Exposure Without A Camera


Ron Saunders

Photographic Artist

Bayview Library Me Detail

I came across Ron and his artwork at a community market. I was actually at the market to check out all the vendors and see if I can put together a group of neighborhood restaurants and artists for an upcoming  event centered on food justice in San Francisco's Bayview/Hunter's Point area. Earlier that week, my friend Nancy told me about a neighborhood artist I should reach out to, whom is also part of a collective of black artists called the 3.9 Collective. Not knowing what he looks like or even making any initial contact, we met while we were both talking to folks tabling about a community garden. 

After that brief introduction he walked me over to a wall of his artwork and spoke about the unique technique he uses with plants and plant parts with light exposure. I was instantly intrigued. In some cases I didn't really know what I was looking at until he explained. But the images were captivating in color and the use of plants to add texture, I thought brilliant and a great way to see nature.

Here's my interview with Ron, diving a little bit deeper into his journey in art and his role in this amazing collective, the 3.9 Collective of San Francisco...

RS: …in order to affect change your going to have to be visible to the mainstream. Otherwise how are you supposed to affect change?

RR: Yes, how are you going to get the movement to move?

RS: You can be on the fringe, but for those people have to be out, they have to be recognized by the mainstream. Like the Google buses in SF as an example, it’s a small group protesting but they are very vocal and its to get the mainstream to hear.

RR: So what really interested me in interviewing you is first of all, I’ve always seen art and nature is one. From a background of science research and academia then to now, community organizing…we’re all doing the same thing as we work closely with “environments”.

Let’s bring art into the conversation. I’ve seen your amazing work at the Bayview Opera House with plant parts and photography. I also want to touch on the 3.9 Collective you started in San Francisco.

RS: Well, my background is in landscape architecture, have Masters in this and I’m registered as a landscape architect in California. My Master's is from University of Pennsylvania, and I graduated in ’82, the same year I moved to SF.

I’ve always been interested in nature and plants. As kid I used to go to Georgia to stay with my great aunt where she had property. My family would garden and they had lots of farm animals. I was connected to nature at a very early age and it affected my thinking in terms of careers. But not knowing what landscape architecture really was until my junior year in college. I was originally going to be an architect until I took an elective called Landscape Architecture. So I said, oh I’m going to be a landscape architect and an architect. So applied to both programs; landscaping and architecture and only got into the landscape program. And I’m glad I did landscaping because I found architecture to be way too rigid and I became more interested in being what they call, ‘being a steward for the land’.

I worked for large corporate landscape and architect offices. The last big one I worked for was Skidmore Owings and Merrill; an international firm that built at least 1/3 of SF’s downtown skyline. I was able to work on some really good projects and one big project in SF was on the landscape master plan and urban design of Mission Bay. It was odd to watch it come alive, seeing people occupy this industrial landscape that used to be a train yard. I’ve gotten used to  it now and it’s getting more normal now to see people jogging, walking their dogs, strollers, etc..

RR: So that was a fairly recent? Or was it more like the first design of that area because now The Blue Greenway is built?

RS: Yes, actually Mission Bay planning project started in the 70’s and in the first plan, residents in Potrero Hill protested because they didn’t want skyscrapers blocking their view of the Bay Bridge. Then it went to another firm, they did the plan, and Skidmore was hired to review that plan and fine-tune it. After that I left Skidmore in ‘90. In the 2000’s it started developing and there was always the idea to have a stadium and activities right at the entryway of Mission Bay. Mission Bay is about 300 acres of land, its big and mostly landfill.



After I left Skidmore, I did consulting with a firm in Oakland on a regular basis on anything from residential garden design, urban design, and master plans. After leaving them 7 yrs ago, I decided to focus more on residential garden design. And I found that more rewarding because I’m working directly with a client who’s getting the benefits of my services and it’s their private space that they get to enjoy as well. I always work with people who are open to the idea that what I give them is a very flexible design where yes, I can tell you where the paths, plants, and the patios, but understand that this is your yard and you have to change the plants because plants are living things. They change. They’re not going to stay little, they’ll get big and eventually they’ll die and you’ll have to replace them, etc…

So in the Bayview, I live in a development of 125 single family houses where we sit on 17 acres of land and 11 acres of it is landscape and most of the landscape is hills that surrounds development. Being a Landscape Architect, and seeing the property experiencing erosion in places very visible to passers by and homeowners, I informed the board that its time to do some improvements. So for the last 6, almost 7 years we’ve been doing planting to deal with erosion issues. And also by improving the landscape, people are noticing that there are changes happening and they like the beautification and it also inspires them to take think about gardening in their own yards. So again, even though residential, it’s a large scale and I’m used to doing large scale. I try not to think about the scale so much as the planning and at the same time, educate people. We’re trying to get some farming areas implemented. So we planted some fruit trees in hopes of getting some people inspired to help and say, “oh I want to come out and help and do some planting”, but that didn’t happen. But other homeowners on another street expressed interest in doing some gardening so we’re going to put in some fruit trees and work with owners to see what kind of vegetables do they want to grow.

RR: And that’s home. You’re working with your neighbors on your street.

RS: Yes, that’s home. I’ve been in the Bayview since ’85. I moved to SF in ’82. I’m glad I held onto it because property values have gone up.

RR: To put it into context for folks, what did Bayview look like in ’85 and how much change has happened?

RS: Oh, it’s a tremendous amount of change. I mean, the gangs that used to hang out on the street…they’re gone. Now you have old retired people, who are drunk and hang out and have nothing else to do. A lot of the vacant lots that were there are being in-filled with new condo projects. So there’s a new generation of homeowners, but all these new homeowners are all aging. They’re people in 50’s-60’s that don’t want to leave so in order to live in the city they’re looking for affordable housing and the Bayview is one of the best areas. It’s easily accessible to the freeway and downtown so they’ve taken an interest in improving their environment. They’ve taken it to contacting the chief of police to say they aren’t going to tolerate certain things.

There’s been a movement to improve Mendell Plaza, which used to have a street running through it but the city closed it off and people have decided to occupy it and give it back to the people. Some very positive changes happening. There are also younger people coming. Those who live in the city and don’t want to leave, they live in the Bayview. And we’re talking about mostly white people coming to the area because it’s affordable. They can buy a 3 bedroom house in the 500K’s with a garage, backyard, sunlight, option to garden, etc…

RR: Your thoughts on that as far as seeing the change in community in demographics in what we’re seeing now?

Pincushion seeds.

RS: Demographics are changing from majority black to majority Asian. So Bayview at one point was in 90% Black and there have always been Asians there. If you look back on records of the early 1800’s, you can see that there were Chinese shrimp fishermen there. The German, Irish, and Italian, were out there. Some of them moved away but they’ve always been there. The Blacks came in the 40’s to work the shipyards here, in Oakland and Richmond. Then those jobs disappeared then things really got bad because then they became highly unemployed. Some one said to me that the largest ethnic group right now is 40% Asian. I don’t know what it is for Blacks, but if you take public transportation, on the T, you can see at any one time, 25% of the riders are black, the rest Asian and White. It’s changed.

RR: In general, SF has a high number of Asians. But in Bayview Asians are increasing more?

RS: Yes, and there’s good and bad to that. The down side is yes, the Black population of SF is leaving but they’re not only leaving Bayview, they’re leaving the Fillmore or wherever they’re located in SF they’re leaving. They don’t feel welcome or that the place supports them. If you feel there’s no community for you, they’re not going to come.

There was a recent article in SF Examiner published about discouraging their black friends from moving to SF. It said, come visit, see it, enjoy it, but don’t live here; you won t get the support you would get living in Chicago or NY and Oakland. So it’s interesting and it's not going to help the city. The city is supposed to be a diverse culture.

And government makes a difference. The city government in Oakland has been promoting and supporting diversity. And they know that supporting Art Murmur is going to be a boon to the city because its part of the culture. If you go to NY, arts are highly supported. In SF, the arts are not supported. Sure, people want to go out and support the opera and they want to support the major museums, but in order to keep those institutions alive they need feeders. And if those feeders disappear its not going to support the greater institutions.

RR: This is a good way to segue into this collective that you started, the 3.9 Collective. Through our mutual friend, Nancy I came to know this collective, but interestingly enough I was also doing a lot of environmental-historical education with an organization in the Bayview/Hunter’s Point neighborhood. So, knowing and teaching more about the history of SF communities and the environmental justice legacies there and also experiencing first hand the sudden changes of demographics in the city, when Nancy shared with me her being a part of this collective as a black artist, I asked her to explain it to me. And she said the 3.9 was in reference to how many black people are left in SF.

RS: Well, in 2010, right before the census came out there was a report in the Bayview Reporter said they were estimating that the black population in SF is going to be 3.9%. And that’s where the 3.9 came from.

There were several articles that came out with projections of declines of 50% and still declining. The official percentage that came out in 2010 said that 6.1% of SF’s population is black. And the thing I find interesting about that 6.1% as their official number and 4 years have past since then, what I’m hearing some of the news reporting, which is surprising, is that they’re been saying that the black population of SF is 4%. But its definitely less than 6% because blacks aren’t coming, they’re leaving. And the ones that are leaving now seem to be moving to the East Bay, but during the first “dot.com” boom in 2000, there were people who inherited their homes from their parents that were there in the 40’s decided it was time to sell. The said, let’s get 700K for our house and move back to the South where our family came from and get a lot more for your money. You know, buy a house with some land and still have some money left over. So there was that “exodus”. There was another exodus of people that took advantage of the subprime mortgages and moved to Antioch, Pittsburgh, etc… because they wanted to get out of Bayview. They did see it as a good environment to bring kids up in. So there was this mass exodus, then we had the tech boom crashed and the leaving stopped.

But in 2000, one of the things that signaled to me that the Bayview had changed, was when I saw a white man, walking down the street wearing leather chaps and walking his poodle. I said, “That’s It! The Bayview has turned a corner and its not turning back!” And its been true! It’s absolutely true!

But cities go through cycles. And the same thing is happening in NY, but you know NY has the outer boroughs where the populations are still supported; Brooklyn, Queens, etc…

It’s been interesting watching this figure get closer to what the original estimate was based on someone else’s report and its not being addressed. I think one of the things that’s come out of this, because there’s this income inequality people realize is going on, is that it’s not just affecting blacks, but all of the working class people in SF. Sure, you can use the Google buses as a symbol but there really needs to be protests to city government officials. The supervisors, the mayor, etc…Those are the ones setting the policies and those are where the protests should really be directed. If you want to affect change, and policy change, the change is happening on the government level. I mean, look at Twitter, they got exemption from their payroll tax and they came to SF because of that. And now there’s a backlash because they’re supposed to give back to the city. And they’re starting to and they have been actually, it just wasn’t getting publicized. So now they’re starting to publicize that, like the volunteer work that their employees are doing. And that was the agreement for them to be able to move into the city, was to give back to the community. But you need the other companies to jump in on that agreement too, like to Google’s and IBM’s, etc…

The employees are young and young people want to be in the city; it’s vibrant. So employers and major corporations are realizing that the intellectual property are in the major cities and they support that. But they also need to realize that the workers that support those environments, like to secretaries, administrative staff, who don’t have tech experience have to live somewhere. And if they’re going to continue servicing them, where are they going to live?

RR: There have also been those communities that have been there a long time and don’t want to be displaced by al lot of that development.

RS: Which is happening to renters. This Ellis Act is just not working. It’s working for developers who want to come in, but for those who have been here for 20-30 years, all of a sudden they have to go.

 RR: Given all this change and the pressures on SF communities with this change, how did the 3.9 Collective come about in relation to giving support to the black artist community.

9 Hands Blue(4SQ)

RS: I met an artist, William Rhodes whom I met at and event at the Bayview Opera House. He moved from Baltimore over 4 years ago and he was asking me, “Where are all the black artists because every time I meet a black artist they tell me they live in Oakland?”

And I said, “Well, they’re here in SF, but they’re all scattered.” So he suggested we form a group and that’s how it all started. We started to reach out to the black artists that we all knew. He knew Nancy Cato, I knew Rodney Ewing, he knew Sirron Norris. So it started with the 5 of us and we decided we needed to work on making ourselves more visible by having shows, contacting our networks and spreading the word that there’s a group of black artists in SF who are asking our  our existence to be acknowledged. We also wanted it to be a group to be visible to support other black artists who might be in other neighborhoods in SF and might feel isolated. We wanted to provide a support system for folks to talk to people who have experience with the art world in SF and basically form a black community of artists here.

It was interesting because people we knew very well, who live in Oakland, wanted to be part of a group. And we were pretty adamant about saying, “It’s very easy for black artists to get together in Oakland; there are a few communities of black artists there. What we’re really trying to do is to pull black artists in SF together. Sure, we can form alliances with you, but how about supporting all the black artists in SF before they all leave?”

The group grew to about 20 and we continue to do shows. It gets challenging to keep people together because of group dynamics, but one of the things that we wanted to do was more community outreach and work with kids. William is pretty active right now in teaching kids at the Bayview Opera House and is an artist, in their Dare to Dream Program. We’re also at Bayview’s monthly event sponsored by the SF Arts Commission called Third on 3rd. There are always 2 members from the 3.9 Collective out there working with the kids so they can see that there are black artists here in the city to say, “Yes, you can do this. Yes, you need support and yes, it’s difficult doing it by yourself and don’t think you can do this by yourself.”

We want to have this exposure to the black community as well because it introduces them to art. People in general don’t like going to galleries and museums because there’s a certain environment there. So what I’ve started to look at is public art opportunitites. In 2010 I was awarded a commission to do permanent artwork for the new Bayview Public Library, which opened in February 2013.

I realized what I was trying to go after was trying to find a way to reach a broader audience and public art is a really good venue for that. Because people go to libraries and airports, they see art. You can’t not see it. Its very competitive, but I decided to keep plugging away at it. I have work at the Laguna Honda Hospital and also at the Public Utilities Commission new headquarters.

RR: In your artwork, your using plants and plant parts in the darkroom in this very unique technique. Can we get into the technique?

RS: The basic idea is that I’m using silver photographic paper so black and white images are created. However, I don’t use a camera and I don’t use film. I take objects and I lay them directly on the paper and expose them to light. When they’re exposed to light, the object on the paper becomes a white shadow and everything else around it goes black. So you end up with a silhouette. That’s the basic idea and they’re called photograms.

I use plant materials, natural materials, and salt. At the Bayview Library I’ve used salt, water, sugar, and cotton. I wanted to think of things that would connect to the neighborhood and the people of Bayview.

Cotton Head (sepia)

So for the shipyard in the neighborhood, I used water. But I also started to think about, what are we made of? Where did I come from? What am I, who am I? These questions also came about because my mother died in 1998 and I’m an only child and both my parents are no longer alive. Naturally those questions stared to come up and prompt me to start this project. I started with using the human figure first but decided I needed texture. So I looked at the plant world, which I was already familiar with as a landscape architect, and decided to collage the plants with the figure because they are a part of us, we are a part of them.

And because black people were slaves at one point, I decided to use cotton balls as an expression of our past. People may not recognize the cotton in the collage,but I use different things to express our inner being and of our histories as well.

RR: In this broader context of working in the natural environment or using natural materials, how do you see yourself working in this “industry of environmental work”?

RS: As an artist you don’t really think about connecting to other systems or institutions. You think about creating your art first. And that’s what I did. It was about ‘how do I express myself and who I am and where I came from?’ It became more universal. But at the same time, by me focusing on images that are just plant material, I realized it’s also talking about the environment. Because the series I do with plants is called, The Secret Life of Plants, I wanted people to realize that there’s something different about this ‘tulip’ that I’m looking at. Why can I see all of these lines? It’s not that you have to understand what those parts are, but as opposed to looking at a cut flower sitting on a table and you notice it because it looks beautiful or smells good, I wanted people to see the inner aspect of the plants. It’s looking at it at a deeper level. Thereby questioning when you see a rose or a tulip, let me look at it a little closer and see what kind of patterns are in there and get a better idea about nature. And begin questioning the things we take for granted, like nature.

The other day I read that we don’t even know what’s in our oceans. Only 5% of our oceans have been explored. When I read this, I said, you’re kidding me! What do you mean? We’ve gone to outer space and but we haven’t gone to the deepest parts of the ocean?”

So my photography is really there to try and educate people about the environment and take a closer look. You become curious. When I take an onion and slice it and take a photogram of it, you see concentric circles, but people don’t know what it is! Even master chefs will look at the image and question, what is this? You don’t see it because you’re either not looking very closely or you’ll take the food and think about how to put it in your dish, you’re not really looking at the essence what that plant material is.


RR: Or coming from a different perspective. Different people are coming to the image each in a different way. Not a lot of people are used to seeing things through a photogram. But seeing your spread of photogram on the wall, it was fun to try and guess what I was looking at.

You also talked about ‘taking things for granted’. We take the world for granted and how much knowledge we don’t know about the world. Can you speak a little bit more about that feeling of curiosity comes from? We don’t always go there, you know?

RS: I was always a curious child, so that curiosity I had wasn’t squelched. It’s interesting looking at these kids in the Bayview that have these young parents. And they don’t let these kids explore and therefore, they haven’t explored themselves.

I met this young mother who is taking her child to a Chinese school so that he can be exposed to other cultures. And you can tell she really wants him to have more than what she had or has. And she can really see that the city has changed and the world has changed. And if you don’t give kids an opportunity to explore and look a things that are outside of your world, you’re going to be left behind. You’re going to be closed off.

So for me, having that curiosity about life, people, adventures was very natural for me. Not saying that it wouldn’t be natural for other people, but I also think that people have to be exposed to environments that they might not be comfortable with. Simple things, like Bayview kids never seeing the Golden Gate Bridge or Golden Gate Park because their parents never took them there for whatever reason. So, sign your kids up for a day camp where they can go out and be exposed to these things. Because I think kids are naturally curious and they want to go out there. It goes back to the parents. And if the parents can’t do it, there needs to be a mentor or somebody that can lead them in that direction.

For two summers I did a summer camp at the Headlands Center for the Arts. On the other side of that facility is a public

Of This Earth_Feet Leaf

housing development called Marin City. Someone decided to give money to that community so the kids can have an afterschool program. And the kids didn’t know what was just over the ridge, on the other side of the mountain. There’s the Marine Mammal Center, all this science stuff. So, we introduced them to art where we had them write a story  and draw pictures about their home life as a way of communicating therapeutically and letting go of this stuff they needed to let go of and share with people so they’re not traumatized.

And also as a plug, I’ll say I have a Master’s degree in Social Work! I was going to work part time as a social worker and do part time photography, but things didn’t work out that way and I ended up doing the landscape design work because it gave me more flexibility to travel and play around with my photography. So it’s been interesting that I’ve been able to come full circle back to the thing that I really like a lot. I like helping people. The 3.9 Collective is still talking about who we can collaborate with to do art programs to expose kids to professional artists.

RR: Well, I appreciate having your perspective on your work in the environment. Your photogram images are really speaking for it self when I see it and now that I’ve been able to sit here and have a conversation with you. So, thank you for sharing this with me and everyone who’ll be reading this story!


To find out more about Ron and his artwork, please visit:

His website

Press Release for Bayview Public Library





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