"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.