University

In the Heart of a Minority

nilon_feature1.jpg

Charles Nilon

Professor of Urban Wildlife Management

University of Missouri 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CN: And this is pretty much home now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With graduate student, Tommy Parker.

RR: Last things you want to mention?

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

In Retrospect...

img_0345.jpg

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

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

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

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

Diversity article

Same Dance, Different Day

bawp_summer2011.jpg

Nina Roberts

San Francisco State University

Associate Professor of Recreation, Parks, & Tourism

Nina main img

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

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

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

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

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

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

NSR helicopter ride_EBRPD_Aug13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NSR_Seqoia07

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!

nsr_yose_halfdome2_adj

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.

NSR_Asilomar_CALspre_web2