"I'm Not Your Cultural Moral Compass"


Charissa Jones

Environmental Educator and Diversity & Inclusion Professional


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RR: You’re in Charzy-Space!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RR: last thoughts?

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

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

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

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


Bringing Diversity into Consciousness


Yasmin Lucero

Senior Statistician, Gravity.com


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RR: yeah, its cultural

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

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

YL: yes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RR: It’s that publish or perish culture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To find out more about Yasmin's work  you can visit her website at www.yasminlucero.net