Cultural Competency

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].

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Same Dance, Different Day

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Nina Roberts

San Francisco State University

Associate Professor of Recreation, Parks, & Tourism

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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A RACE CRITICAL ENVIRONMENT

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Conrad Benedicto, Director/Founder of

Wilderness, Arts, Literacy Collaborative (WALC) in SF

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  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.

"I'm Not Your Cultural Moral Compass"

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Charissa Jones

Environmental Educator and Diversity & Inclusion Professional

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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.