Diversity Practices

SHAPESHIFTING THE PANEL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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