Ecology

In the Heart of a Minority

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Charles Nilon

Professor of Urban Wildlife Management

University of Missouri 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CN: And this is pretty much home now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With graduate student, Tommy Parker.

RR: Last things you want to mention?

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

In Retrospect...

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

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

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

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

Diversity article

Maintain and Proceed

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Jeramie Strickland

Fish & Wildlife Service

Wildlife Biologist

Jeramie Strickland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where, when, what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RR: Are you doing any outreach work now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What, where, when?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JS: Yes! Very well said.

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

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

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

Sev field trip 05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To learn more about Jeramie and his career, please visit

Iowa State University website

http://stories.cals.iastate.edu/2012/11/using-career-in-conservation-to-protect-and-inspire/

MS PHD’s website

http://www.msphds.org/profiles.asp?ind=StricJeram

http://www.public.iastate.edu/~fjanzen/TREE/Mentors.html

Vimeo video

http://vimeo.com/39166666

"I Cannot Be A Person I Am Not"

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Sonia Ortega

National Science Foundation

Program Officer, K12 Grant Programs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1987 Sonia studying oysters while a postdoc at Duke University.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RR: and this was a phD program?

SO: a Masters program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonia with partner, Alan. Iceland, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonia's visit to Malaysia

You Tube: [youtube=http://youtu.be/mNGV-uu47d8]

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

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

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

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

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