Same Dance, Different Day

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Nina Roberts

San Francisco State University

Associate Professor of Recreation, Parks, & Tourism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What happens is that we can put our stuff out there in a way that is gentle or unassuming, and reaches a couple of folks but may only get to a certain level and never go further. If issues or circumstances stay at a lower level, change is not going to occur unless you meet certain decision-makers in management as part of the equation. I’ve been in places where I’ve succumbed to hierarchy and have done what people have told me is the procedure to follow; at times I've gotten nowhere and others I've observed have gotten nowhere either. So my approach at that time was, not waiting for somebody to tell me that there’s a certain way of getting things done. That’s the Eurocentric way; one step at a time. I understand the value of proper procedures, but how can we create change within a system that already has barriers preventing people from creating that change? That’s just something I want to share with people regarding the mixed race experience and how we’re still often capped until we fit into this mold.

Throughout some of the jobs I’ve had I’ve made lots of mistakes along the way, we all do. We can still have those conversations with our friends over cold beers and vent all day long! We all have a reputation to uphold so obviously there are moments where you don’t say something to someone’s face because it's only going to anger them or make things worse. You won’t improve things and communication takes longer to navigate. I want to keep it real, but how do we keep it real without being criticized?  I've experienced many lessons learned that's how!  And, simply put, reality is that when we talk to our friends and colleagues, especially in minority communities, it's a different conversation.

Now as a college professor, I tell my students, we don’t have to like people we work with or collaborate with, but if we want to engage or participate in creating new directions or maintaining positive experiences and quality of life for people, we have to respect them. Respect for others' background, experiences, who they are, and where they come from is huge. But we don’t have to like them and, oftentimes it comes down to personality. Nothing more, nothing less and that’s reality. We’re never going to like everyone we work with, so let it go.

How, then, do we find the good in people that enable us to work together? That’s the piece that most humans have difficulty with.  When thinking about gender, for example, how can we get the guys to leave their ego at the door, or channel their power to work well with strong women?  Don't get me wrong, there are lots of great men as allies that we work with.  Part of what I've observed, as well as studied, relates to the question of how do white guys best connect with a black man, Latina woman, or young person of another culture that has ideas and wants to offer new a perspective for their community, and wonder if their idea is going to be welcomed?

Language, actions, behaviors, etc. are similar over time but we give a new label to it so it feels like something different. Like, “my voice is not being heard" or "we need more voices at the table.” That's just another way of saying, “invite that brother from down street, sit ‘em down at the board meeting, and listen to what he's gotta say”! It’s the same platform. We need to create and craft vernacular to get people to listen and embrace what we are doing.  I say whatever works should be used without dancing around the hard stuff.

And "relevancy” is a buzz word right now. Everyone in the 'parks' world keeps saying, “We need to be more relevant” and, yes, seems to me we’ve BEEN needing to be more relevant!  But now all of a sudden you start picking up the word and tossing it about without really knowing what it means to the communities you'd like to serve? My response is, “Right on! What are you going to do about it?”

I don’t often hear black and brown people using certain language white people are using. And that’s okay. Unfortunately,  we just haven’t seemed to find common vernacular yet, really. What’s relevant to me or you may be different from what the white people think is relevant to our communities. Funders, is another example; they try to do things like, giving money for XYZ, and that’s great, but are the goals and needs really matching? Sometimes they are but I see a dichotomy and sometimes a disparity with organizations they seek to support. Funders with resources may not empower an organization to stand on own two feet and create that level of camaraderie enabling them to participate in collaborative process directly.  I see incremental changes and that's important. Partnerships and collaborations are two different things. You can be in partnership with someone, but who’s got control in making decisions, managing budgets, etc?  You know, who’s calling the shots?

RR: That’s what excites me about your personality and the way you do things. One thing that I noticed, is that if one wanted to Google Nina Roberts you would see several pages of what you’re doing now and affiliations of this and that. What you’re sharing now is true to life and I think its what people should be hearing about.

What I saw was very unique and unexpected in my search of your online profile. If I were to Google any other prof, it would be strictly 'outdoor publications and how do people play a part in that'. But for Nina Roberts, inclusion is at the center of your work. “Who I am is first, and then love the work. And that’s what I see in you, is that you love the work you do. You are contributing to outdoors, for the sake of outdoors for everyone and the environment and it’s the love and the passion.

NR: And I appreciate you laying that out because I think that's what has enabled me to enjoy what I do so much. I’m there for other people in a way that I’ve never been there before. In other words, at first it was who am I? How do I move thru world in relation to career path, family relationships, etc? There were times where I’d be more cautious in my approaches because I learned to understand before I acted.

Mentors including parents and grandparents have told me, “You need to think before you speak”. There were times where I hadn't done that very well and I’ve said some sh** where I found myself apologizing.  And I started wondering why am I apologizing all the time?  Earlier in my career, I needed to think through things, what are the dynamics, what are the implications of what I say or do? And it goes back to not learning that in a text book; we have to experience that in order to create change for ourselves regarding how we want to act intentionally or with more empathy for others, and conviction about the future. That’s an important life skill and we need to learn how to develop that; being judicious and prudent in our decisions is vital for success!

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The older I get, however, the less I sometimes worry about the "how" because life is too short! You know if someone did or said something that I believe needed a response, I’m rarely going wait anymore. I’ll think about the circumstance, sure, but I’m going to get on the phone, call someone who knows someone, who knows someone, to fix the problem! I’m not going to wait for us to analyze and assess what happened for weeks on end…sometimes I don’t have the patience for waiting because in some experiences I've had, it seems people in power need to go behind closed doors before they make a change or make a decision which can take years instead of weeks! Really? Again, the Eurocentric way is one step at a time, which is fine but when people take their sweet time at the expense of minority employees or a culturally diverse group of program participants, that's not okay. You know what I say? Move! We talk about motivation in leisure studies; the root of motivation is to MOVE! So if there's something going on in a community that wants a new playground or another neighborhood seeks to get a Power Plant removed, I feel like saying, “Whom do I need to call to get this done?

How do we come together as a collective community? It does take time, no question. Part of my point is that the bigger stuff, or requests from communities of color, can take a long time to come to life because of who is in power. We find back doors to get to places, new ways to approach things, but who is the messenger? How are decisions made in organizations?  We learn to dance a little, to play certain games. But sometimes the games that are played in under-resourced communities are what I have little patience for.

It gets tiring to constantly push and badger organizations and specific individuals to do what doesn’t have to be that difficult if the genuine intention is there. But action must be behind the words. Diversity will always be here in our communities, in our worlds. It’s respecting differences, embracing, and recognizing them that matters and helps us with that collaboration. Growing up, did I recognize this? Sure! Did I treat everyone the same?  No. Does everyone treat everyone the same? No.

RR: Because no one is the same!

NR:  Right!  So what we’re talking about now is “social justice”. People were only talking about social justice as a paradigm. But that’s what the diversity movement is all about… social justice. It’s the same dance different day!  As we all know, finding our common ground is merely one facet in helping build relationships.

RR: Sometimes there’s that notion that environmental justice is for people of color. It’s like, white people recognize you’ve been doing environmental justice just as long. We need to just do this together and not make it a dichotomy for whatever reason. We all just want to do the same kind of work.

NR:  True, because in some people’s minds they associate it with race and I’m over that! So I ask, what do they mean by diversity? And if the answer is ‘We need more black people’… That’s racial diversity, so people need to be more specific about what is meant by diversity. And when you talk about social justice, what are you referring to? I always encourage my students to seek context and not make assumptions.

Are we ever going to have real equity in our lifetime? I don’t believe so. I want to be a realist and ask, “How are we going to create more collaboration?” And in the work that we do, we’ve seen milestones over years that show progress.  I occasionally think about the "Letter to the Big Ten", written in 1990 that went out to the top ten environmental and conservation groups by minority communities. This was followed by the First People of Color Summit on the Environment held the next year, and was a landmark event and a galvanizing movement for people of color throughout the United States.  There are some professionals revisiting that letter, year after year  and asking what has changed in last 20-yrs? Guess what? It hasn’t changed much in who is there, the composition of staff, board, fee-paying members, etc.  Tokenism is alive and well. Over time, organizationally, we’ll see some shift because changing demographics are inevitable. We may be in rocking chairs, but we’ll see it!

As professionals, we also have to be careful because it's a misnomer to say “All of us, we the collective minorities of the nation” are all aligned and on same playing field and want the same level of change; it's actually not true. I’m learning to think differently about the economic strata, for example, and how that affects culturally diverse communities, connection to white poverty, and all of us merely trying to do our best work. There are intergroup conflicts and lack of cohesion within some minority communities; then I observe (or read about) white people using race as platform for most of the problems and forget to include socioeconomic issues. They say, “See they [minorities] can’t figure it out, can’t get it together, they, they, they…” but, to me, it goes back to collaboration, common language, respect, truly seeking social justice, etc. Groups with money, let's say predominantly white managers, ready to support those in need want to see that minorities have their stuff together and they want to come to table for all the right reasons.

RR: I’ve thought this through too and I asked myself if working with ethnic minorities only is being exclusionary, and it is! But just the concepts you’ve been talking about, I’ve realized the people who drive the social justice work and create these programs, should be from within the communities, which are predominantly ethnic minorities.

So you’re spinning this hamster wheel if you’re saying, “Okay, white people with money, you recognize there are needs to be diversity efforts or you’re pressured to do so. Should you then be the one to create and design those programs and give that money, or should it be the other way around? We should be the leaders creating that because we know what we need, what we want.

Our country has a history of racism, segregation and institutional decisions and power. Ecology is a predominantly white profession and no one wants to talk about nation’s history and civil rights and how that might connect to low numbers of minorities participating.

NR: The beauty of what you’re doing is to let it unfold. Let’s see what kind of contributions people end up making. Those conversations are important too; some people tend to blast organizations for what they're not doing, or for being ignorant, stupid, lacking cultural competency, etc. People of color need a way to “go there” in conversation.   A safe place to just release ourselves and strategize to write that letter, or make that phone call in a way that we are going to be respected for our capabilities, intellect, or contributions, not just because we’re an “angry black person mad about something”.

RR: Any last things you want to contribute or say for this Blog?

NR: Change! Life is about change. Change is good, transition is hell. Progress in life isn’t possible without action! Thanks for this opportunity, Raynelle- keep up the great work of sharing people's stories.

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To Release, Be Resilient, and Embrace Hip-Hop

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Kristi Davis

Student Conservation Association Regional Gift Officer &

Center for Diversity & the Environment Board Member 

*Edited by Moira McEnespy

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RR: I want to start by sharing how we got to this interview.  We met through your attendance at the Environmental Educator Collaborative listening session at Lawrence Hall of Science. But being part of what feels like a small community or people of color in the environmental community, what interested me is knowing how you moved from being the Executive Director of a major California advocacy organization to what you’re doing today…I want to know your story.

Let’s start from the beginning. I found a profile of you on the internet naming you as a conservation heroine, or a “real mama grizzly.” Where did this initial interest in conservation come from? What inspired you to be interested in being outside and to make a career of it?

KD: Well, there was not one particular moment. There were a number of milestones. The first time I went fishing with my Dad and godfather, I was six years old and it was the early ‘80s…I had “ROOS” shoes with a quarter zipped in and a brown bomber jacket, and we went down the coast in Big Sur. Being in the car with the cooler and fishing equipment is a special memory. We literally went tromping through the marsh and I remember distinctly thinking, “Where am I?” Even though we were honestly probably only 45 minutes from house. I caught a fish that day, and still have a picture of me with my Dad and godfather and a big fish. I loved being outside in nature with my Dad. I was a “tomboy” and needed space. Growing up in the suburbs, it was outside that I could roller-skate and bike ride and run and play and jump and not be confined…I had the freedom to run and play.

Then I got to do it with friends. I grew up in Monterey, California and did not realize how privileged I was to grow up between the Pacific Ocean and lush forests. I joined the Girls Scouts (Troop 2014!) and we went to Big Sur or the mountains, went creek walking, roasted s’mores, set up tents, and learned about giant sequoias in the Santa Cruz mountains. I remember looking up and learning about constellations, never realizing the stars were so bright, and thought “this is awesome!” I wanted to duplicate these memories, so in high school I joined the Earth Club and the Science Club, and in my sophomore and junior years volunteered during spring break to be an assistant naturalist to lead 6th-grade science camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains. For some of these kids it was their first time to be outdoors. It was the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, the beginning of green conservation movement. Our goal was to reduce and reuse, and the kids did not realize how simple it was (we split a napkin each meal and by the end of the camp it seemed like we had saved enough to make a whole tree), how you can do one small thing to decrease consumption and it adds up.

Then I went to Mount Holyoke in the east coast for college. College was not hard academically, but it was hard socially to be a brown girl from California on the east coast. I had to acclimate culturally, and again, the outdoors was a place where I could just “release” and not have to figure out how to “read between the lines”…not have to think about anything but hiking the Appalachian trail, or the mechanics of snowboarding down a mountain.

Mount Holyoke is the oldest all-women college in the country, and was established as a “need-blind” school, meaning that if one had the academics, one was accepted, and then financial aid was discussed if needed. I went there because there was so much diversity; I met women from Somalia, Ethiopia, Japan, China, Massachusetts, Hawaii, women from all aspects of life. But then in my senior year, the school’s financial difficulties changed the financial aid system from “need blind” to “need-sensitive,” which meant prospective students’ finances came into play. I felt so strongly that it was not OK for students to be judged by financial capability that I stopped going to class, protested with other students and had sit-ins in academic buildings, on the main road into town, The Boston Globe came and interviewed us. And I almost did not graduate. I called my parents and explained, “Okay, I know you’ve spend hundreds and thousands of dollars, but here’s the deal... I just don’t think its fair that students are going to be judged based on their financial capacity because in all actuality that also means that it’s going to be based on their race.” So my parents were really proud of me and said, “We support you and we’re going to help you figure this out.”

The president held a campus-wide open house and I stood up and asked, “You know, this was founded on free education for women, who are we to deny women the access to education, which is how most women have brought themselves out of poverty and other situations they are in.”). In response, the president at that time said,  “Well, I’m going to assume that you’re on financial aid and that that’s your concern…” In front of maybe, a thousand people I said, “Actually I’m not. My parents have worked 30+ years; my dad as a police officer and my mom as a Navy school accountant. They actually make just enough money that I don’t qualify for financial aid. Why would you assume I’m on financial aid?”. So in addition to advocating for free education access, there was also this interaction I had of, “you assumed this because I am black”. I’m positive that this is why this has happened. This became the starting point I started to see myself as an activist, to speak for the rights of women and the rights of the less advantaged and those who couldn’t speak for themselves.

The Fund for Public Interest Research approached me to become an activist, which gave me the opportunity to combine speaking for others with a love for the outdoors. Directly out of college, I drove cross-country from Massachusetts to California with my parents, then moved to the San Francisco Bay area and started canvassing door-to-door to raise awareness about clean air, clean water, and to raise money for those campaigns…a week later I was promoted to Campaign Director; one of five in Berkeley canvassing from Santa Rosa to San Jose. Doing this job, I realized how truly privileged I was to grow up in Monterey. I was talking about asthma, high infant mortality rates…talking to people and being in Point Richmond where the air smelled like oil and was murky bluish-green, talking to people who worked for big oil companies for 30 years. A lot of time people would say, “We get it, but this is our livelihood, and our kids have to eat and go to school”. I also learned about empathy as I watched people who were not truly affected give generously (of course there were also those who spit at our feet or called the police). I did this for almost two years, which is a long time in the canvassing business. Through these “boots on the ground” conversations, I realized that I had to be involved in this work no matter what.

I was 22 or 23 and was running the Berkeley and San Francisco canvassing offices, was singled out for an award out of the entire U.S. and had also piloted the very first national canvassing human rights campaign. Although I was getting tons of experience on the ground, I wasn’t learning how to run an organization. So I went to work for a for-profit organization, first as a research assistant and then as Director of Finance and Administration. I learned the ins and outs of business, and considered getting an MBA. It was such a good experience but there was no connection to the mission. Though I was making a lot of money, I went from fighting the good fight to talking about game theory and making as much profit as possible. So I volunteered.

I volunteered with the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council (BARTC) whose goal is a 350-mile trail around the ridge-tops of San Francisco. I experienced tons of government agencies coming together on a common cause and I realized had to get back into the nonprofit world. I applied to graduate school, went to work for Arriba Juntos (Upwards Together) to help young people find jobs, then for Women in Community Service (WICS). I loved the work, and got to do hands-on work directly with young people. Programs like the Treasure Island Job Corps taught skills like, how to dress for an interview, how to write a resume, etc… but a lot of kids did not have self confidence. So I decided to take a few young people out on a hike to teach them where they lived. This literally brought tears to my eyes. Kids born and raised in San Francisco or living on Treasure Island for years had no idea that just across the bridge is a beautiful State park, or that there are actually redwoods in Oakland! I was again trying to figure out how to empower young people through nature and conservation. A job at the Sierra Club Foundation enabled me to think big-picture and establish the “conservation and military program.” The idea was to take veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq into the outdoors as a place for meditation and relaxation, and to also take their kids. Most were brown faces, and I decided that was the work on wanted to focus on: creating space for communities of color.

I was always the one brown face growing up in Monterey, then private school, then college on the east coast. And I realized that if anything was going to change I had to be in position of power. I finished my masters at UCSF, and then had the privilege to become the Executive Director for the California Wilderness Coalition (CWC), an organization with a great reputation for change. The CWC’s mission is to create wilderness areas around California, but what makes it especially unique is its tactics.

The organization employed innovative advocacy methods; empowering, organizing and training local diverse (race, class, religion, etc) communities to become advocates and stewards of the land, something very special, something CWC became known for, and something I am very proud of.

RR: You have a wealth of experience and have had opportunities to jump into many positions…and amazingly each position seemed to inform your next step.

KD: Yes. Although my resume looks scattered, each move was always done purposefully and my end goal was always to become the Executive Director of a conservation organization. And one thing funders appreciated was the confidence given me by my Board of Directors; they saw that I was experienced and gave me that position. I was under the age of 40 and represented the next generation of conservation leadership.

RR: You talk about your end goal being the Executive Director of large conservation organization, but you are no longer with the CWC. Where are you now, and has your end goal changed?

KD: It is still my goal. I enjoyed almost five years as an executive director. It was an amazing opportunity to lead a statewide advocacy organization. I continue to be interested in politics, community building and advocacy. I chose to leave, so that I could focus not only on implementing solutions to our environmental challenges but to also focus on developing the next generation of conservation leaders. My current position with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) has allowed me to bridge this gap, while at the same time building a diverse community in support of this mission.

For example, there is so much anger and lack of hope in the City Oakland at times. I was inspired by Angela Davis and her belief that the answer is in self-love. If you give someone a job and teach them skills, that will empower them and create self-love. So providing young people with a strong skill set and self-empowerment while connecting them to nature will empower them to become the next generation of conservation leaders advocating for protection of our planet. SCA is taking those steps; it’s not only working in communities, but hiring from within those communities.

RR: So it feels like your current position is the culmination for you…it has it all?

KD: No one organization will ever be perfect, but my current position has it all right now, and provides the greatest opportunity to create impact and change.

RR: Let’s dive deeper into topic of diversity. You mentioned you were the only brown face in the crowd through school, etc. Have there been other moments professionally, and how did you approach them?

KD: Ever since I was little, my parents said to me “We want a better life for you, and you will be in certain situations where you will be only brown face or the only girl; so you have to be better than everyone else; people are expecting you to fail.” As a result I have always strived to be the best, not in terms of competition with others but the best for myself.

In terms of professional work, there have certainly been times where although I was not the only brown face, there were not a lot of us…and it was hard, especially in the beginning of my career. There have been occasions that there were other black women in positions of power. The organization was founded by a diverse group of women that stressed the importance of diversity; there were a number of women of color in positions to affect change. There was camaraderie between us. It was an empowering moment, I took notice and was grateful.

I have been able to meet more and more people in the field that “get it,” and new statistics indicate that funders are recognizing the importance of diversity. They understand the importance of diversity within an organization, which will allow for an organization to maintain its relevancy as the country’s racial composition changes. There are a number of courageous people (within our community) working to create change. We may find ourselves alone within our organization, but there is a community of support within the conservation field. With the globalization of communication (internet, email, Twitter, Facebook), communities of color, advocates for diversity are able to connect, share struggles, empower each other through shared experiences and build successes together.

RR: Being one with a different perspective can be a challenge, not only in the nonprofit world but in academia and other professions. I recall first wanting to know who is accountable, and what policies are in place. But at the end of day it’s about relationships. If you are not used to people of different backgrounds, then you don’t have the social practice to interact with difference. Talk about the importance of specifically being with communities of color; how important is that safe space?

KD: First, It is important to identify a support network. When I went through challenges in my career and thought about whether to continue within the conservation community, I had the opportunity to attend a talk with Angela Davis speak. She was asked, “You’ve been imprisoned and persecuted as you work to build a movement of equality and create change. How do you continue to do this challenging work?” She stated that she received support and recognition of her challenges from so many people, she recognized that she was not alone in her struggle. She had the support of a community.

It was then that I realized, if you feel alone, you become hopeless. But if you know others are going through the same struggles there is a community, a connection- a hope in knowing that others support you. We cannot do this challenging work alone; we are building a movement. It takes a community.  Even if you are not a person of color, this conservation work is hard, hard work that often takes 10-15 years to see real change. Having a support network makes it easier. And I in turn it becomes increasingly important to not only receive support but to share and give support.  My hope and goal is to give to those that come after me, to provide support to the next generation of young women leaders.

Secondly, I think that it is important to build a diversity of thought within an organization or a movement. Creating and affecting change should be a bit messy. When a diverse group of people come together you must create compromise, you create an end product that is better than if it had just come from one homogeneous group. In building a movement built upon diversity and compromise, you create a movement of buy-in and legitimacy. You have worked to create a constituency of diverse voices in support of one mission.

Advocacy creates the most legitimacy and the most power. I had the opportunity to speak with Van Jones, who equated the environmental movement to the civil rights movement: Blacks alone cannot effect change, we need allies. Similarly, conservationists need allies and people of color need allies. There needs to be groups that come together to effect the most change.

RR: But it’s important to have that safe space. The challenge is that sometimes it turns into more and smaller boxes of people…more segregation than collaboration. So how do we challenge ourselves to recognize the need for safe space, but to mix and get true diversity?

KD: That is the million-dollar question! It was posed at conference last summer, and a woman who is a renowned international advocate and fundraiser, Lynne Twist, author of The Soul of Money. We come from a standpoint of competition of resources (i.e., there are only so many pieces of the pie). We must let go of the idea of competition. We must celebrate our shared successes, which will draw more attention to the issue and the work we all do, and eventually it will come back to all of us. This is actually a spiritual idea and a practice:  a practice that I hope to incorporate into my everyday life as well as in my professional life. It is tied to how you were raised (self-worth and self-value)…not everyone will be at that same space.

RR: This idea really sounds like Buddhist practice…ego-less and letting go.

KD: It really brings an inner peace to yourself.

RR: Let’s talk about the challenge in working with stressed communities, and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Personally this is where the challenge is, figuring out how to flex between different upbringings, priorities, and needs.

KD: A lot of people operate out of fear, which holds you down. You have to be able to remove the fear and operate out of courage and faith. And it is hard to have faith and courage when rent is due in two weeks! But there comes a point where it’s about quality of life, and where it’s less of a job than a movement. Sacrifices become not for me but for the future of my children, i.e., so they can have clean air and water. But it’s still really, really hard! I would suggest that being grounded in some sort of support system with in-depth relationships beyond the professional helps to maintain my faith.  I am extremely lucky to have a strong support system. My parents continue to support and empower me every day. I am every grateful.

I reached an age where I just took a leap of faith and gave my resignation to the CWC…and one and a half weeks later I had a job offer! It’s about doing what is best for you and your family and your environment…something will come.

 RR: We’ve touched on a lot of details about your life and your perspective. Is there anything burning in your mind you want to say about diversity and the environmental movement, or being an environmental professional?

KD: Only one last thing: Truly in all honesty, we need to look to the next generation of young people to be our leaders. And I am hopeful. I don’t think it will be like the civil rights movement, where there were single unifying leaders such as Malcom X or MLK, Jr.…It will be more like a “hip-hop” environmental movement, where like in hip-hop its taken on so many different colors and has been molded to fit many different things. It’s important for us to think in terms of hip-hop when we think about the environmental movement. Similar to hip-hop, it will have so many different leaders, facets and faces. We need to be receptive to that and not try and mold the next generation into what we are used to and have seen in the past.

 Does this make sense? To think in terms of hip-hop?

RR: Yes! Totally! But at the same time I want to say, I think it makes sense “to us”. But I think that nails it in that sense that hip-hop is a global phenomenon!

KD: And I’ve talked to people before about, how do we change it? Do you work within the system or from outside? And I think its a bit of both. It think there are some organizations that are huge and have been around for a really long time. Change happens slowly. They may have the best intentions, but it just is taking them a long time. Organizations like the Audubon Society or the Trust for Public Land, they’ve been doing this work for a really long time and have made true strides in the past 10 years; in terms of changes to their boards, who they hire, and their programming. It is possible, but it takes time and patience, and takes the operating from all levels and structures.

RR: The bigger the organization, the slower the change. But like you said, we need to rely on youth. Eventually there’s going to be turnover. And that’s why I say, hip-hop is a world-wide phenomenon and is relevant to more youth than ever. And the old guard is going to have to surrender to this movement.

KD: Yes, you have to be relevant, you have to be.

Maintain and Proceed

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Jeramie Strickland

Fish & Wildlife Service

Wildlife Biologist

Jeramie Strickland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where, when, what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RR: Are you doing any outreach work now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What, where, when?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JS: Yes! Very well said.

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

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

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

Sev field trip 05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To learn more about Jeramie and his career, please visit

Iowa State University website

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

MS PHD’s website

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

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

Vimeo video

http://vimeo.com/39166666

"I'm Not Your Cultural Moral Compass"

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Charissa Jones

Environmental Educator and Diversity & Inclusion Professional

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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.