change and how it happens over time. It’ll be interested in what you get, who you interview.

In Retrospect...


IMG_0349 To end this year, I decided to share a piece of writing I did back when I started graduate school at San Francisco State University. I started my program in 2006. I’m still struggling to finish. In retrospect, I read back on this piece and reflected on where my life was at that point. And where I am today with respect to this conversation about diversity.

Unfortunately I wasn’t surprised to read that the conversation about inclusion (as far as I can tell) is still the same as it was in 2008 when I wrote the article below. Don’t get me wrong; the push to include and “diversify” environmental engagement on many levels has increased. But in my opinion, the conversation has been far too long on everyone’s radar and at the same time, efforts haven’t overcome important barriers to retention in enough time to see real change happen. 

So, as I sit here in the midst of the holidays and the turn of a new year, it’s only natural for me to get reflecting back on this year. The D Word has had some amazing profiles and stories revealed and I can’t wait to get the new stories posted. It’s going to be a bangin’ year of more amazing “Enviros”! 

This 2008 article reveals a little bit of where I personally was coming from, but more so, it exposes the perspectives of other folks in the Biology Department on the issue of diversity in science academia. I guess you can say this project has been years in the making! * Published in SFSU's BioNews, Spring 2008.

Diversity article

Same Dance, Different Day


Nina Roberts

San Francisco State University

Associate Professor of Recreation, Parks, & Tourism

Nina main img

She holds a special place as a mentor, a friend, an a professional I genuinely look up to. We met when I was in the heart of an all too common struggle of a small, non-profit environmental justice education organization going down. Extremely busy and stressed out, a program request came through my email from Nina. Slow in my responses, the first thing that stood out to me was her persistence. She called and left messages and emails trying to schedule her college class for a presentation and stewardship experience. I could have easily taken a dismissing tone to her request, using "a full schedule" as an excuse, but something in her voice and her style of communication triggered my intuition to say this would be a good thing to follow up with. Little did I know I would begin a great relationship with a person who had a strong understanding of the justice embedded in the place-based education I was speaking on. Not only that, but what I quickly observed with Nina, was that she was in a position (as a Professor) to include social justice into her professional equation. She engaged in discussions about race, equity, injustice, and most importantly personal experience. You see, in the "conservation" world, this isn't a common approach. And I recognized that.

So when I sat down to talk to her it was one of those rare opportunities to capture her perspective to the depths of her upbringing and influential experiences throughout her career that most of her other '500' profiles online won't reveal. What she offers below is a true gift and just like her personality, it's "real talk". 

NR: I’m a professor at SF State University, going into my 9th year. I've had a variety of jobs in the field and, at this time, believe I have found my calling in terms of the work that I do. My goal wasn’t to get a PhD to be a professor. I wanted to get the degree to improve and perfect my research skills on visitor use and social science relating to parks and public lands. What I mean when I say "I’ve found my calling" is that I’m doing what a lot of my career has enabled me to do in one hub.

As far as my ethnic background, my family comes from a mixed-race heritage. My grandmother is from Madras, East India and maternal Grandfather is from St. Lucia in the Caribbean, West Indies. The history of Caribbean is ultimately of African descent; much of the European influence we see today came later.  My father is white, from Liverpool, England.  And, my parents were married in New York in the 1950’s when it was illegal in some states. They were part of that core of the Northeast where life was mostly black and white. When you have a mixed mother and a white dad having me and my four siblings, we never, ever, fit in anywhere as far as race relations. We were brought up to believe in the human spirit and that you can do and be whoever you want to be. So I will always embrace that.

My interest in parks, outdoor recreation and environmental studies came from my childhood. My mom would stay home to raise me and my siblings. She loves to read and do her artwork; she is a very talented artist. My dad would take us out to the park, the beach, mostly anywhere outdoors.  Nature was a big influence on me as a kid. As a teenager, I started to work at this playground and this gave me the idea of working with kids because I had so much fun. So I later became a camp counselor in Massachusetts. The counselors were all white and the kids were all black and brown. I knew this dynamic all too well!  I noticed it, but never really thought anything of it.

I pursued my Bachelor's degree in this field (Boston area) because I knew I could be a recreation professional and study parks and make difference in the world. I had different jobs like the YMCA, and also being an athlete, I was a high school coach, strength fitness instructor, etc. The more I became hooked on the environment and outdoor adventure activities, the more I wanted to pursue THAT! So as I was exploring a career in outdoor adventure, and learning about it, the more I’m thinking about myself and my connection to the outdoors and parks. I began to realize that, from a gender standpoint, back in the 70’s & 80’s when I was growing up, there really weren't too many women doing what I enjoyed. It left me curious to know, “Where are all the women?” and “Why are all the leaders and instructors of these programs white guys?” It wasn’t until later, in retrospect, that I began to ask those questions as a professional. Then I started meeting the strong, powerful women doing work about understanding gender differences in the outdoor arena. How people do things regarding participation patterns, and how are women vs. men leaders different in terms of style? How do we change training or embrace young girls in outdoors, different dynamics of groups, changing of group dynamics in outdoors?  Lots of questions were being asked back then, and still are.

NSR helicopter ride_EBRPD_Aug13

So as I got more involved in natural resources and park management, I got a Master's degree at the University of Maryland and became more savvy meeting people and noticing a lot more happening around me, especially professionally.  I began to ask again, “Okay, where are all the black and brown people? I see more women coming into the field based on the feminist movement infiltrating all disciplines in the 70’s; more women were then becoming managers and leaders in the 80’s.  Now that's part of why the conversation is continuing…around 'why so few black and brown people?'. It's changing, but very minimally. I really wanted to keep going by studying this and understanding what's up.  So I moved to Colorado in the late 90's to pursue my PhD in this area and thought advanced research opportunities would bring the value of my work to a new heights.

At the time, there were only 3.5% black people in the whole state! And Colorado is a big state! I knew I was going to encounter some challenges. My doctoral program, revolved around exploring minorities in the outdoors and wilderness, and my research was amazing.  Apparently, when I arrived no one had ever studied that topic in Colorado specifically except for a couple of others, so my phone was ringing off the hook!

Understanding now, from more of a racial/cultural diversity standpoint vs. the gender piece, I started to learn more about what scholars were doing with respect to the black and brown people and exploring these topics. So all this started to become part of my DNA regarding how I personally move through world, as well as share what I know with the communities that I reach and try to connect with. But my interest is also in taking our work to that next level of change; how do we create change in these communities?

For me it’s that race dynamic, gender dynamic, AND building in “what is the relationship to the socio-economics of our lives?”  Therein lies that race-class-gender intersection and what really matters in terms of that relationship. What is in the middle of that “Venn-diagram”, so to speak?

I went to Facing Race conference for the first time in 2012 sponsored by the Applied Research Center, now Race Forward. I’ve done lots of speaking engagements and conferences but never came across a situation where I didn’t know a soul in the room! There were thousands of people there most of whom were black and brown. And, the majority of the participants were activists. I started to wonder if any of the work we do has any level of activism? And yes! The work that you did, Raynelle, with LEJ, and there are other organizations like that.  I really felt a sense that, “We can’t work in a silo” so I’m really glad I went!

RR: One thing that I learned from the legacy of LEJ; activism itself has transformed. Now, people are recognizing the importance of “putting our egos and power aside, asking how can we work together?” And I think that’s the direction the world is going, the direction that change is happening, is working in collaboration.

NR: Yes, collaboration!  And I've seen different challenges in various organizations I’ve worked with, and what I have been able to do in facilitating more collaborations, personally/professionally has taught me a lot about communication styles. Especially when I was younger, my abilities shifted more positively in order to really get things done.  Those are lifelong skills to develop for knowing the best way to create change. I mean, I’m a native New Yorker. I’m going to put on my New York Attitude in a heartbeat if I have to!

As an example, from a recent book chapter I wrote about mixed race dynamics, I ran into this situation with this one organization I worked with that I just knew I had to change. The Student Conservation Association (SCA) is a national youth conservation organization that I worked for and have fond memories of my time there; it's a great organization overall. My boss was a black guy, and has been a solid mentor for me, still. When I was working for SCA, the Human Resources director asked me (all employees) for demographics such as race, gender, age, etc. and I was supportive of that. I think the data is extremely valuable, but on the form I was given, I created my own damn box for a mixed-race identity. And the HR director had the cojones to call me and tell me that I can only check one box and not create one.  And I said, “The hell I do not!”  I requested the organization to support me (and the other two bi-racial people out of 60 staff), and they didn’t! I decided to write a memo about how angry I was about how she treated me in terms of making me identify one of my races over another. I was pushing that card. What I wrote was very professional, but here’s where I made the mistake…I sent that memo to every senior staff in the whole organization, all the way up to the food chain to the President and every regional director. "So what?" I thought. I needed everyone to know that I was upset. And my boss said, “Well Nina, you know there are other ways to get your point across and sending a memo to the entire organization is not really the best way to do that.” And that’s one example of lessons learned about effective communication in seeking change.  I actually wrote about that situation in one of my book chapters about social justice.


What happens is that we can put our stuff out there in a way that is gentle or unassuming, and reaches a couple of folks but may only get to a certain level and never go further. If issues or circumstances stay at a lower level, change is not going to occur unless you meet certain decision-makers in management as part of the equation. I’ve been in places where I’ve succumbed to hierarchy and have done what people have told me is the procedure to follow; at times I've gotten nowhere and others I've observed have gotten nowhere either. So my approach at that time was, not waiting for somebody to tell me that there’s a certain way of getting things done. That’s the Eurocentric way; one step at a time. I understand the value of proper procedures, but how can we create change within a system that already has barriers preventing people from creating that change? That’s just something I want to share with people regarding the mixed race experience and how we’re still often capped until we fit into this mold.

Throughout some of the jobs I’ve had I’ve made lots of mistakes along the way, we all do. We can still have those conversations with our friends over cold beers and vent all day long! We all have a reputation to uphold so obviously there are moments where you don’t say something to someone’s face because it's only going to anger them or make things worse. You won’t improve things and communication takes longer to navigate. I want to keep it real, but how do we keep it real without being criticized?  I've experienced many lessons learned that's how!  And, simply put, reality is that when we talk to our friends and colleagues, especially in minority communities, it's a different conversation.

Now as a college professor, I tell my students, we don’t have to like people we work with or collaborate with, but if we want to engage or participate in creating new directions or maintaining positive experiences and quality of life for people, we have to respect them. Respect for others' background, experiences, who they are, and where they come from is huge. But we don’t have to like them and, oftentimes it comes down to personality. Nothing more, nothing less and that’s reality. We’re never going to like everyone we work with, so let it go.

How, then, do we find the good in people that enable us to work together? That’s the piece that most humans have difficulty with.  When thinking about gender, for example, how can we get the guys to leave their ego at the door, or channel their power to work well with strong women?  Don't get me wrong, there are lots of great men as allies that we work with.  Part of what I've observed, as well as studied, relates to the question of how do white guys best connect with a black man, Latina woman, or young person of another culture that has ideas and wants to offer new a perspective for their community, and wonder if their idea is going to be welcomed?

Language, actions, behaviors, etc. are similar over time but we give a new label to it so it feels like something different. Like, “my voice is not being heard" or "we need more voices at the table.” That's just another way of saying, “invite that brother from down street, sit ‘em down at the board meeting, and listen to what he's gotta say”! It’s the same platform. We need to create and craft vernacular to get people to listen and embrace what we are doing.  I say whatever works should be used without dancing around the hard stuff.

And "relevancy” is a buzz word right now. Everyone in the 'parks' world keeps saying, “We need to be more relevant” and, yes, seems to me we’ve BEEN needing to be more relevant!  But now all of a sudden you start picking up the word and tossing it about without really knowing what it means to the communities you'd like to serve? My response is, “Right on! What are you going to do about it?”

I don’t often hear black and brown people using certain language white people are using. And that’s okay. Unfortunately,  we just haven’t seemed to find common vernacular yet, really. What’s relevant to me or you may be different from what the white people think is relevant to our communities. Funders, is another example; they try to do things like, giving money for XYZ, and that’s great, but are the goals and needs really matching? Sometimes they are but I see a dichotomy and sometimes a disparity with organizations they seek to support. Funders with resources may not empower an organization to stand on own two feet and create that level of camaraderie enabling them to participate in collaborative process directly.  I see incremental changes and that's important. Partnerships and collaborations are two different things. You can be in partnership with someone, but who’s got control in making decisions, managing budgets, etc?  You know, who’s calling the shots?

RR: That’s what excites me about your personality and the way you do things. One thing that I noticed, is that if one wanted to Google Nina Roberts you would see several pages of what you’re doing now and affiliations of this and that. What you’re sharing now is true to life and I think its what people should be hearing about.

What I saw was very unique and unexpected in my search of your online profile. If I were to Google any other prof, it would be strictly 'outdoor publications and how do people play a part in that'. But for Nina Roberts, inclusion is at the center of your work. “Who I am is first, and then love the work. And that’s what I see in you, is that you love the work you do. You are contributing to outdoors, for the sake of outdoors for everyone and the environment and it’s the love and the passion.

NR: And I appreciate you laying that out because I think that's what has enabled me to enjoy what I do so much. I’m there for other people in a way that I’ve never been there before. In other words, at first it was who am I? How do I move thru world in relation to career path, family relationships, etc? There were times where I’d be more cautious in my approaches because I learned to understand before I acted.

Mentors including parents and grandparents have told me, “You need to think before you speak”. There were times where I hadn't done that very well and I’ve said some sh** where I found myself apologizing.  And I started wondering why am I apologizing all the time?  Earlier in my career, I needed to think through things, what are the dynamics, what are the implications of what I say or do? And it goes back to not learning that in a text book; we have to experience that in order to create change for ourselves regarding how we want to act intentionally or with more empathy for others, and conviction about the future. That’s an important life skill and we need to learn how to develop that; being judicious and prudent in our decisions is vital for success!


The older I get, however, the less I sometimes worry about the "how" because life is too short! You know if someone did or said something that I believe needed a response, I’m rarely going wait anymore. I’ll think about the circumstance, sure, but I’m going to get on the phone, call someone who knows someone, who knows someone, to fix the problem! I’m not going to wait for us to analyze and assess what happened for weeks on end…sometimes I don’t have the patience for waiting because in some experiences I've had, it seems people in power need to go behind closed doors before they make a change or make a decision which can take years instead of weeks! Really? Again, the Eurocentric way is one step at a time, which is fine but when people take their sweet time at the expense of minority employees or a culturally diverse group of program participants, that's not okay. You know what I say? Move! We talk about motivation in leisure studies; the root of motivation is to MOVE! So if there's something going on in a community that wants a new playground or another neighborhood seeks to get a Power Plant removed, I feel like saying, “Whom do I need to call to get this done?

How do we come together as a collective community? It does take time, no question. Part of my point is that the bigger stuff, or requests from communities of color, can take a long time to come to life because of who is in power. We find back doors to get to places, new ways to approach things, but who is the messenger? How are decisions made in organizations?  We learn to dance a little, to play certain games. But sometimes the games that are played in under-resourced communities are what I have little patience for.

It gets tiring to constantly push and badger organizations and specific individuals to do what doesn’t have to be that difficult if the genuine intention is there. But action must be behind the words. Diversity will always be here in our communities, in our worlds. It’s respecting differences, embracing, and recognizing them that matters and helps us with that collaboration. Growing up, did I recognize this? Sure! Did I treat everyone the same?  No. Does everyone treat everyone the same? No.

RR: Because no one is the same!

NR:  Right!  So what we’re talking about now is “social justice”. People were only talking about social justice as a paradigm. But that’s what the diversity movement is all about… social justice. It’s the same dance different day!  As we all know, finding our common ground is merely one facet in helping build relationships.

RR: Sometimes there’s that notion that environmental justice is for people of color. It’s like, white people recognize you’ve been doing environmental justice just as long. We need to just do this together and not make it a dichotomy for whatever reason. We all just want to do the same kind of work.

NR:  True, because in some people’s minds they associate it with race and I’m over that! So I ask, what do they mean by diversity? And if the answer is ‘We need more black people’… That’s racial diversity, so people need to be more specific about what is meant by diversity. And when you talk about social justice, what are you referring to? I always encourage my students to seek context and not make assumptions.

Are we ever going to have real equity in our lifetime? I don’t believe so. I want to be a realist and ask, “How are we going to create more collaboration?” And in the work that we do, we’ve seen milestones over years that show progress.  I occasionally think about the "Letter to the Big Ten", written in 1990 that went out to the top ten environmental and conservation groups by minority communities. This was followed by the First People of Color Summit on the Environment held the next year, and was a landmark event and a galvanizing movement for people of color throughout the United States.  There are some professionals revisiting that letter, year after year  and asking what has changed in last 20-yrs? Guess what? It hasn’t changed much in who is there, the composition of staff, board, fee-paying members, etc.  Tokenism is alive and well. Over time, organizationally, we’ll see some shift because changing demographics are inevitable. We may be in rocking chairs, but we’ll see it!

As professionals, we also have to be careful because it's a misnomer to say “All of us, we the collective minorities of the nation” are all aligned and on same playing field and want the same level of change; it's actually not true. I’m learning to think differently about the economic strata, for example, and how that affects culturally diverse communities, connection to white poverty, and all of us merely trying to do our best work. There are intergroup conflicts and lack of cohesion within some minority communities; then I observe (or read about) white people using race as platform for most of the problems and forget to include socioeconomic issues. They say, “See they [minorities] can’t figure it out, can’t get it together, they, they, they…” but, to me, it goes back to collaboration, common language, respect, truly seeking social justice, etc. Groups with money, let's say predominantly white managers, ready to support those in need want to see that minorities have their stuff together and they want to come to table for all the right reasons.

RR: I’ve thought this through too and I asked myself if working with ethnic minorities only is being exclusionary, and it is! But just the concepts you’ve been talking about, I’ve realized the people who drive the social justice work and create these programs, should be from within the communities, which are predominantly ethnic minorities.

So you’re spinning this hamster wheel if you’re saying, “Okay, white people with money, you recognize there are needs to be diversity efforts or you’re pressured to do so. Should you then be the one to create and design those programs and give that money, or should it be the other way around? We should be the leaders creating that because we know what we need, what we want.

Our country has a history of racism, segregation and institutional decisions and power. Ecology is a predominantly white profession and no one wants to talk about nation’s history and civil rights and how that might connect to low numbers of minorities participating.

NR: The beauty of what you’re doing is to let it unfold. Let’s see what kind of contributions people end up making. Those conversations are important too; some people tend to blast organizations for what they're not doing, or for being ignorant, stupid, lacking cultural competency, etc. People of color need a way to “go there” in conversation.   A safe place to just release ourselves and strategize to write that letter, or make that phone call in a way that we are going to be respected for our capabilities, intellect, or contributions, not just because we’re an “angry black person mad about something”.

RR: Any last things you want to contribute or say for this Blog?

NR: Change! Life is about change. Change is good, transition is hell. Progress in life isn’t possible without action! Thanks for this opportunity, Raynelle- keep up the great work of sharing people's stories.


To Release, Be Resilient, and Embrace Hip-Hop


Kristi Davis

Student Conservation Association Regional Gift Officer &

Center for Diversity & the Environment Board Member 

*Edited by Moira McEnespy

Kristi Davis Main

RR: I want to start by sharing how we got to this interview.  We met through your attendance at the Environmental Educator Collaborative listening session at Lawrence Hall of Science. But being part of what feels like a small community or people of color in the environmental community, what interested me is knowing how you moved from being the Executive Director of a major California advocacy organization to what you’re doing today…I want to know your story.

Let’s start from the beginning. I found a profile of you on the internet naming you as a conservation heroine, or a “real mama grizzly.” Where did this initial interest in conservation come from? What inspired you to be interested in being outside and to make a career of it?

KD: Well, there was not one particular moment. There were a number of milestones. The first time I went fishing with my Dad and godfather, I was six years old and it was the early ‘80s…I had “ROOS” shoes with a quarter zipped in and a brown bomber jacket, and we went down the coast in Big Sur. Being in the car with the cooler and fishing equipment is a special memory. We literally went tromping through the marsh and I remember distinctly thinking, “Where am I?” Even though we were honestly probably only 45 minutes from house. I caught a fish that day, and still have a picture of me with my Dad and godfather and a big fish. I loved being outside in nature with my Dad. I was a “tomboy” and needed space. Growing up in the suburbs, it was outside that I could roller-skate and bike ride and run and play and jump and not be confined…I had the freedom to run and play.

Then I got to do it with friends. I grew up in Monterey, California and did not realize how privileged I was to grow up between the Pacific Ocean and lush forests. I joined the Girls Scouts (Troop 2014!) and we went to Big Sur or the mountains, went creek walking, roasted s’mores, set up tents, and learned about giant sequoias in the Santa Cruz mountains. I remember looking up and learning about constellations, never realizing the stars were so bright, and thought “this is awesome!” I wanted to duplicate these memories, so in high school I joined the Earth Club and the Science Club, and in my sophomore and junior years volunteered during spring break to be an assistant naturalist to lead 6th-grade science camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains. For some of these kids it was their first time to be outdoors. It was the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, the beginning of green conservation movement. Our goal was to reduce and reuse, and the kids did not realize how simple it was (we split a napkin each meal and by the end of the camp it seemed like we had saved enough to make a whole tree), how you can do one small thing to decrease consumption and it adds up.

Then I went to Mount Holyoke in the east coast for college. College was not hard academically, but it was hard socially to be a brown girl from California on the east coast. I had to acclimate culturally, and again, the outdoors was a place where I could just “release” and not have to figure out how to “read between the lines”…not have to think about anything but hiking the Appalachian trail, or the mechanics of snowboarding down a mountain.

Mount Holyoke is the oldest all-women college in the country, and was established as a “need-blind” school, meaning that if one had the academics, one was accepted, and then financial aid was discussed if needed. I went there because there was so much diversity; I met women from Somalia, Ethiopia, Japan, China, Massachusetts, Hawaii, women from all aspects of life. But then in my senior year, the school’s financial difficulties changed the financial aid system from “need blind” to “need-sensitive,” which meant prospective students’ finances came into play. I felt so strongly that it was not OK for students to be judged by financial capability that I stopped going to class, protested with other students and had sit-ins in academic buildings, on the main road into town, The Boston Globe came and interviewed us. And I almost did not graduate. I called my parents and explained, “Okay, I know you’ve spend hundreds and thousands of dollars, but here’s the deal... I just don’t think its fair that students are going to be judged based on their financial capacity because in all actuality that also means that it’s going to be based on their race.” So my parents were really proud of me and said, “We support you and we’re going to help you figure this out.”

The president held a campus-wide open house and I stood up and asked, “You know, this was founded on free education for women, who are we to deny women the access to education, which is how most women have brought themselves out of poverty and other situations they are in.”). In response, the president at that time said,  “Well, I’m going to assume that you’re on financial aid and that that’s your concern…” In front of maybe, a thousand people I said, “Actually I’m not. My parents have worked 30+ years; my dad as a police officer and my mom as a Navy school accountant. They actually make just enough money that I don’t qualify for financial aid. Why would you assume I’m on financial aid?”. So in addition to advocating for free education access, there was also this interaction I had of, “you assumed this because I am black”. I’m positive that this is why this has happened. This became the starting point I started to see myself as an activist, to speak for the rights of women and the rights of the less advantaged and those who couldn’t speak for themselves.

The Fund for Public Interest Research approached me to become an activist, which gave me the opportunity to combine speaking for others with a love for the outdoors. Directly out of college, I drove cross-country from Massachusetts to California with my parents, then moved to the San Francisco Bay area and started canvassing door-to-door to raise awareness about clean air, clean water, and to raise money for those campaigns…a week later I was promoted to Campaign Director; one of five in Berkeley canvassing from Santa Rosa to San Jose. Doing this job, I realized how truly privileged I was to grow up in Monterey. I was talking about asthma, high infant mortality rates…talking to people and being in Point Richmond where the air smelled like oil and was murky bluish-green, talking to people who worked for big oil companies for 30 years. A lot of time people would say, “We get it, but this is our livelihood, and our kids have to eat and go to school”. I also learned about empathy as I watched people who were not truly affected give generously (of course there were also those who spit at our feet or called the police). I did this for almost two years, which is a long time in the canvassing business. Through these “boots on the ground” conversations, I realized that I had to be involved in this work no matter what.

I was 22 or 23 and was running the Berkeley and San Francisco canvassing offices, was singled out for an award out of the entire U.S. and had also piloted the very first national canvassing human rights campaign. Although I was getting tons of experience on the ground, I wasn’t learning how to run an organization. So I went to work for a for-profit organization, first as a research assistant and then as Director of Finance and Administration. I learned the ins and outs of business, and considered getting an MBA. It was such a good experience but there was no connection to the mission. Though I was making a lot of money, I went from fighting the good fight to talking about game theory and making as much profit as possible. So I volunteered.

I volunteered with the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council (BARTC) whose goal is a 350-mile trail around the ridge-tops of San Francisco. I experienced tons of government agencies coming together on a common cause and I realized had to get back into the nonprofit world. I applied to graduate school, went to work for Arriba Juntos (Upwards Together) to help young people find jobs, then for Women in Community Service (WICS). I loved the work, and got to do hands-on work directly with young people. Programs like the Treasure Island Job Corps taught skills like, how to dress for an interview, how to write a resume, etc… but a lot of kids did not have self confidence. So I decided to take a few young people out on a hike to teach them where they lived. This literally brought tears to my eyes. Kids born and raised in San Francisco or living on Treasure Island for years had no idea that just across the bridge is a beautiful State park, or that there are actually redwoods in Oakland! I was again trying to figure out how to empower young people through nature and conservation. A job at the Sierra Club Foundation enabled me to think big-picture and establish the “conservation and military program.” The idea was to take veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq into the outdoors as a place for meditation and relaxation, and to also take their kids. Most were brown faces, and I decided that was the work on wanted to focus on: creating space for communities of color.

I was always the one brown face growing up in Monterey, then private school, then college on the east coast. And I realized that if anything was going to change I had to be in position of power. I finished my masters at UCSF, and then had the privilege to become the Executive Director for the California Wilderness Coalition (CWC), an organization with a great reputation for change. The CWC’s mission is to create wilderness areas around California, but what makes it especially unique is its tactics.

The organization employed innovative advocacy methods; empowering, organizing and training local diverse (race, class, religion, etc) communities to become advocates and stewards of the land, something very special, something CWC became known for, and something I am very proud of.

RR: You have a wealth of experience and have had opportunities to jump into many positions…and amazingly each position seemed to inform your next step.

KD: Yes. Although my resume looks scattered, each move was always done purposefully and my end goal was always to become the Executive Director of a conservation organization. And one thing funders appreciated was the confidence given me by my Board of Directors; they saw that I was experienced and gave me that position. I was under the age of 40 and represented the next generation of conservation leadership.

RR: You talk about your end goal being the Executive Director of large conservation organization, but you are no longer with the CWC. Where are you now, and has your end goal changed?

KD: It is still my goal. I enjoyed almost five years as an executive director. It was an amazing opportunity to lead a statewide advocacy organization. I continue to be interested in politics, community building and advocacy. I chose to leave, so that I could focus not only on implementing solutions to our environmental challenges but to also focus on developing the next generation of conservation leaders. My current position with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) has allowed me to bridge this gap, while at the same time building a diverse community in support of this mission.

For example, there is so much anger and lack of hope in the City Oakland at times. I was inspired by Angela Davis and her belief that the answer is in self-love. If you give someone a job and teach them skills, that will empower them and create self-love. So providing young people with a strong skill set and self-empowerment while connecting them to nature will empower them to become the next generation of conservation leaders advocating for protection of our planet. SCA is taking those steps; it’s not only working in communities, but hiring from within those communities.

RR: So it feels like your current position is the culmination for you…it has it all?

KD: No one organization will ever be perfect, but my current position has it all right now, and provides the greatest opportunity to create impact and change.

RR: Let’s dive deeper into topic of diversity. You mentioned you were the only brown face in the crowd through school, etc. Have there been other moments professionally, and how did you approach them?

KD: Ever since I was little, my parents said to me “We want a better life for you, and you will be in certain situations where you will be only brown face or the only girl; so you have to be better than everyone else; people are expecting you to fail.” As a result I have always strived to be the best, not in terms of competition with others but the best for myself.

In terms of professional work, there have certainly been times where although I was not the only brown face, there were not a lot of us…and it was hard, especially in the beginning of my career. There have been occasions that there were other black women in positions of power. The organization was founded by a diverse group of women that stressed the importance of diversity; there were a number of women of color in positions to affect change. There was camaraderie between us. It was an empowering moment, I took notice and was grateful.

I have been able to meet more and more people in the field that “get it,” and new statistics indicate that funders are recognizing the importance of diversity. They understand the importance of diversity within an organization, which will allow for an organization to maintain its relevancy as the country’s racial composition changes. There are a number of courageous people (within our community) working to create change. We may find ourselves alone within our organization, but there is a community of support within the conservation field. With the globalization of communication (internet, email, Twitter, Facebook), communities of color, advocates for diversity are able to connect, share struggles, empower each other through shared experiences and build successes together.

RR: Being one with a different perspective can be a challenge, not only in the nonprofit world but in academia and other professions. I recall first wanting to know who is accountable, and what policies are in place. But at the end of day it’s about relationships. If you are not used to people of different backgrounds, then you don’t have the social practice to interact with difference. Talk about the importance of specifically being with communities of color; how important is that safe space?

KD: First, It is important to identify a support network. When I went through challenges in my career and thought about whether to continue within the conservation community, I had the opportunity to attend a talk with Angela Davis speak. She was asked, “You’ve been imprisoned and persecuted as you work to build a movement of equality and create change. How do you continue to do this challenging work?” She stated that she received support and recognition of her challenges from so many people, she recognized that she was not alone in her struggle. She had the support of a community.

It was then that I realized, if you feel alone, you become hopeless. But if you know others are going through the same struggles there is a community, a connection- a hope in knowing that others support you. We cannot do this challenging work alone; we are building a movement. It takes a community.  Even if you are not a person of color, this conservation work is hard, hard work that often takes 10-15 years to see real change. Having a support network makes it easier. And I in turn it becomes increasingly important to not only receive support but to share and give support.  My hope and goal is to give to those that come after me, to provide support to the next generation of young women leaders.

Secondly, I think that it is important to build a diversity of thought within an organization or a movement. Creating and affecting change should be a bit messy. When a diverse group of people come together you must create compromise, you create an end product that is better than if it had just come from one homogeneous group. In building a movement built upon diversity and compromise, you create a movement of buy-in and legitimacy. You have worked to create a constituency of diverse voices in support of one mission.

Advocacy creates the most legitimacy and the most power. I had the opportunity to speak with Van Jones, who equated the environmental movement to the civil rights movement: Blacks alone cannot effect change, we need allies. Similarly, conservationists need allies and people of color need allies. There needs to be groups that come together to effect the most change.

RR: But it’s important to have that safe space. The challenge is that sometimes it turns into more and smaller boxes of people…more segregation than collaboration. So how do we challenge ourselves to recognize the need for safe space, but to mix and get true diversity?

KD: That is the million-dollar question! It was posed at conference last summer, and a woman who is a renowned international advocate and fundraiser, Lynne Twist, author of The Soul of Money. We come from a standpoint of competition of resources (i.e., there are only so many pieces of the pie). We must let go of the idea of competition. We must celebrate our shared successes, which will draw more attention to the issue and the work we all do, and eventually it will come back to all of us. This is actually a spiritual idea and a practice:  a practice that I hope to incorporate into my everyday life as well as in my professional life. It is tied to how you were raised (self-worth and self-value)…not everyone will be at that same space.

RR: This idea really sounds like Buddhist practice…ego-less and letting go.

KD: It really brings an inner peace to yourself.

RR: Let’s talk about the challenge in working with stressed communities, and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Personally this is where the challenge is, figuring out how to flex between different upbringings, priorities, and needs.

KD: A lot of people operate out of fear, which holds you down. You have to be able to remove the fear and operate out of courage and faith. And it is hard to have faith and courage when rent is due in two weeks! But there comes a point where it’s about quality of life, and where it’s less of a job than a movement. Sacrifices become not for me but for the future of my children, i.e., so they can have clean air and water. But it’s still really, really hard! I would suggest that being grounded in some sort of support system with in-depth relationships beyond the professional helps to maintain my faith.  I am extremely lucky to have a strong support system. My parents continue to support and empower me every day. I am every grateful.

I reached an age where I just took a leap of faith and gave my resignation to the CWC…and one and a half weeks later I had a job offer! It’s about doing what is best for you and your family and your environment…something will come.

 RR: We’ve touched on a lot of details about your life and your perspective. Is there anything burning in your mind you want to say about diversity and the environmental movement, or being an environmental professional?

KD: Only one last thing: Truly in all honesty, we need to look to the next generation of young people to be our leaders. And I am hopeful. I don’t think it will be like the civil rights movement, where there were single unifying leaders such as Malcom X or MLK, Jr.…It will be more like a “hip-hop” environmental movement, where like in hip-hop its taken on so many different colors and has been molded to fit many different things. It’s important for us to think in terms of hip-hop when we think about the environmental movement. Similar to hip-hop, it will have so many different leaders, facets and faces. We need to be receptive to that and not try and mold the next generation into what we are used to and have seen in the past.

 Does this make sense? To think in terms of hip-hop?

RR: Yes! Totally! But at the same time I want to say, I think it makes sense “to us”. But I think that nails it in that sense that hip-hop is a global phenomenon!

KD: And I’ve talked to people before about, how do we change it? Do you work within the system or from outside? And I think its a bit of both. It think there are some organizations that are huge and have been around for a really long time. Change happens slowly. They may have the best intentions, but it just is taking them a long time. Organizations like the Audubon Society or the Trust for Public Land, they’ve been doing this work for a really long time and have made true strides in the past 10 years; in terms of changes to their boards, who they hire, and their programming. It is possible, but it takes time and patience, and takes the operating from all levels and structures.

RR: The bigger the organization, the slower the change. But like you said, we need to rely on youth. Eventually there’s going to be turnover. And that’s why I say, hip-hop is a world-wide phenomenon and is relevant to more youth than ever. And the old guard is going to have to surrender to this movement.

KD: Yes, you have to be relevant, you have to be.



Conrad Benedicto, Director/Founder of

Wilderness, Arts, Literacy Collaborative (WALC) in SF


  Raynelle Rino-Southon, Author, The D Word, Creating a Niche for Diversity

The WALC Program at Downtown High School had been visiting Heron’s Head Park as a field study site for many, many years before I began managing the environmental education programming with Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ). In recognition of this and similarities in teaching approach and content, I decided to formalize a collaboration between the two by continuing to support WALC visits to the park and implementing semester-long units aligning both curricula. This relationship turned out to be one of the best experiences of my career and I continue to work and support the program, which is now approaching their 15th year in existence in San Francisco public schools!

 In the coming months we’ll hear directly from both Founders of the WALC Program in an in-depth interview I had with them. During that interview we touched on an aspect of their work that really spoke to my motivation to showcase examples of great work on the grounds; how our youth (and people) of color see themselves in their environment in hopes of having a healthier and a "just" life. This brought me to thinking about ‘A Race Critical Environment’ where, having the backbone of social justice is the crux of what makes environmental engagement relevant and impactful to young people of color. This Race Critical Environment speaks to the need to bridge communities of color and land together in order for our future generations to participate in the “environmental movement”. Race must be a part of the conversation.

Digging deeper into conversation, Conrad sent me this speech in its entirety. It touches on the aspects of delivering an environmental education programming that is quite rare, but much needed in this effort to engage at-risk youth and people of color in meaningful environmental experiences and connections. His speech spoke truth to the work. -It was delivered at the 4th Annual Earth Team Teacher’s Lunch, August 2005. 

“The Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative (WALC) is an interdisciplinary academic program operating at two inner-city high schools in San Francisco. We use outdoor field study experiences as a means to provide a conceptual and experiential foundation for a rigorous academic curriculum. During our camping trips, hikes, and weekly habitat restoration work, our students learn ecological concepts that they then use as a way to examine and understand the subject matter in their other WALC classes. These outdoor experiences also foster the bonds of friendship and affection amongst all of us that motivate both WALC teachers and students to accomplish things in the areas of academic and personal growth that are often quite inspiring.

We’re very proud of our students. At Downtown High School for example, where students are placed due to truancy, behavioral/safety concerns, and lack of credit due to F’s, WALC students often have 10-20% higher attendance and graduation rates than the school norm. At Balboa High School, Downtown High School’s biggest feeder school, as high as 30% of WALC students are accepted into the University of California each year and as many as 90% go on to some form of higher education—also above school norms. Both WALC chapters have the reputation of being the most academically rigorous pathway or project at their schools. We totally believe in contradicting the stereotype of outdoor/environmental education being not “academic” enough, not being “real” school. We’ve had our happy little successes over the past eight years and today I want to share with you some of the things we have learned in that time about trying to create an environmental education-based program that is specifically geared to meet the needs of low-income, inner-city students of color. Hopefully, you will find some of these insights useful in your own work.

Conducting an integrated environmental education program for students of color comes with a unique set of challenges and teaching opportunities that we in WALC believe should be met head on, addressed explicitly and substantively through the curriculum and not glossed over.

Our first challenge is that our students don’t claim open spaces or the “environment” in the way that those of us who have had more access to the wilderness do. What’s more, they are often made to feel like they do not belong there. In our eight years of experience, the incidents of people being rude or threatening to our students in places like Yosemite National Park or Pinnacles National Monument are far too numerous and consistent for us not to feel like many people still view the presence of our kids in places like these as an intrusion.

Our response to this is to make examining why an explicit part of the learning experience and, in fact, part of the character of our program. Why do most of our students feel a lack of connection to or common ownership for the environment? Why do other people sometimes react so negatively towards them during our trips? We deal with these issues directly. And by this, we don’t mean sitting around the fire circle and sharing how we feel. By this, we mean a substantive academic exploration supported by the analysis of historical evidence and scholarly writing. When we do that, our students are able to put their feelings and attitudes, and those of others into a larger context.

Much has been written, for example, about the effects of the Great Migration on the sense of connection African Americans had with the land. In order to escape racial violence and terrorism, millions of African Americans migrated from mostly rural areas in the south, where a connection to nature and the land had been established, to isolated urban conditions in the north, where this connection was severed. Within this history, our inner city students might find the origins of their own discomfort in nature. For generations of Asians and Latinos in California, the outdoors did not connote recreation, but backbreaking work in the fields. The word “camp” did not recall visions of marshmallows and hikes, but the canvas tent labor camps to which they were relegated to live. In learning this history, our students might be able to understand why they never went camping with their families when they were younger. There’s a sad connection between segregation laws preventing people of color from actually visiting state parks in the south, and the docent at Año Nuevo State Preserve inexplicably announcing to our students one day that the ranger who was to meet them down by the beach “by the way, has a gun.”

This historical contextualization of our students’ feelings or attitudes about nature and the treatment of them by others is an explicit part of our teaching because we want to nurture in them a sense of defiance about claiming their space in these natural areas. The next time our students are feeling weird in Lassen or Joshua Tree because people are staring or because a park ranger belittles them for needing a flashlight and a posse to go to the bathroom at night, their first response is not, “Man, when do we go home?” but, “Back up—I’ve as much right to be here as you.” Once we have nurtured this attitude within our students, it is easier to then foster those feelings of wonder, fascination, responsibility and stewardship for beautiful open spaces and the environment in general.

Environmental and outdoor education programs that find themselves attracting mostly white middle class students, despite the presence of students of color at their schools or in their communities, might look to see if the direct and scholarly confrontation of these issues can help them address the lack of diversity in their programs.

The second challenge/opportunity I would like to talk about is the general notion that the issues our students struggle through in their lives are not connected to environmental studies, that their shared experiences and concerns and those of the environment and environmentalists are irrelevant to each other. We, of course, do not agree with this notion, and have found the connections to be both obvious and elegant.

Ecological concepts observed, analyzed, and documented during our field studies can be powerfully instructive, particularly for youth of color. Ecological teachings—such as the function of diversity, the interconnectedness of organisms within an ecosystem, dynamic balance, and sense of place—that our society needs to internalize in order to sustain the environment are exactly the same concepts our students need to learn in order to navigate the issues of poverty, racism, and lack of opportunity they must face every day. In fact, conditions of nature are the same as conditions of social justice.

For example, when we teach our students the function of diversity within an ecosystem, they begin to understand through field observations, monitoring projects, and habitat restoration that a diverse ecosystem can be more stable and sustainable. Redundancy in a diverse ecosystem means that multiple species can do the same "job," which means that if the number of a particular species suffers due to disease, for instance, other species ensure that the “job" (keeping the rodent population in check, providing a host for a particular type of moth's caterpillar stage, etc.) still gets done and the ecosystem continues to function. When students have gotten a strong grasp of this concept because they've seen it, they've helped restore it, they've experienced it out in the field, then we can apply it to something like early African American history in my U.S. History class. By forbidding enslaved African Americans to read, speak their native tongues, practice their African traditions—and by making them conform to one language, one belief system, one all-encompassing legal status—slaveholding states essentially took away the diversity within this community; that same diversity which would have meant strength, stability, sustainability. That's why the struggle for literacy, the struggle for education was so important. It allowed the African American community to become more and more diverse—doctors, business owners, farmers, writers, lawyers, dentists, botanists, and teachers instead of only menial laborers. The result is a stronger community whose contribution to the landscape of American life resounds to this day. Diversity is a condition of nature and it is also a condition of social justice.

All of the WALC themes are both conditions of nature and conditions of social justice. “Sense of Place,” simultaneously our most basic and most complicated theme, is all about knowing how organisms or individuals fit within a larger context. When we teach our students how phenomena we observe at Lassen Volcanic Park—lava tubes, sulfuric springs, plug dome volcanoes, glacial erratics, cirques, rivers—fit into the larger context of tectonic and gradational forces shaping the landscape, it becomes a conceptual model they can then use to explore how individuals, communities, organizations, and even actions fit into the larger context of economics and politics shaping our country. Learning the concept of Sense of Place almost always leads our students to notice that they lack exactly that. Most of our students have some sense of being "left out." They don't feel like they are really a part of this country or land, and yet they are here. When our Chinese American students, for example, learn that Chinese people accounted for 25% to 30% of California's government revenues despite being only about 10% of the population during the 1850's, they get a sense of how they fit in, what role their people played in the larger context of California history. None of our students—from the Samoans to the Pilipinos, the Cambodians to the Salvadorans to the African Americans—need to feel like they "don't belong" here in the United States. The historical evidence is clear and the current economic, socio-political, and cultural evidence is clear as well—their communities had and still have significant places within the larger context of United States history, economics, culture, and politics. All we have to do is unearth that evidence, very much in the same way we do during our trips. The fact that students go through our educational system ignorant of this is unjust in and of itself. Sense of Place is a condition of nature and a condition of social justice.

After a semester or a year in WALC, students are conducting environmental justice workshops, voter awareness and registrations drives, school-wide exhibitions of their thematic projects, and producing public service announcement films for the environment—and they don't feel silly doing it. They have an excellent grasp of how they and their actions fit into the bigger picture. They have a Sense of Place.

In WALC, our field studies therefore literally provide a way for our students to analyze and understand all the novels, texts, and primary documents we have them read, draw conclusions for all the labs they have to conduct, write those monster papers they get at the end of each semester, and complete the numerous projects we assign, while at the same time giving us inspiration, and helping us become a community of people that genuinely care for one another (more or less—they still drive me crazy sometimes). Outdoor experiences are not cause to get out of school, they are opportunities for students to learn and for us to offer them tangible context and/or evidence for the concepts we study.

I would like to conclude with two more thoughts—one is related to what I’ve already said and the other not so much.

The first is that, in our efforts to connect our students with the earth, we teach them that all peoples—if you explore their histories and cultures deeply enough—have in their heritage: traditions, beliefs, and practices that contain ecological wisdom. We all have a heritage of environmentalism that we can recapture and embrace, and there is no need for us to appropriate the traditions and practices of other cultures—something that occurs far too often in our commercialized society.

The second thought is something that we try to articulate to funders and administrators, something that perhaps environmental educators should say more in these trying times of overemphasis on standardized tests and teaching to them. We’ve noticed that now there is an emphasis on organizations seeking to influence overall educational policy in the face of exit exams, API scores, state takeovers and merit pay, and a de-emphasis on smaller organizations that provide direct programs to youth. We support statewide efforts to balance out current educational policy, but we must continue to remind funders and administrators that it is smaller innovative environmental education programs that provide actual alternative models on the ground. It is more crucial than ever for environmental and outdoor educators to continue their practice, and be given support, because our work puts forth an alternative vision, and our successes provide the actual proof needed to win the policy debate.

Thank you very much for your time. I hope this little talk was of some use to you, or at least interesting to hear.

Maintain and Proceed


Jeramie Strickland

Fish & Wildlife Service

Wildlife Biologist

Jeramie Strickland

Our long time friendship began with out connections to SEEDS. Coming from the same 2004 cohort as previous interviewee, Amber Finley, I can say Jeramie and I go way back. The title to his story (Maintain and Proceed) is fitting in two ways; it comes directly from his response in this interview and it also articulates how I’ve always perceived Jeramie all these years. He maintains his joy and confidence and proceeds to work hard, exercising his dedication to science and outreach.

When he mentioned he would be in town for a science conference for the American Geophysical Union (AGU), I quickly rushed to schedule a time for us to meet in person to “chop it up” and get his perspective down. And of coarse I jumped into getting to know his story first to learn about how his interest in Biology even started because in our years of friendship I never really asked him those questions.

So… here we go, head first during lunch in San Francisco…

RR: So, who is Jeramie Strickland and what work do you do?

JS: I’m a Wildlife Biologist with the Department of the Interior’s Fish & Wildlife Service. I work on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Fish Refuge in Northwest Illinois, with some areas expanding into the Iowa side of the river. I manage 80 miles of river habitat (river refuge) including upland and lower land forests and sand prairies. This is federally owned land where I have opportunities to also work with private owners that have suitable habitat for wildlife.

RR: From even your earliest years, it seems likes a lot of your interest comes from your interest in working with animals. Can you talk about where that interest comes from?

JS: When I was 3 yrs old, my mom married my younger sister’s father. We relocated to Burmingham, Alabama. We grew up poor and my parents weren’t able to put me into afterschool programs or sports or camps. So I had to spend my non-busy time wondering off into creeks and streams, collecting crayfish and frogs and turtles. Being in Alabama I was fascinated with animals in their natural, undisturbed state. I also watched TV shows like the Wild America and The Crocodile Hunter. And my stepfather was very influential because he would take me out fishing and take me to other farms looking at animals that were used for food production as well as animals in their wild and undisturbed state.

He, along with my 8th grade science teacher were able to use my destructive class behavior and turn it around and put me in a science fair competition. From there I went to an agricultural High school in Chicago and that helped line me up to Delware State University and it took off from there.

RR: How did you gain interest in what you’re doing now at the Fish and Wildlife Service?

JS: When I finished my BS in Animal Science at Delware State University I did internships at Michigan State and Purdue University with mainly farm animals. I was able to do a study abroad program in Namibia, Africa. Between that time frame and being the Student Coordinator with SEEDS, I was further exposed to Ecology and Wildlife Biology. This is what inspired me to go onto graduate school to pursue and advanced degree in Ecology.

Where, when, what?

I’m originally from Chicago, so I was looking at schools within 5 hours from there and found Iowa State. I worked with a professor that has a good outreach program and reputation for working with under-represented students, Dr. Fred Jensen. So I contacted him and he had an established turtle camp field site. I started graduate school with him in 2006 working on a turtle project on the refuge. I also helped write the grant for a SEEDS Special Project Grant to work with underrepresented urban kids. We received the grant and the students presented final field data to the staff with a couple of F&WS district managers there. His field site is on the actual refuge in which I’m working on now, so more or less, that was my foot in the door.

I finished my MS in 2008 and the job market was bad. I was able to get into a 12 week internship on the refuge to expand upon my graduate turtle work. The project I worked on as I was hired, was an Ornate Box Turtle population recovery project. These box turtles are a state-bred species due to habitat loss. Our refuge has remnant sand prairie habitat with viable populations, so I was able to help re-establish viable populations in those areas.

So, me working at Iowa State and doing actual research on the refuge and continuing onto the internship is what got my foot in the door. After the 12 week internship I was able to get into the Federal Career Intern Program and that was a 2 year program. And the good thing about that is program is that you get full benefits and if you successfully complete it, you get non-competitively placed somewhere within F&WS. The field station where I was working as intern had a Wildlife Biologist position that was vacant for 5-6 yrs so I was able to fill that position.

RR: Do you identify as being from the South or Chicago area?

JS: Well, I was born in Chicago, relocated to Alabama, then in 3rd grade moved back into Chicago and spent rest of my life there.

RR: Can you talk about the experience of understanding what work your heart was into and how your identity played a role in that?

JS: I was always encouraged to follow what my heart told me to do and pursue a career I was interested in and something I would enjoy doing. So, I was interested in animals and I was able to see different viable careers and opportunities by working with animals. I was interested in animals, I stuck with it, I went to school to study it, and now I’m able to apply what I learned in the classroom out onto a landscape scale, whereI do research for habitat management to protect our natural resources.

RR: What was your personal experience being an African American male in conservation?

JS: Well, sometimes I would feel uncomfortable going to science related functions like workshops and conferences. I would be the only African American male, not just the only African American male, I was the only African American. So for a while it made me feel a little nervous. I’ve had some people say different racial remarks to me. But you know, I come from Chicago so I have some tough skin and I was able to ignore a lot of it. I wasn’t going to let that deter me from proceeding with my short and long-term plans. But yeah, for a long time it was very uncomfortable and somewhat depressing being that I had no one that looked like me or came from a similar background to reach out to for support or advice.

But then I became awarded with different under-represented and minority-focused programs that connected me with different mentors to coach me and to help me realize that I wasn’t the only one under-represented. And that made a huge difference in having me just be an average professional, then going a step further to expand and build upon and give back to my community. Particularly to Southside of Chicago where gangs and drugs infest the streets and students there don’t have positive African American role models.

RR: Are you doing any outreach work now?

JS: Yes, a few things. I teach Boys and Girls Scout groups, I do the Turtle Camp research, Education and Ecology program. The latter is s program I started in 2007 with funding from NSF (the National Science Foundation) and ESA’s SEEDS Special Project program. We go into inner cities and bring under-represented students out to our field site to do a 2-week, hands-on research

project looking at turtle biology. I also do other outreach within the community, whether going onto different colleges or elementary or high schools spreading word on conservation and natural resources to let them know they can have a viable career out of science and even STEM related disciplines.

RR: So, you’ve been pretty successful and happy with your pathway and following your heart. You seem really passionate about it. Let’s talk about what kind of support you feel like you needed throughout pathway…

JS: Well first, financial support, mentors, and family backing me up every step of the way. Knowing I had someone to run to if I had question or concern, having someone listen to me and not judge me based on my past. Someone who took a  valued interest in my future. And that’s the importance of having role models and mentors. By me having different mentors throughout different programs, that was the key factor of helping me go on and give back to my community and youth.

RR: Did you ever reach a point where you struggled the mos? Do you remember any moment like that and do you remember who or what it was that helped you get through that period?

JS: It was my junior year in high school. I was looking down the barrel of a gun and fortunately the gun jammed and didn’t go off. That was a turning point where I needed to get as far away from Chicago as I can and surround myself with more positive people. Otherwise, I knew I would become a statistic. So it got me outside of the negativity in the streets of Chicago. I needed to surround myself with people that were conducive to my success. That, combined with being rejected from different colleges and graduate programs, not being able to get good standardized test scores,... all of those rejections inspired me to make something out of nothing, to maintain and proceed.

RR: So what tools did you use to get you somewhere more positive?

JS: Networking was the biggest tool for me that opened up doors to other opportunities. It’s not what you know, its who you know.

RR: I assume you carry with you this network of not only “people”, but knowledge of the work they do and your relationship to them. How have you utilized this network of people and your relationships to them in order to continue the work of outreach and increasing diversity?

JS: My network at the Ecological Society of America helped link me into the graduate program I did at Iowa State. My networks expanded while there, which afforded me the opportunity to do research on the Upper Mississippi River Refuge, where I’m stationed today. Between my tenure at ISU and the Refuge, my graduate advisor (name?) allowed me to develop ideas so I can go back home and work with underrepresented, at-risk high school youth. This became the Turtle Camp program. We would have

What, where, when?

high school students on site have internship experiences and the target populations we were in-taking were more diverse groups. Some students have gone on to pursue Environmental Science degrees and some have gone on to pursue advanced degrees. This is the 7th year of the program and we are now at a time where we are able to document their success based on student participants from the first few cohorts. And we’re able to track students that were in high school then, and are now in college and graduate school.

RR: Well, more on your networks…as an MS PHD’S (Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success in Earth System Science) student AND SEEDS student, you’ve utilized these (as a collaboration between the two) to continue the work of outreach and increasing diversity. These are both programs that aim to increase the participation of minorities in the sciences. Can you talk about how you’ve utilized these groups and what your perspective is now that you’ve worked to build bridges between multiple diversity programs?

JS: Well, first my perspective. To have such a collaboration and partnership be successful, those in the leadership positions (who want those programs to succeed) must be passionate about what they do. They can’t be in it for the money or for the fame. They have to be in it because it’s their heart and soul. This means linking ‘diversity’ into the student experience and helping them through it. The people running the programs must care about such a mission.

I like to think about former SEEDS Program Manager, Melissa Armstrong and an example. Any SEEDS student who has entered that program with Melissa undoubtedly, they know that she is in it for the right reasons. We need more “Melissa’s” in these leadership programs who will make meaningful differences in the lives of the students and audiences that these programs are trying to reach. Not to take away from anyone else, Melissa is just one that stands out to me.

I’ve been interacting with Melissa since 2004 so, almost a decade now. She’s stood out right away. And 10 years later, she’s doing the exact same thing. She’s still passionate, if not, even more passionate now than she is about bringing diversity into sciences and making a difference in the lives of underrepresented students and other career professionals.

I’m sitting here talking to you now while attending the AGU (American Geophysical Union) Conference in San Francisco. My presentation highlighted these two professional development programs, MSPHD and SEEDS. I presented the successes of both programs in regards to increasing diverse student participation in STEM related disciplines, I looked at the histories and compiled results from surveys of both programs, looked at how many students have come through the programs, who have earned MS or PhD’s, and how many of those are actively involved in communities doing environmental-friendly like work. I’m also doing outreach to AGU members about the programs. There are 10,000 scientists here; one of the biggest gatherings of scientist around because San Francisco is the only place in US that can hold that many people in a conference at one time.

It’s been rewarding however, when it came time to do my Powerpoint presentation, scheduled at the end of the meeting, the evening of the last day. Which, you know at any conference, the earlier presentations get the most recognition and the most number of people in the audience. So, by it being on the last evening day of the conference, there weren’t as many people present in the audience as I would have liked. And they put me in the education section of the last day.

I just asked myself, “How could a group or a society who talks the talk about wanting to increase the diversity and wanting to educate the public about it, how could they put that topic at the end of their conference?” Overall it went well, but we could have went a step further had it been scheduled earlier in the conference.

Those decisions make me question, ”Where are their priorities? Where do they see education and diversity as a whole?”

RR: Interesting observation and an important point to make! Thank you!

I want to go back to this notion of “change by an individual” and talk about Melissa Armstrong again. I was fortunate enough to come into the SEEDS program under her leadership, and I want say what I feel from Melissa (in what makes her passionate diversity work), is that she understands that the work shouldn’t be done in a top-down way. That “the way” you do the work of inclusion is to really allow us (students) to speak our minds and tell it the way we’re seeing it. And that she not hold any preconceived notions or assumptions about anything and direct the program that way. She approached it like, “Okay, you guys are the ones that make this program, what do you want from it?”. She knows that our voice is what matters.

JS: Yes! Very well said.

RR: And I know we share Melissa as part of our network, but do you personally have any particular mentor you can remember that encouraged you to make it through some of the tough times? Do you have an example of something that a mentor told you so you can navigate through your struggles?

JS: In 2004 when I graduated from college, I graduated with an Animal Science degree and it was with farm animals. I got tired of working with pigs and sheeps and goats. It took me having a mentor through Michigan State who told me, “Jeramie, you’re not ready for graduate school right now.” He was honest with me, he was up front with me and said, “You have a talent for working with people and doing outreach.” And it was the most rewarding, most honest piece of feedback I received at that time. Immediately after he told me that, I got an email from Katherine Haufmann from SEEDS and it was an announcement for the SEEDS Student Coordinator position.

My mentor at Michigan State…had he not given me that feedback in a meeting just before I had gotten that email from Katherine, I probably wouldn’t have look into the email or application. And it was that little piece of advice from that network…you know sometimes things in life come at you out of hand, but just sit back and be patient. Let things settle. It will take you on a whole different ride.

Sev field trip 05

I met Melissa when I interviewed for the position that same year. I was a little nervous and intimidated, but meeting her was kind of love at first sight. I new that the position would be challenging and daunting but I knew that Melissa was in it for the right reasons. And I knew that if I needed a shoulder to lean on, I knew she would be with me and fully supportive every step of the way. SEEDS and ESA was a stepping stone for me to craft my graduate application packet and the rest is history.

RR: If there is something you want to leave about diversity in general, what would you like to say regarding the importance for it with respect to environmental careers?

JS: I can’t stress the importance of having good role models and mentors; people who have been through similar situations and who have made it through and can guide you, coach you through the way. Even If I needed to get books, balance my school fees, a little bit of financial help here and there instead of working 40 hrs a week, meant a lot.

The National Fish & Wildlife Service has allowed me to serve on diversity related committees and a recruiting team in our region (over 5 states in Midwest). The committees go to national offices to set aside funding for under-represented students, so we have special pots of money for intern programs designed particularly to get under-represented groups into the F&WS and the Department of the Interior.

By 2016, 60% of the workforce (of all Fed Employees) will be eligible for retirement. Our refuge Chiefs and Area Managers realize we need to tap into these diverse applicant pools to reflect the demographic of America. And we all know that if we get diverse opinions, diverse thoughts and minds together, it will make whatever product more successful later down the road.

The leadership realizes the importance of it and I’m proud to say that FWS and Dept of the Interior are putting their money where their mouth is and also allowing their staff to participate in different functions to get more diverse students to work in the natural resource and conservation fields.

Particularly, in the last 2 years Obama’s administration put money into hiring youth interested in conservation. They have different intern programs and are also starting to make resources available to under-resourced students who are interested in FWS. Every year we hire thousands of students and hold specials slots for people of color.

RR: Anything else you want to say as last thoughts?

JS: We need more people like you to be Directors of diversity programs for non-profits. There are people like you and Melissa that make all the difference in the world. The people who are passionate about it. Not saying that anyone else isn’t but you and Melissa are ones that stand out from other people I’ve worked with. So, hopefully doors and opportunities with open up soon. And that’s the only way any organization or discipline is going to make a difference. They have to have the right people in leadership positions. In order to make a difference, we need more of you and “Melissa’s” in this world and I really, really mean that. I mean, someone who’s really in it for the long-term success of actually bringing diversity into the sciences. We need people who actually know what it’s like to be in our shoes.

RR: Well, I appreciate that comment a lot. It’s not really about us. It’s about us allowing other people to have voices. So I think that’s the challenge with understanding the most effective ways to reach genuine inclusion of all people; that it should be driven by the people, and not one entity.

And I thank you for sharing your story and contributing to that process. It allows me to push the agenda to make it about you guys (about us) and not a top-down method.

To learn more about Jeramie and his career, please visit

Iowa State University website

MS PHD’s website

Vimeo video

"I Cannot Be A Person I Am Not"


Sonia Ortega

National Science Foundation

Program Officer, K12 Grant Programs


The first conversation I had with Sonia was back in 2008 in Milwaukee. I was attending the Ecological Society of America's (ESA) annual conference as a SEEDS Mentor and heavily motivated to take a stab at science journalism. My goals were to connect with science writers, understand the current relationship between researchers and journalist, and interview some folks. And what better way for me to dive in, head-first by interviewing people of color about well,...diversity!

I was referred to Sonia as a good person to talk to about diversity. Little did I know that she was an extremely well respected professional in the society and gave me one of the most memorable interviews during that conference.

One of the stories she told me captured my emotions because it was a story of the empowerment she held with her being a Latina in science and a minority at Duke University in the 70’s. She persevered through some of the toughest times in her career and I gained a sense that she had a really deep understanding of diversity efforts in science careers. 

I was excited to speak with her again, four years later. Our conversation was to me… refreshing. And I was reassured by her ability to naturally articulate her perspective. I think you’ll see that she is one that can truly say she plays a positive and proactive role in inclusion at the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

RR: Can you give me a quick and dirty summary of Sonia Ortega? How did you get to being at NSF?

SO: I came here because I was very curious about how the National Science Foundation (NSF) worked. At the time I was a Marine Biologist Researcher. I was approached by a colleague who told me about a position he thought would fit me like a glove. And my first response to that was,

Sonia in 1987, at Duke Marine Lab, selecting oyster shells to use in her experiments

“You mean being a government beaurecrat?" I said, "No way!” But when he said it was a temporary position only for a year or two, I though one year is one year. And I though one year would be great, but one year turned into 23!

It really did change the way I saw my life. I was trained as a Marine Scientist and at that time I was thinking about continuing my research. I knew very little about federal organizations. The only thing I knew about NSF was this is where you apply to get funding. I didn’t know the processes or anything else.

I started to see myself less as a Marine Biologist and more as a person who likes to make a difference and work with people. I started questioning how I can have more of an effect on people rather than doing research. That’s when I made a switch. And the idea that when you’re here, you’re working at a national level and you really can influence a lot of things and really make a difference. That’s how I ended up staying here for so long.

But along with what you said before, I come with a background. I cannot be a

person that I am not. So in everything that I do, I bring my background in terms of my ethnic background, ancestry, the way I grew up and was raised, the way I think. I was raised in a family of very strong women and I bring that because that’s how I was raised. That’s who I am and what makes me who I am; both the cultural background and the experiences I had when I came here. Without knowing the language! All those things made me the person I am. You also become very sensitive to some of the issues, especially those you experience on your own.

RR: And there’s definitely the pathway where you started in Costa Rica and went to Duke. Going back to that statement, “I cannot be a person that I am not", I think for me and some colleagues of mine, we are often challenged in academic career choices (or even environmental professions in general) to express themselves, because the choices are dominated whites and don’t reflect all other cultures involved.

So I want to ask a two part question here, (1) I’m sure that the world was much different when you were at Duke at that time, versus now a days. But how was it then, (to still be who you are in that time) versus now a days where it is more diverse and the struggles you had back them may not have been what the challenges are now and (2) what does that mean to us now?

SO: I went to school in the mid-70’s. It sounds like a long time ago... and it was. There was no Internet, Facebook, cell phones, no word processing. These were the old times. There were typewiriters back then, to give you a sense. There were no mentoring programs, websites for you to connect to others. I didn’t know organizations that existed like the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Being in the south, it was a different world because I had to work so hard just to survive. There were a couple of graduate students around, some professors, but no resources at least that I knew about that I could go to. I tried to as much as I can, to swim and stay afloat.

I think that now its much different. Social media for one, the opportunities for students are more transparent and available and people can communicate easily with other students. You can find out what’s where, go here and there, you can Google pretty much anything you want. And that is a big, big difference between then and now. Also some universities are more aware of the need of diversifying their faculty members, providing students with trainings and training programs. None of those things were around before.

RR: And I can’t really imagine…one reason why I decided to continue was because SEEDS was there and I latched onto SEEDS as a sense of community for me. 

I’ve also read in your profile, that mentors have helped you through it. Can you identify any other ways, at that time, helped you stay motivated?

SO: Well, I asked myself many, many times, “Why am I doing this? I’m here away from y family, I barely spoke the language, I am having a very tough time. Why am I here?” I can just go back home and forget about it. But there were a couple of things that kept me going.

One was that perhaps it was a sense of responsibility because I got a fellowship and I felt kind of obligated to. It was the opportunity that I had and

there was maybe fear or the idea that I finally got an opportunity to change my life. And if I don’t do well and if I throw away this opportunity, I might not get another one. So the idea that I got something and I had to do the best I could, that somehow got me going.

I started looking at the alternatives, and I said well, if I don’t do something, if I don’t finish this degree, if I quit what are my options? My options

1987 Sonia studying oysters while a postdoc at Duke University.

were very limited. Whereas finishing it, this may take me somewhere. And it did! One thing led to another and I look at it in retrospect and I said, “Thank god I stayed and I kept at it”! Maybe it was fear, or the sense of going back saying that I failed. Something kept me pushing to say, “I cannot fail” It was very difficult. Looking back it was one of the hardest things I have done. And every time I think about it I say, "Oh, my gosh!"

I look at my nieces and nephews, and I say, “Look, no one said it was easy. I did terribly on my GRE’s, but you have to keep at it because this is the thing you want to do and it will lead you to a better life”. Education; once you reach it and get it, no one can take it away from you. That’s what kept me going.

RR: Can you identify any of those things that made you feel like quitting? Can you identify specific struggles within yourself that pushed you to your limits?

SO: I’m just very stubborn. Since I was a kid I would just refuse to give up. For example, writing. Reading or writing papers was hard because I didn’t’ have command of the language. Giving a talk, my first seminar I was absolutely terrified. And I went to one of my classmates and handed them a list of words I didn’t know how to pronounce. And I asked them if they could pronounce them for me because I don’t know if people are going to understand what I have to say. I gave my talk and I was absolutely terrified. Some of the grad students were very, very critical to everybody, not just me. That was hard.

I felt very isolated at Duke. Duke is a very prestigious institution with high standards. I had no clue what I was getting into. It was very high pressure there. The very first semester I didn’t feel supported by anyone.

1984. Sonia works on her dissertation in the “lab” while in Costa Rica looking at limpets

One thing that changed was when I moved from the main campus to the Marine Lab. That completely changed because I was horrified of the Department Chair and really afraid of a lot of the people on the main campus. But when I made the decision to go to the Marine Lab, I felt really free. I felt like, "Wow! This is what I came here to do." That’s where I had my mentor and the people there were very open and I felt much more welcome there. If I stayed on main campus I probably would have failed.

RR: and this was a phD program?

SO: a Masters program

RR: This might sound weird for me to ask but, you said you were afraid of the Deptartment Chair. What were you afraid of?

SO: Oh, I was terrified of the Dept Chair! I was soo intimidated that I would practice what I was going to say every time I would go into his office. And I went to him to move to the marine lab (because I needed permission), he automatically said, OK! And I was soo relieved that it was that easy.

RR: Well, was it because he was the "Department Chair" or was there something specifically about him that was intimidating?

SO:  I don’t know, maybe it was a combination of both. You know, he was very biased and he actually made a comment to one of my professors saying that I wasn’t smart enough to be in graduate school because I didn’t speak English and I was just trying to learn more about graduate school. He had his biases of, “Well, you know she’s here but she’s not like all the other grad students.” Of coarse I wasn’t! So, when I finished I was really temped to do something terrible, but I didn’t. I had to give a seminar to finish off my Masters degree, and I was really tempted to start speaking in Spanish, and at about 5 minutes into it, I might just stop and say, “I just wanted to give you a sense of what I went through when I first came here”. But I didn’t do it. I figured they might just fail me. But the thought occurred to me!

But you know after my talk, the Department Chair came to me and told me I did a good job! And I thought, "Gosh, this guy actually acknowledged that I did a good job!"

When I went back to get my PhD, things were much different. By then I was much more confident. I already had my MS, I spoke English, I had research experience, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I was older. When I went back I was very independent. I had my committee and told them exactly what I wanted to do.

RR: So you got your phD at Duke as well?

SO: No, at the  University of South Carolina. And part of the reason is because, and I tell people this and people don’t believe me…"I had a very good mentor at Duke. He was my advisor and was so good that I married him!" So, I couldn’t stay at Duke for an obvious conflict of

Sonia with partner, Alan. Iceland, 2010.

interest. I started looking where I could go and still be close by. I applied to South Carolina where I can still commute and travel back and forth. It was an 8hr commute and that was hard, but we also did research together since he’s in the same field. We would do a lot of our work in Costa Rica working in the field.

RR: So there was a stronger support system that you ended up with.

SO: Oh my gosh! It was like night and day. And he spoke Spanish because he had spent some time in Venezuela. So when I first met him he said that he had just come from Venezuela and wanted to speak Spanish. But I told him, “I don’t want to speak Spanish, I know Spanish. I want to improve on my English. I want you to correct me!” And he did. He was correcting me constantly. He was very good at correcting me. That really was the big change personally and professionally. And things did change quite a bit.

RR: Something I observe mainly in the academic realm of students and their experiences, is a different kind of understanding of diversity with respect to racial dynamics and socioeconomic differences between international students versus students who have grown up in the US. What is your perspective with what those differences are when we talk about increasing diversity in environmental careers?

SO: Right, because I had no clue about these things when I came to the US. And I was treated as an international student because, I was back then. I went to school not even thinking about these issues of diversity, in the 70’s, 80’s. No one was talking about it, and I didn’t even know what the issues were. It wasn’t until I came to the NSF in ’89 that I started being aware of all these things. Partly because I started working with some issues related to underrepresented minorities. I started seeing a whole world open up to me cause I didn’t even know about these issues of women and minorities. And all of the sudden I started to see all these issues I had very little knowledge of because I was concentrating so much on getting my degree.

For the last 20yrs I’ve been involved quite a bit through organizations like SACNAS. And there is a big difference in being a foreign student versus growing up here. I have colleagues here that are Hispanics or Latinos, growing up in CA or TX, and have had a very different experience than mine. And when I lived in New Mexico I was there for 3 years. It was a different environment where I was able to see the differences and what it means to be here as a different race or ethnicity than the majority. People look at you differently. It was an eye opener for me to start learning, seeing, and being more observant of people. What happens with the way people approach you or don’t approach you, and a lot of the times it’s not what people say, it's the things people don’t say that are as important.

RR: And in a sense, it is the actions that aren’t spoken about that reveal the truth about the situation. And the interviews here, if anything are meant to drive that out of the individuals. Is there anything you can specifically point out, maybe a general observation that makes you feel like okay, “Here’s what I recognize in something I'd like to change to include more groups or different perspectives”. Can you identify things that tend to happen And what can be done?

SO: Well, here’s my experience at NSF: If you really care about those issues, that’s the main thing. I think all of us have the ability to change something if you want to change it and are aware of it. Here at NSF, I’ve made it one of my personal goals to be as inclusive as I can in a lot of the actions I have been involved in. For in, every program I was running at NSF where I had to put together a panel of reviewers, the first thing I always thought was, I want to have this panel as diverse as possible. And the first people I want to invite on this panel were people of underrepresented groups. Because, I can always fill these seats with the majority but those underrepresented groups are in high demand and they are very busy people. So I’m going to ask them first, way ahead of time because they may commit to something else. And others would often ask me how I do it. And I would say, “Well, because I make that a special effort. I’m aware of it and I want to make a difference.” When I came here to NSF, the panels weren’t very diverse. Because look at who puts together the panels; the people who may not be aware or care about the issues so they aren’t going to put the effort.

I’ve done a lot of those things here at NSF; its always on my mind. It’s part of me that I notice things. Say I go to a group, like in this conference recently. They gave us evaluations for the event and asked us if we have any suggestions or recommendations. And I said, “Yes I’m very disappointed about how little diverse your group is”. And they didn’t say anything and were probably not aware. Yes, it was a great conference, I enjoyed it and met interesting people. But I started counting. There were like 500 people on the list of participants so I started counting the number of Hispanic last names, I see and I count only 10!

It’s that awareness; it’s the first thing. Some people aren’t even aware of it. Because, why should people be aware unless it’s your thing? Unless it affects you or unless you’re mandated to do it. Whenever you have a diverse group of people, people with different perspectives or different ways of seeing things, the outcomes are always better than when you have a single group of people that are all alike. And there is scientific evidence of that.

But its that first step that people need to take and take with them everywhere, anywhere. Whenever you have the opportunity to invite someone, when you are going to invite a group, be aware of it, and think about it. It has to be one of your priorities or one of the things that moves you.

RR; Sure, the common frustration is that a lot of people come across those that don’t care or are not aware. And sometimes that can be a delicate conversation to say, "Well, this is what I value, this is what my priorities are." That dialog becomes difficult because if there are others that don’t value it but have good intentions, they often don’t know how to approach it. So, how do we (or do we even make efforts to) have them understand it? Or is it on their own pathway whether they do it or not. And I think you spoke about it before when you said, “I have to speak about it, I have to say it in the evaluations”.

SO: Yes, but you also live by example. By doing the things you can do, others will notice. And here at NSF, people do notice. I mean, you go through my panels and it’s very obvious what I do and people comment about it. So all I can say is, “Let me know if you need people to serve on your panel”, or offer my connections to others putting panels together. Helping out my colleagues who might not be thinking about it may or may not invite them, but at least you’re making an effort. And some have asked for help and some are just helpless.

I think some people have good intentions and those are the ones you can help and influence for the better. Not everyone is going to be sensitive, of coarse.

RR: Is there anything you can say about today and modern times for 2012, the state of the world now?

SO: Well I just got back from spending a couple of months abroad in Southeast Asia. And one of the things I realized is that the world gets smaller as we develop all these connections. And the opportunity is really up for grabs for just about anybody. For the young people, the world is open to many more opportunities these days, but you have to be very open-minded about them. People have to be willing to take some risk in places you never thought about. For those who are looking for career opportunities and exploring, I think people needed to be looking worldwide. Look beyond boarders, even beyond their own fields and be a little bit broader in their perspectives. Start looking for other things like having your own business, being an entrepreneur, or working abroad or doing things that during my generation, when I was a grad student we weren’t even thinking about. Now it’s a different world. On one hand its smaller, on the other hand its wide open. Especially for under-represented students. I see opportunities world wide, but for whatever reason, I don’t think they are taking advantage of them. Its one of the things for underrepresented students, its particularly a challenge to go abroad or do something different.

Sonia's visit to Malaysia

You Tube: [youtube=]

RR: Do you think the sciences will ever get to that point where you’re see a diverse palette of people?

SO: Well, it depends on where you go. Like when you go to orgs like SACNAS meetings and its like, OH MY GOSH! This is how it should be everywhere! And its interesting to see that I’ve been going to SACNAS for over 20yrs now and that organization is much more diverse than it was back then when I joined. It was mostly Mexican Americans and Native Americans. Now you see the whole world as the majority of people. Some white people are there because the conference offers a lot that can benefit everyone. You see all these ethnicities and its kind of very refreshing to be there and of coarse you don’t see it in other gatherings.

I’m not sure how long it will take but I know that the world will continue to diversify everywhere, especially here. Look at where we are now, the demographics. You can’t deny the changes in the country. I think it’s going to continue as time goes by. People are mixing. You see something that I didn’t see when I first arrived there. All kinds of combinations of people together from diff races, backgrounds, there’s a lot more of that. I didn’t see all of these mixed couples when I was in graduate school. You see them now on campuses, which is great!

I think the world is opening up a little bit more. Look at these issues of gays and more tolerance. Ten years later I find out some of those kids I went to grad school with are gay but they were in the closet. And now there is a little more openness. It’s still not perfect, but openness to accepting people who are different from you, thinking different...that’s great! Its part of having a diverse group of people. Back then, it wasn’t that we didn’t have the people, but we didn’t have the thinking that we had to be inclusive; that the world was composed of people of different make-ups and ways of viewing the world.

To learn more about Sonia Ortega and her work, check out her profile on the Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development Initiative (MELDI)


"I'm Not Your Cultural Moral Compass"


Charissa Jones

Environmental Educator and Diversity & Inclusion Professional


Most people know her as Charzy. We met through the SEEDS Program as students, then later became alumni. We had a previous conversation about diversity in 2008 and what I remembered very vividly was her, not-so typical upbringing. We talked about her childhood in Suriname, South America and how that impacted her move to the United States as a young child. In 2008 she was a student at the New College of Florida pursuing a career in Ecology.

Our current conversation touched on much more detail about her upbringing in South America and the perspective she’s formed as she is now putting the final touches on her Master’s Degree in Environmental Education at Antioch University New England. To me, her story captures an experience of the immigration of a Black South American and its impacts of student success in the sciences.

RR: Let’s start with who you are. How did you get to where you are and what are you doing now?

CJ: Well, I’ve always been interested in the natural environment. When I was younger, especially between Pre-K and middle school, I was pretty much only interested in the natural environment. Some of this might have to do with the fact that I moved to the States when I was around 4 or 5 years old. I was a loner who was absolutely fascinated by the magic of the natural spaces around me…as long as people weren’t involved.

I enjoyed being in a natural setting more than interacting with people. In fact, when I was younger I dreamed of being a lone ecologist/National Geographic explorer and researching the mysteries of the natural world. It wasn’t until I took my first class with Dr. Meg Lowman that I even considered the importance of outreach and education in the field of ecology.

At the moment, I’m just finishing up my MS at Antioch University New England in Environmental Education. I also focused on environmental education at New College of Florida, but my focus at Antioch switched to looking at culture in conservation, specifically, what, if any, cultural aspects would engender people towards participating in conservation activities in Suriname. I’ve always dreamed of conducting research in Suriname because I’m originally from Suriname, so focusing my master’s there seemed like the perfect avenue.

My thesis is focused on looking at culture and conservation from the perspective of practitioners in Suriname. I conducted a grounded theory study because I couldn’t find any previous information or research on whether or not local conservation practitioners felt culture influenced the way conservation was perceived in Suriname. I ended up interviewing nine local practitioners about their thoughts on conservation, culture, and diversity in Suriname and how the multicultural makeup could either hamper conservation in the country or in some way act as a unique method to improve current conservation practices.

Right now I’m not affiliated with any one agency, but I’m working with the GLOBE Program (Global Learning and Observations for the Benefit of the Environment). I’m based in US and am the Assistant Country Coordinator for GLOBE Suriname. I’m working with Monique Pool to restructure and reboot the inquiry based hands-on science education program in Suriname. Recently I became a certified Land Cover and Biology Master Trainer so I will be able to train teachers in the Latin American/Caribbean region in the land cover and biology protocols.

RR: Well, you’re doing awesome work in environmental education. What struck me about the first time we interviewed was your upbringing outside of the US. Can you speak briefly about you being from Suriname and coming to the US and the experience as it relates to your identity as a person?

CJ: I moved to Canyon, Texas from Paramaribo, Suriname with my family when I was about 4 or 5 years old. I can remember it was quite a shock for me because I was used to spending a lot of my time outside and seeing green spaces everywhere. Even though Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, is the most developed city there, there were still lots of green spaces. I can remember playing around, looking for critters, and playing with my dog. Coming to Canyon, Texas was a complete culture shock. It was arid and everything was dead and brown! Or at least from my perspective it was. And that was something I distinctly remember and I remember crying because I was thinking, everything is dead and there’s nothing green here. And nothing will ever grow again. It was strange to go into a place that was so dead looking.

And it didn’t help that in school when teachers would talk about the environment or nature, they always talked about “exotic” places. The rainforest was a standard ecosystem that we discussed and never really talked about the local environment in Texas. I didn’t know what my surroundings were, but for the longest Surinametime I definitely didn’t identify them as any environmental landscapes. So, I started to get homesick or maybe "nature-sick" would be a better way to put it. I would have my dad take me to the library to get National Geographic documentaries and books about tropical ecosystems. That’s how I spent most of my childhood. I can remember I was looking at National Geographic and thinking that one day I would be doing all of the same cool things the guides were. My parents were both nature lovers so they began putting me into science programs and workshops when they realized how much I loved and missed the environment.

In Suriname, there were only a couple of hours allocated to children’s programming. Most other programming was news or other adult programming, so kids were outside all the time. I wasn’t exposed to very much TV until we moved to the States because in kindergarten you have your movie time or when a babysitter comes they sometimes put you in front of TV. Spending so much time watching TV, even if it was NatGeo, was a complete lifestyle change for me. My parents also weren’t really ok with me or my sisters watching TV. They were more supportive of going outside and encouraged us to go outside all the time.

While my parents were nurturing my interest in the environment, they also tried to get me interested in working with other kids in my school. It wasn’t that I didn’t like other kids; it was just that I preferred to be alone.  But my parents were worried because they were told to be. So they encouraged me engage with kids my age. My mom told me that one time she even came up to my school during recess and watched me playing by myself in one corner of the playground while everyone else was playing together in groups. I also remember for my birthday, the invitation cards said that we were going to be watching National Geographic videos and Charlie Chaplain movies…. and nobody showed up. I had fun, but I guess all the other kids were watching Disney movies or something else. Another thing that I did that wasn’t “typically American” was speak with a heavy Dutch accent. Like many immigrants or citizens who speak more than one language, my parents spoke Dutch at home. I could read, write, and speak English, but it didn’t matter because my accent was throwing everybody off so my parents, on the advice and pressure of others, stopped speaking Dutch to us at home.

Then moving to Milwaukee, that was an even bigger culture shock because it was the first time I lived in an American urban space and the first time I had ever been around so many Black Americans. I didn’t realize coming into it that that would be a problem, but classmates, neighbors, and random strangers made me realize that that was a problem because I did not act like a person with my skin color would living in an urban space.

Furthermore, I didn’t know what rap music was; that was one thing against me, I didn’t have a relaxer in my hair; that was another thing against me, and I didn’t speak or understand slang. So according to them, “I wanted to be a white person”. To be clear, I knew I was different, but I didn’t have a problem with that. For me, the problem was having members of other groups explain to me what was wrong with me. I had skin color that would group me with Black Americans, but I didn’t look like them, talk like them, listen to the same music as them, or eat the same foods as them. And because I was ok with that difference, there was something wrong with me, and that showed me that I wasn’t part of the culture.

I think my transition would probably have been a bit smoother if I came from a Spanish speaking country. When people hear me say I’m from a small country in South America, they immediately think, "Spanish speaking". But I come from a Dutch speaking country and my parents have very heavy Dutch accents. And whenever my parents were with me or my siblings people would stop and stare because they didn’t expect that kind of accent coming out of someone with my coloring. And that was my introduction to Black America and the tensions between Black Americans and Black Immigrants.

It was very weird because here were these people telling me that I looked like them…. but, I was a messed up version of them. I don’t remember getting that type of feedback whenever I went back to Suriname. Suriname is pretty ethnically and racially diverse. The feedback I received in Suriname as I got older focused on the fact that I was born in Suriname, but was living outside of it. It was a really difficult time, socially, for me as a child. And I wasn’t fully aware of this discrimination until I moved to Milwaukee. Then, it was in my face.

So it was at that point that I actually started to feel like I was in this “other space”. I’ve lived in the States since I was 4 and don’t have a Dutch accent. When I go to Suriname my cousins made fun of my accent. I don’t feel like I’m part of the culture of America and at the same time, when I go to Suriname I also don’t feel like I quite fit there. But I grew up with aspects of both countries and have melded them together and now I’m in some third space of something, I don’t know.

RR: You’re in Charzy-Space!

The years growing up in different cultural contexts, you still maintained a very strong interest in working in the environmental sector and reaching your goals. Did you know this was your choice going into college?

CJ: Oh yes. Not only did I want to be a college graduate, but my driving force was to earn a degree that incorporated the environmental field. I liked to be by myself especially if I could be by myself while learning about or exploring the environment. Natural spaces were always a comfort for me. Especially with kids and adults ridiculing me for not fitting into whatever groups they perceived me to belong to, being involved in natural spaces helped tie me back to Suriname, helped tie me into the States, and just helped me be me. Pretty much up until my 2nd semester in college I preferred nature to people. I could have cared less for people. I had a handful of friends whom I loved and they were the exception, but generally speaking, in terms of interacting with everyone else, I would much rather have been outside tinkering. I was more comfortable there.

I went to college knowing I was going to do something in the sciences. And I specifically went because I wanted to work with the plant and animal aspect and I did not care for the human aspect.

RR: As your undergraduate career progressed, were you aware of the general academic culture and being in the academic science realm with relation to your identity then?

CJ: No, not at all! And I don’t think that I cared to even look into it. I can be stubborn as a pack mule at times and because I knew what I wanted to major in, I was going to succeed no matter what the obstacles.

I picked New College of Florida because of its academic reputation. I didn’t know much about it past that. I don’t even think I even really paid attention to the website. I never set foot on campus until orientation and that’s when I realized the students were a bunch of intellectual barefoot hippies who were predominately white. I knew to a certain extent that there weren’t many women or minorities in the sciences, but had little knowledge of culture in and the culture of academia.

It never really occurred to me to be worried about the lack of diversity in the Sciences because I had really awesome mentors at New College: Meg, (Dr. Margaret D. Lowman), Dr. Elzie McCord, Jr (who is the only Black BiologyProfessor), and Dr. William J. Tiffany III. All 3 were instrumental in mentoring me and making me feel comfortable with the fact that I was a woman and minority in sciences and in and making me feel like this was attainable career I can contribute to.

Meg especially, she was very much interested in outreach. Working with her was my first foray into connecting humans to nature and that humans are apart of nature. As opposed to my previous categorization that humans over there because I didn’t really care for them and nature was over here because I really loved it. There was some kind of outreach component in every single one of her classes and we would go to a K-12 school or Boys and Girls Club type of organization where we taught sciences or held natural history tours and engaged the general public in the natural world. And that was my first exposure to “science outreach is important because it promotes public awareness and understanding the public’s communities and the sciences in general, which in turn can cause the general public to advocate for scientific funding.”

I had a conversation with Meg and she was adamant about being vocal about me being minority and woman in the sciences and encouraging others in doing this themselves. I would go to classrooms or fairs where I would do a presentation about being a scientist. And it wasn’t so much like, “Hey look at me, I’m a minority! And, a woman! And I’m doing science!” It was more like being in the background to just see me as a woman minority doing science just like any other scientist. She also introduced me to the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and their undergraduate program to promote diversity in the sciences, the Strategies For Ecology Education, Diversity And Sustainability (SEEDS) Program. Meg, Elzie, and Bill kept me going in the beginning (and still do now) because it’s tough. Especially if you don’t have a support system or see others like yourself doing the things you’re interested in.

Sarasota Arts Festival, 2007. Standing on a canopy walkway portion of the Out On A Limb - Forest Canopies Exhibit. Left to right, Wendy Weber, Fabiana Silvais, and Meghan McAvoy.

The summer before my sophomore year I went to Suriname for the first time as an Ecologist and not so much to visit family. After dreaming about it for ages, I went to see if I could hack it as a Field Ecologist. My Opa (grandfather) directed me towards a Sea Turtle Monitoring Program (with STINASU, the Foundation for Nature Conservation in Suriname, in partnership with International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)). I spent six weeks on the beaches of Galibi during the Leatherback Sea Turtle nesting season where I learned how to identify sea turtles, identify their old and new tracks in the sand, assess the health of adult turtles, and identify nests in the morning and excavate and count the number of eggs laid at the end of the incubation cycle. This was my first time doing field research and it was exciting because it was Suriname and I had always wanted to conduct conservation work there.

But the reality of my time in Galibi didn’t quite match my fantasy. It was the most horrible six weeks of my life! And I came back and was really withdrawn. Meg suggested I talk to another biology professor, Dr. Sandra Gilchrist to get some perspective on my experience. I remember being in her office and thinking, “I am such a fool.” I assumed that since I was working with a group connected to IUCN and WWF, two huge international conservation organizations, that we would be doing some awesome work and participating in respectful dialogue with the surrounding communities. That, however, was not the case.

First, when I got to Suriname, I found out that STINASU wasn’t as involved as I had hoped. I was interested in observing a local environmental organization at work, but the IUCN and the WWF where leading the program. Second, the project manager’s behavior and some of the things he said were problematic and made me uncomfortable, which completely caught me off guard.

I’d met the Project Manager prior to leaving for Galibi. My family is a little overprotective and so he provided my Oma (grandmother) and Opa (grandfather) with an overview of the project, which I thought was nice. But his personality on Galibi was completely different. There were two other students from the States in the group and he decided to provide us with some “facts” about Suriname including this gem:

“Something you should know about Surinamese people, especially the Amerindians, is that the men like to get drunk and are useless and the women are okay with the fact that they get beat because they don’t have respect for themselves.”

I was shocked! And I thought to myself, “Oh God, I’m going to be on this beach for 6 weeks with this diluted freak!”

And it just went downhill from there. We were working with some Carib volunteers during the night walks and before our first group walk the project manager gave us with an overview of all of the equipment. I was really nervous about remembering how and when to use everything, so out loud I asked one of the Carib guys to remind me if I did forget. Well, the Program Manager overheard me and said, “No, you can’t. We haven’t taught them how to use any of the sophisticated equipment. All they get is a pencil and paper.” So the comments he was making, to me, sounded basically like he thought that they were too stupid to comprehend any of the things we are using. And I thought to myself, I cannot handle this at all.

It was really stressful and at one point I said, “You do realize that I AM from Suriname and you met my grandparents.” After I called him out, we didn’t really talk much and I started to feel isolated. While it was fun in terms of figuring out whether or not I could hack it in field research, I felt isolated and alone because I wasn’t included in talks the Project Manager was having with the other students. I guess he didn’t really want to include me because I stood up to him in terms of the comments he made about Suriname and the Carib volunteers we were working with. It wasn’t like I was yelling at him or anything or being presumptuous about my knowledge of Suriname and its people. My family is from the capital so my understanding of Suriname was shaped by where I lived and who lived there. But I would say to him, “You can’t generalize as much as you are. Yes, there are a lot of people who drink, but there are other places where other people like to drink as well. And look at you, you’re drinking right now!” It was frustrating.

That situation aside, I did have fun getting frustrated with learning how to do field work. Mustering up the courage to walk the beaches alone was a nightly occurrence because of my overactive imagination. I had the privilege to see an Olive Ridley and a Green Turtle in person along with the Leatherbacks. I can still remember the feeling of the hatchlings climbing over my feet in a bid to make it safely to the ocean.

And most especially, I began to form relationships with the Carib volunteers.

These friendships helped me out when they got tired of the Project Manager talking about them in Dutch in front of tourists. I’m amazed that he didn’t realize that while the Carib men didn’t really speak fluent Dutch, but this particular group had enough experience with Dutch speakers to get the gist of what he was saying about them. They also had the only boat to get off the beach and get supplies from the nearest town, Albina. So they refused to take him into town the next day, but they did take me so I could send the supplies back with them while I traveled further on to Paramaribo.

At one point while I was there I tried to have a conversation with him about balancing natural conservation with community welfare and that went from zero to ugly real quick. I just couldn’t get past his comment about not teaching the Carib volunteers how to work the equipment the rest of us were using. There are only so many volunteers that come from the city, Paramaribo, or who come to participate in some sort of eco-volunteering while they’re in the country, so to me it made sense to utilize community members who live near the nesting sites, but there could have been a something that I was overlooking or didn’t see so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But, to no avail, he just had this attitude like, “They’re too stupid to understand why they need to stop eating sea turtle eggs.” I responded, “Okay the sea turtle eggs have historically been a part of their diet, and if they shouldn’t eat them anymore, which I understand because of declining populations, what are other ways we can help supplement their diets to meet their protein needs?” And his response was, “Well, that’s a stupid question. I actually don’t care what they need to do for themselves. I just know they need to stop this because ‘this-that-or the other’.”

Professor Gilchrist’s response to my story was that unfortunately it wasn’t an isolated event. And we talked about the lack of gender and cultural diversity in the sciences. At the end I felt better, but the real light bulb moment for me was that I realized that it was about more than just flora and fauna. There are people involved and their knowledge, thoughts, opinions are important. I might not agree with them all of the time and they might not agree with me, but bringing community or individual interests to the table can definitely prolong conservation activities, but I think it’s worth it. And that’s when I started to get more involved in the social aspect of conservation. That incident is probably what completely pushed me into conservation.

RR: So, these experiences propelled you to design your MS around the social aspect of conservation?

CJ: Yes. They were my “Ah-ha!” moments. Not to mention that they made me take a hard look at myself and think about the way I treated others. I really wanted to understand why people got involved in conservation,

Charzy with a three toed sloth, summer 2011, working for Monique Pool and Green Heritage Fund Suriname

specifically what their thoughts were on culture and conservation and how they intertwined. And to possibly discover what aspects may deter people from conservation.

My grad school was similar to my undergrad in demographics. The school was predominately white and the students (in the Environmental Studies Department at least) were hippies. And it was located in “proud-to-be-liberal” New England, so I didn’t really think about grad school culture. My biggest worry was the snow and cold weather (I’m a warm weather girl through and through)!

However, there was something off about being in school this time around. Being one of the only minorities in the class, travelling around town or New England in general, having to hear how much better my life should be know because I was in liberal and understanding New England and not the South. I don’t remember when it happened, but I became hyperaware of being “the only” minority in certain situations. I can remember being excited about one of my last classes because the content was interesting, but having several experiences, which left me with a bad feeling about the entire class.

RR: Because it was being taught from the white perspective?

CJ: Basically. Or more to the point, other perspectives weren’t present. And I quickly checked out of that class after we discussed the NPR story “Mango Man”. It was about US NGOs coming into help Haitians get back to some semblance of normalcy after the 2010 earthquake. One NGO in particular was trying to help a man organize his business so he could import mangoes into the US. We listened to the story and right away many things come up as problems in this situation. We were asked how would we find solutions to this.

One of the pieces of feedback mango man received from the NGO was that the mangoes were too dirty and Americans wanted clean mangoes and he should find water, wash the mangoes, and then export them. And quite a few of my classmates agreed and a couple even began remarking how we (I’m guessing as North Americans) should “educate” Haitians to be able to anticipate issues like this.

And I raised my hand and asked, “Why are we always educating to the other to quote-unquote, do what the majority wants? IT’S A MANGO! You know it grows from trees. If a mango falls, you pick it up, wipe the dirt off of it and you go to town with it. It’s not going to kill you if you clean it yourself.” Someone responded with, “Well, yeah but if they’re going to be selling to Americans…”

I continued with, “You know, when I go to a farmer’s market I see dirt on veggies all the time. It’s not a big deal, I don’t know what your problem is in that you wouldn’t take mangoes shipped with dirt….” And there was a lot of back and forth about this and I finally said, “Well, why does the minority group always have to conform to the majority?”

After the class let out, my professor thanked me for bringing up this minority point of view, or whatever…because no one else is talking about different cultural aspects. And we had several other classes were different things came up and after a while I got bored of being the one to always have the alternative perspectives. You just get tired of fighting against the current.

So, I didn’t say anything during one class and my professor came up to me afterwards (she gives us feedback after each class) and said, “Charissa I’m kind of disappointed that you didn’t provide any alternate perspectives.” At the time it was a bit uncomfortable to me that this was my piece of feedback, and not the fact that I didn’t talk. It was also uncomfortable because I “knew” her. I’d talked to her about culture in the sciences, so this comment coming from her was a shock. Once I left the room I was pissed. It really got to me that that was the feedback she had for me. I just thought, “I’m not here to be the cultural moral compass. If no one else in the class is saying anything that shows that they have any cultural sensitivity or competency, that’s not my problem. And I don’t want that to be my whole, ‘I’m educating you because I’m from a different culture and you don’t think about other people.” I find it hugely problematic that as a minority it seems that I’m expected to educate the majority. I just don’t understand how people can’t understand that the whole POC (Person of Color) Ambassador is harmful and leads to so many stereotypes we can’t seem to break. I just don’t get it and it makes me so mad because it basically means that I can never forget that I’m in the minority for a long time. I do, and I’ll just be humming along doing whatever as plain ole “Charissa” until someone comes along and makes a remake that reminds me that I’m “Charissa [fill in the blank with whatever classification suits you]”.

But on the bright side, experiences like these enable me to take a hard look at the way I implement various programs and the assumptions and/or privileges embedded in them, specific to the communities or audiences I’m working with.

RR: last thoughts?

CJ: When I think of “diversity”, I don’t think of just the “visible” spectrum (e.g., age, race, ethnicity, gender, and physical attributes), I also think in terms of the “invisible” (e.g., educational background, socio-economic status, religious beliefs, and geographic location). It’s inclusive of all these things. But the fact of the matter is that we don’t have a lot of people within the sciences that incorporate these elements as much as we would like to see. It’s definitely geared towards race, ethnicity, culture, but there are different social

April 2008. Teaching 3rd and 5th grade, looking at lichen and moss to study Tardigrade habitats (Water Bears).

economic ways of looking at it. These different angles and lenses you include through conservation will definitely color the way that you will approach, view, or perceive it. I’m always amazed about how much I don’t know that I don’t know. It always makes me feel good when I learn something new about another way I can look at diversity because a lot of it for me has been tunnel vision through culture, race, and ethnicity but that’s not all of it. And that’s not where the most unique opportunities for collaboration or communication can come from. Until we understand or value all these elements, I don’t think we can make as many rich contributions to society and science in general. So I’m always interested in learning more about people who are different from me in whatever way they can identify themselves as being different from me and looking at how those difference inform the way they look at conservation and nature."

And finally don’t let anyone tell you that your experiences are irrelevant. Just because you didn’t have the same response, reaction, experience, etc... to a situation as others in the group[s] you are perceived to be from, doesn’t make your perspective any less valid. My experiences, including the way I have treated people in the past, the way people have treated me, and the way people have treated my parents (who have “thick” Dutch accents), inform me in the ways I approach my work. I don’t have all the answers. But I do think that I ask the right questions. And I think that makes a huge impact.


Bringing Diversity into Consciousness


Yasmin Lucero

Senior Statistician,


It’s always a great feeling when things come together naturally. When I met Yasmin I didn’t know her, anyone she knew, or even what area of Ecology she was working in. I was simply scouting for Ecologists during a conference to talk diversity with me. Although I vaguely remember, I know she was sitting in on an event and after hearing that I was interested in capturing interviews with like-minded folks, Yasmin gracefully agreed to spend a few minutes with me outside.

It was real, true to the heart, and very emotional. I remember her crying as the conversation brought up thoughts about her mother who had passed recently. Initially, I felt bad that my questions provoked some sadness, but it also helped me understand her openness and her kind heart. I gained a lot from sitting down with her for only a few moments.

Four years later I reached out again. I wanted to talk deeper about diversity and capture her story for this blog. Our conversation may leave you surprised a few times, maybe even disheartened, but I’m certain you’ll see that the “big decision” she made comes straight from her core of happiness.

The first surprise was learning that as we began our phone conversation, Yasmin was just coming out of a job interview in good faith that she was actually hired! We caught up a bit and began casually discussing the purpose of The D Word and this idea that people need a “safe space” to talk about their challenges. This was our first line of attack. And so we proceed….

YL: I just want to say that there are a few reasons why those conversations aren’t happening. It’s that very few people are in the position where they have someone to have that conversation with. I think that issue with Ecology and diversity is that the core of the issue in general, is that people are isolated around others who just can’t have that conversation with them.

RR: Yes, and that’s a point I want to make. Often times we don’t have a safe space to do that, and that feeling of safety will take us to that critical point. But it has to be there.

Let’s start with who you are. Can you describe who Yasmin is and how you got started in this field and what you’re doing now?

YL: Well, I got into Ecology pretty young. In high school I was involved in an alternative program that was very engaging for me. This was a program where a speaker was leading it and teaching us the biology of salmon. But structurally it was really open-ended and independent where students were able to just design their own study to make our own thing happen. And that was really good for me. And so I was really engaged and deeply involved in this project and it happened to be about STEM and biology. It got me into field of Ecology and I went off to study it. So that’s how I began.

I did my undergrad in a very Ecology focused program, then went to grad school in Ecology and spent 4 yrs as a Post Doc in the same field. Recently (in the last 2 years) I decided that I needed to change my field and move out.

So for the two and a half years that I was a Post Doc, I was working for NOAA, my husband was working in LA and I was in Seattle and we were commuting back and forth. That got really old and I just decided to move down to LA and I transitioned into consulting. I was working from home in LA and took a sabbatical for myself to think about what I wanted to do and what next move I wanted to make. At that time I had a baby and took a long maternity leave. And I’m just now (my daughter is 11 months) am at that comfort where I’ve taken a break, figured things out, did some retooling of my skill sets, started applying for jobs, and it looks like today, I now found my job!

Actually it looks like my job search has gone remarkably well! This is completely different; it’s totally outside the realm of Ecology. It’s a tech company that does recommender engine space. You know when you go to Amazon and they say, “if you bought this, then you’d love this”…So people who come up with those recommendations, that’s what this company does. They have a role that really is a nice match for me. I’ve had 3 different distinct job opportunities, and this is the one I’m choosing. Part of it is because they are really jazzed about my background and the research I’ve done and the system that I’ve worked in. They think that that’s a great perspective to bring to this problem that they have of ‘searches’.

RR: So they saw that you coming from the scientific, Ecology realm was a value that can be brought to the company that doesn’t necessarily focus on Ecology studies? So it’s also like social media as well because it’s based on recommendations?

YL: Yes, this particular company is all former people from a big tech company. Kind of like, the best people from that company came together to create this recommender engine company. Which is actually a good pedigree, it’s a good group of people.

RR: It’s nice to hear that people are thinking in that way and I feel like that’s the direction of people’s thinking on innovation and how to hire people. Like, you have to understand that if someone had a specialty somewhere else, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have value in a realm that may not seem relevant. But gaining perspective from different angles has actually driven a lot of good collaboration and thinking outside of the box. This period of time that we are in, there is so much that has moved so quickly with social media and that kind of interaction and workspace. Some people have figured it out, or are in the middle of figuring it out... That there’s are different way to work these days and there are different opportunities, and to grab those. So I guess where I’m going with the conversation is, from your experience, when you say this is a perfect fit for you, what does that exactly mean in the context of coming from a rigorous scientific background to something like a recommender company that you’re at now?

YL: When you have a research career like I did---I have a PhD and a Post Doc---I have many, many, many years invested in that problem space. And the decision to leave it behind is an extremely difficult one. Because there’s a tremendous amount of domain knowledge I have that is now just, well… used to be really important and now is just…abandoned. It’s a very painful process to decide that all these things that you had worked for and studied for, you’re going to walk away from that and focus on an area where you don’t have that strength; you’re a back stand novice. It’s that feeling that you’re throwing away your training. I don’t believe that’s what’s happening, but it very much feels that way. I think that what you’ve done very much informs what you will do and how you do it. And it’s not always predictable what shape it’s going to take. Yes, there are specific citations I won’t have to keep in my memory anymore because I’m not ever going to cite that paper again. But Its difficult to predict the way your knowledge and expertise and contributions are going to be relevant in the future. Like, its difficult to project forward. I think in every step you just have to look at where you are now and do what is best at the moment and try and not project too far into the future or worry about it because you just don’t know.

And the decision to walk away from Ecology, there were certain pain points. There had been pain points, more or less, throughout my career in Ecology, but they were just getting worse instead of better. And I reached a point where I just needed to move on. A lot of it was the culture that I was encountering just wasn’t as open to change or innovation that I felt it needed to be. Particularly, given that it’s “science”.

And that was on the subject that I left, it was also on the social level. I felt like the community I was in was very, very narrow and I just wasn’t… (It was one of those groups of people that couldn’t’ fathom somebody who just had a different experience than them.) And it really did leave me feeling very invisible in a lot of ways because there were a lot of things about my experience that couldn’t be discussed.

I wasn’t in front of people I was relating to. And that’s important; this is your life, you work hard, you work long hours, you spend a lot of time with these people. If you don’t relate to them, then it’s just kind of weird. For me, it took this form of “Seattle vs. LA”. I was spending half time in LA, half time in Seattle. LA was ethnically like the place I grew up and Seattle… is Seattle. There’s this thing called the “Seattle Freeze” because people in Seattle are notoriously just not very friendly. They’re not interested in meeting new people or reaching out. Some of that is just the experience of being in the city, but that was my experience.

I was at this job for 3 yrs, I got along well with coworkers, they were friendly, but never did anyone really invite me to their house for dinner or anything like that. I would invite them occasionally to my home and none of my coworkers came. I have a lot of great friends in Seattle, but no one I worked with ever came to my home. And I was really ill suited to host anything having a studio apt, I was gone half the time. But I was the only person who tried to make any real interaction happen on any level.

So it wasn’t a really happy place for me. And I was in a place in Seattle, where I could have stayed there indefinitely. I could have stayed doing what I was doing. It was a cushy, comfortable, government role that I could do forever. So I had to make this difficult decision to walk away from the security and take risks and put my life on a different path.

RR: I can relate to that “not relating to the culture” in the day to day. Maybe if you can describe more in depth what that means, when you say you weren’t particularly comfortable, or didn’t really form those friendships or interactions with coworkers. What happened there and what do you think was going on?

YL: Typically, there was a particular group of people I was involved with. What they would do is they would go white water rafting, biking events, outdoor stuff that I wasn’t particularly involved with. So when gathering was happening, that’s what was happening and it was the only way people were engaging. They’d go skiing together sometimes.

Also, and this is more to the point: that particular institution (NOAA) had a relationship between University of Washington and the NOAA lab there. Almost everyone working in NOAA lab had come from UW. So many of them had formed their relationships a long, long time ago, came to grad school and formed this click. By the time Post Doc came around they became very busy and their lives were very full. And even being as connected as I am, I really didn’t feel like an outsider. But coming from the NOAA lab in Santa Cruz was enough of an outsider status that it wasn’t a nice space there.

In the context of when groups form, incidents of social grouping and the fact that I was the odd one out…there was also a cultural factor there and that was what bothered me more. I felt like, that all makes sense to me, the cultural factor, but you have to overcome that. And I think it’s a value I have that I can never really accept the fact that they weren’t just like that. I don’t know what the mind set is, but I don’t like it. You have to have parties, and you have to make it happen!

Also, being in California, even in the relatively shallow way that I was, it made me realize that that was happening a lot more. My sort of default instinct about the way things should go down was much more likely to happen. I just realize that I didn’t want to compromise at that point and I wanted to be around other people who had the same attitude about socializing and putting energy into having that life.

RR: So did you also have the feelings of just not really connecting?

YL: Oh yes, there was definitely problems of not really connecting and it came from just not having the opportunities to connect. And there are a lot of reasons why it was showing as difficult, but there just wasn’t anything to counter that. There are always reasons not to connect. But you want to cultivate an environment were relationships are being built. These people were very, very nice, but you couldn’t really talk about “things”. More importantly, it’s not just about the social happiness factor. It really impeded our work and made it impossible to work together.

One particular example, I had a collaboration with my lab mates and ultimately the collaboration just imploded. Because we could never get on the same page. And this is a point of cultural mismatch. We were on the same page very specifically on how to do the analysis. We had the data and we had to decide how we were going to attack the data and why and what questions we were going to prioritize. So really, this is the core of doing science. We didn’t quite have the initial, immediate take and we kept trying to have conversations about “it” in the lab and we just couldn’t really talk about it. And I felt like, okay we see things really differently. So we just really need to talk about this subject, but all of my colleagues didn’t want conflict. And I didn’t really see it as conflict, I saw it as, oh I we have different perspectives, so we should talk about this and really understand what these differences are. But they viewed it as conflict so they avoided the conversation. Which is incredibly frustrating for me because I felt like every time we would get to the meat of the problem, they would just duck out of the conversation in one way or another because they didn’t want to have a different conversation. To me, if we can’t have a difficult conversation, which really isn’t a difficult conversation, then we really can’t get anything done. We literally can’t do the science.

And some of that fear of conflict comes the insecurity of the relationship. When the other means well and likes and respects you, then you’re not afraid to disagree with them because you know its not going to damage the relationship. And there were really no personal issues at all.

RR: yeah, its cultural

YL: yeah, and it really affected my ability to …well, it stymied me from having meaningful collaboration

RR: Okay, for the sake of this diversity conversation, let’s step back a little bit. Let’s say okay, I know you identify yourself as Latina correct?

YL: yes

RR: A lot of these things, would you say it was because they knew you were Latina and a majority of that work environment was not?

YL: No, I don’t think it was that explicit because I am very “white” and white people perceive me as being very white. And Latino people understand that Latinos are of all races, especially in the US with lots of white Latinos. But white people don’t get that. And I remember a conversation with one of my colleagues. I said something in Spanish and he responded in surprise. Saying, “Oh I didn’t know you speak Spanish!” And I laughed and said, what do you mean, you don't know how to speak Spanish? So it was a level of obliviousness to that whole thing…an explicit obliviousness. But there were differences rooted in culture, it’s just that who I am and how I approach the world is rooted in that culture and it put me at a difference. But we didn’t even have that foundation of them understanding me. And I don’t know what they would have done with that information anyway, but they didn’t view me that way.

RR: Wow, it seemed like they didn’t have that much exposure to other cultures.

YL: And that’s the whole thing about it. You’re dealing with a flip culture of people who have an extremely low exposure to cultural heterogeneity of any kind. And that’s very different from the world that I grew up in where there’s extremely high diversity. I grew up in Oakland, one of the most diverse places in the world. And that diversity is very front and center and you have to deal with it. It really influences this issue of how do you deal with conflict? How do you deal with a difference in opinions? How do you think about it, feel about it, and how to take care of relationships when people are different from you? This is the point that I could just NOT get past; my whole approach to things is the right approach if you want to sustain diversity. It’s not that it’s just my approach; it’s the better approach for that purpose. But they weren’t comfortable with it because it was unfamiliar. They were much more about, “let’s not rock the boat, let’s all go along, get along”. That was extremely conflicting at first, it was stuff that I didn’t know was going to be a conflict; that they would be avoiding the conflict and not appreciating the way that it was stunting the environment.

RR: So it was kind of your driving force to switch careers?

YL: No, it was definitely my driving force. It was something that I couldn’t get past.

RR: Do you think that’s a common thing in the Modeler’s world of science?

YL: I think that in the modeling part of the world, it’s a very small world. There are not a lot of people in it. There’s also this weird thing where there’s no undergraduate program (or at least there wasn’t, but maybe there is now). People who are my age all came to modeling a different way.

There’s a couple of dynamics there; people came to their methodical skill sets from totally different instances. Some people studied mathematics or statistics, learned in between, some were computer engineers. So everyone has a different disciplinary training and there’s a lack of some common disciplinary vocabulary. Everyone has their own way of doing things. It’s not like we all studied the same way, have the same textbooks, major, or solve the same problems. We don’t have the same mathematical vocabulary.

The other thing is that there are a lot of people, especially in Ecology, who didn’t get the full rigorous mathematical training. So there’s this certain insecurity that they bring to their knowledge of mathematics. And I know that for myself it’s a combination of getting rigorous training and I found self-confidence as a limitation. It was a really recurring issue where I had to be very sensitive to the sense that people might clam up because they were going to think that they weren’t good enough at math. So that’s dealing with people my age and younger.

People older are an even smaller population of people, because Ecology is getting more mathematical over time. People have been doing it for a long time, there’s just not very many of them. And they are pretty much, universally, white men. I don’t know…there are some middle rank women, not many. None of them are senior rank.

So that dynamic was different and in many ways a lot easier than what I had with my peers. The dynamic I had to appreciate going in, is that people would look at me as sort of a young woman and just assume that I didn’t know my math. Any time I talked to them I had to sort of prove and establish my reputation and knowing my stuff. And I certainly learned how to deal with that. And I found people to be pretty open and persuadable.

RR: So would you say that throughout your career, you’ve seen or worked with other people of color or has it really just been a non-diverse experience?

YL: It’s definitely been non-diverse. I’ve worked with students that I’ve advised, but no, not really. I’ve worked with women, but no people of color.

And I’m working in a domain that has several overlapping reasons why there are no people of color. It’s the math, fisheries and natural resources, ecology, and science. There are several cross sections that might eliminate people of color being in there.

RR: Being in the research realm with a statistician as an advisor, I don’t connect to the way he thinks or advises. He comes from the old boys club of Ecologists; old white men. It kind of makes me wonder, in the world of Modelers and Statisticians in environmental professions, what will that be like for the future where the rest of the world is going to diversify?  Is there going to be opportunity or even this openness to different perspectives in Modeling to allow these kids growing up in a diverse world to succeed?

YL: There is extremely low level of awareness on the subject. I don’t even think its really centralized in those terms. Modeling sub-disciplines, I would say, hasn’t reached a level of consciousness as being a problem.

The thing about the modeling side, it’s functioned as a distinct discipline up until recently. But I think as years go on, more and more it’ll be less of a subfield of Ecology. All Ecologists are doing modeling to various degrees and some are going to be full on specialists at it, but everybody will have to use modeling. You’re not going to be able to be an Ecologist without using modeling even as a commercial ecologist. In particular, it’s extremely important in the decision-making within government, in the decision making frameworks of things. So the people who are setting those policies, a lot of those are driven by mathematics and models and it’s very morphed over time. So if you want to have access to the way the decision-making is done, you have to have that tool kit under your belt..

I think the real problem that Ecology has is that the people who have the talent to do all that, aren’t going to do that there [in Ecology]. They’re going to go somewhere more lucrative and I don’t foresee any dynamic changing that in the near future.

RR: Well, just being around some of that, I totally commend you for reaching the heights you did in your career and sticking it through some of those grueling years. One of the things I struggle with too is that a lot of those things that we were feeling, whether being doubtful or fitting in, those kind of things were not really valued as meaningful conversations to have. Especially race or economic disparities that may impact our success. There are connections between my literacy of English and math to my upbringing and my culture. So I just started to assume and expect, that if I were to ever bring up those feelings influencing my ability to “finish the lab”, I might as well be speaking to a deer in headlights. They just wouldn’t get that that was a concern. You are expected to do this work and do it well and do it in this very sterile and process-driven way. But I felt like, okay but I’m human too and I have feelings towards this and because of that I have a difficult time working in study groups with you and that is going to affect my grades. And its hard to dissect that too because, what do we do now? Where do we go and is there going to be a space for that conversation as we are pulling through our careers day-to-day. 

So, I don’t want to bring up any of those painful experiences or feelings for you and that decision to leave, but if there were resources that would allow you to stay in that profession what would they be?

YL: Well, I wish that I had given up sooner. I banged my head on some walls for a long, long time before I concluded I wasn’t going to knock them down. And that was painful. Why did I do that? It’s hard to know when you’re done with something. You have to respect your own process and time to go through all of that. But the things that would have really changed the experience well,... it comes down to community. If I had had a stronger professional community, we could have overcome. But in the end I felt that I was ultimately alone in my mission and the way I was trying to tackle my work in a way that just wasn’t going to be okay. It happened by accident to be in a really incompatible dynamic with people.

To be fair, in grad school we complain about our advisors not being great advisors, but what I learned in grad school is that great advisors are the exception to the rule. The vast majority of people are not being set up for long-term great careers because the advisors are not giving them that kind of support. And it’s the minority of people that are getting that support. They’re getting connected to the community, hitting great projects that give them high public profile, etc…That happens and that’s the pathway to success but there’s a lot of happy accidents that make that happen. The people who make great advisors are often not the same people who are great scientists. There’s some overlap, but there’s an awful lot of scientists that are not the greatest advisors.

RR: That’s the other thing I noticed, the way students are coming into these programs… we are students. And scientists are not obligated to learn how to teach. They know how to disseminate information. And a lot of the time, students are looking for that process of learning and understanding of the content. In the science/research realm, it’s very much that process of the scientific method and getting that information, but teaching is a different thing too. So why aren’t graduate students taking classes in curriculum development or pedagogy? That’s missing!

YL: Yes, and so I did take a class in graduate school in pedagogy. And my advisors weren’t supportive. It definitely wasn’t viewed as the core of what I was doing.

Walking away from my research and revising my resume for a non-research environment, I was amazed to find out that one of the things on my resume that stands out to people and always gets comments is my teaching! I did these workshops for my sanity’s sake, just so I had something to do. And it was never really supported by anyone, ever. And that was the thing that was the most marketable point on my resume now. But in research, everything that’s not contributed to first author publications is viewed as the enemy of first author publications. It’s taking time away from what you’re supposed to be doing.

RR: It’s that publish or perish culture.

YL: And yeah those are the things that happen. But one of the things that is a problem, particularly for students of color, is there are multiple reasons why you are at a disconnect with your advisor. There’s a tendency to think that, “oh, it’s me, its because I’m just not getting things”, “I have to learn how to go with the flow more…you know, internalize.” Instead of realizing, oh this person is doing a really bad job explaining this to me and I should find someone who can do a better job. And one thing to know about graduate school is that one person is not a committee. You need more than one person on your team; there’s no perfect individual. And hopefully you can get a team together and together they’re going to make what you need. And your whole key to success is assembling that team that can actually support you in all the dimensions that you need. But in order to do that you need to get over the idea that you’re just supposed to know this stuff. And a lot of times you’re treated like, you’re just supposed to know this! And as a person of color you’re sort of used to being off some of the times and you buy it! And you catch yourself saying, oh, yeah, I’m supposed to know that!

RR: yeah, I’ve said that to myself plenty of times!

YL: There’s a lot of stuff they tell you you’re supposed to know…It’s not you!

I guess the one thing I would add is that for many years I thought this was what I was going to do. I was going to get the big “R1 Research Professorship” and I was going to be a professor. So I finally get to writing the application, they’re very long and complicated. And I spent exactly one season officially on the job market and maybe sent out 4 copies of the same application. And that process of putting that all together I realized, “Oh, wait a minute, I totally don’t want to do this!”

And in particular there was a job I was invited to apply for, it was a good situation, excellent dept, good people. So on paper it was a great job. But it required me to move to Gainesville, Florida. And it occurred to me that this was the dream, this is the best-case scenario. If it’s not Gainesville, its going to be somewhere. And when you think about your life, your life is the department; this is your whole world. And you have to be okay with that. And I realized that it was just impossible for me to be okay with that. I can be okay in this field as long as I had a foot firmly in another world. But if my entire world was just this department I would be unhappy. There just wasn’t enough there.

I realized I just needed to start prioritizing geography because of that diversity thing. With whatever else was happening, being in LA vs. in Seattle, it’s just easier for me to be happy. Even if the work thing wasn’t happening the whole rest of my world just ends up being really important.

RR: That’s something to be valued as well; D Word is looking at environmental professions in general, and seeing what happens when real life drives you in different directions and that it’s totally fine. It’s an important discussion in diversity where we don’t have to feel obligated to stay if its not the right fit. You have to create those healthy boundaries and those boundaries might mean that you’re going into a different field.

Youth and students will have to hear that as well. Recent graduates, college students need to know not to put too much pressure on staying in a particular field if its not making you happy. As a person of color or coming from an unrepresented group, it’s all connected with the system that prevents us from staying in one direction (the barriers).

YL: Yes, it’s not your job to solve the world’s problems. You can make your contribution. It goes back to what I said before, like you feel like you’re throwing something away. And it’s a common and understandable to feel that way but its not necessarily true. I think your experiences go on to inform what you’ll do in unpredictable ways. You just need to make sure at every moment that you are making good decision for now. Think about this year and next, don’t think about 20 years from now. If you consistently make good decisions that keep you happy and in line with your values, you’ll end up in a good place.

To find out more about Yasmin's work  you can visit her website at