To Nature, With Love

Conrad Benedicto & Catherine Salvin
Founders and Teachers of the
Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative (WALC)
Balboa & Downtown Continuation High Schools, San Francisco

My relationship with WALC at Downtown Continuation High School started when I was working at LEJ. I was impressed by LEJ's education staff of color, but what impressed me more and excited me even more once I got hired, was the opportunity to collaborate with the WALC program. It felt like home and where I wanted to be as an Environmental Educator; working with folks that I felt in my heart “get it” when it comes to the “people of color (POC) experience” in environmental work. The partnership immediately clicked and integrating WALC’s curriculum with LEJ’s was a natural fit and organic process. After LEJ I worked briefly with WALC at Downtown HS and to this day still maintain a great relationship with Catherine and the program.

Catherine and Conrad have been educating mostly at-rick youth of color out in nature for over 15 years! How is this program NOT a household name in the world of environmental education? And to know that there was a partnership between Catherine & Conrad that preceded the creation of WALC, I was all the more curious to know their story.

So when I sat down with them in their beautiful home in the Excelsior District of San Francisco, Catherine and Conrad taught me this...It’s fairly simple, this thing called Love. You fight for it, do the work, and find that place where you relate. 

*We’ve also heard a previous speech from Conrad from a post back in September 2013 called, A Race Critical Environment

RR:  Start with background of WALC. You are the partnership that created WALC. How did this thing start for you guys?  How did you meet?  How did the concept meet?

CB:  The concept was shot down initially…

CS:  We met at UC Santa Cruz in 1989…

RR: I’ll want a picture!

CS:  When we were skinny!  [laughter]  I was really involved in the Asian and Pacific Islander Student Alliance (APISA) when I started UCSC. Conrad [also a UCSC student] came to APISA because he had gone to Woodrow Wilson High School (WWHS) in San Francisco.  They were closing down Wilson, a comprehensive high school (HS) in favor of an academic HS, so it was not a just thing.  He came to an APISA meeting to get us to help him save WWHS, which was an inner city HS serving people of color (POC), Asian immigrant students, Filipino immigrant students, Pacific Islanders, Samoans especially. He made a case to us to help him save his [former] school.  We did.  We came to San Francisco (SF), went to school board meetings, called school board members, etc... So that’s how we got to know each other.

CB:  It ended up being a “stay of execution” because it closed down two years later anyway.

CS:  That was our first year in college.  We both ran for the educational rights committee (ERC) co-chairs at end of that school year. So the next year we continued working on education issues at UCSC and statewide, especially recruitment, retention and representation of students of color (SOC). The year we were co-chairs was the year we got together. The year after that, I was the chair of APISA and we were at UCSC from ’89 to ’93.

The dominant culture at UCSC is white hippie culture, where people are vegetarians and they hang out in the woods and there’s this place called “Elfland” in the trees where all the hippies go.  We were doing race-based work…nowadays people call it social justice work. Very lefty, racial equality-liberation-anti-colonial-type of work.  I had gone into Santa Cruz (SC) as a vegetarian, but doing the work I was doing I thought, "POC eat meat, so in fighting for racial equality you are rejecting the dominant culture, which was white hippie culture—not just white culture, but white hippie culture. So I started eating meat again.  Even though I had grown up going outdoors and doing outdoorsy things, in SC the environment was the realm of white hippie culture.  When I was Core Chair of APISA was when the officers were planning a core retreat and Conrad suggested going camping and I actually uttered the words, “No, only white people go camping!” I put my foot down, and we didn't go camping!  It was totally undemocratic. I was the chair, and I put my foot down and spent those two years saying “no” to camping.

RR:  Catherine, you’re from the Bay Area?

CS:  Sort of.  I grew up in five different states—CO, MD, MI, back to CO, NM—then moved to San Jose (SJ), CA in 8th grade, so spent 8th grade through Senior year in HS in SJ, then never went been back to SJ, ever.  I went from SJ to SC, then from SC to SF.

RR:  OK, Conrad, you were born and raised in the City?

CB:  I was born and raised in the Philippines, immigrated when I was 13, went to WWHS, then ended up in SC.  I chose UCSC because I imagined myself studying there because of the trees.  I grew up in the Philippines so being out in nature was just what it was—it’s always been a part of me.  Santa Cruz was a really interesting time; it reflects the fact that we were kids trying to define what we were.  The most important thing during that time in terms of finding ourselves was this identity, the social justice, racial, and ethnic identity.  It’s a little sad that in developing a strong sense of that we had to let go of some things that had been part of our lives since the beginning.  Saying, “I’m from the inner city, and it’s urban youth of color".  I did go through that, but what happened to the little boy with mosquito bites running around with slippers on the islands?  A large part was that the dominant culture that was pro-environment was still so alienating.  If culture in SC had not been alienating but more diverse and inclusive and understood our experiences we would have embraced it, but we found ourselves in opposition.

CS:  There was no dialog about the linkages between social justice and environment. All environmental dialog at UCSC was tree hugging and saving Elfland (which they were cutting down to build new college buildings).  Today we can talk to inner city kids about what the interest of POC is in the environment, the importance of involving POC, the impacts of environmental degradation on POC and indigenous people…but at that time, there was absolutely no discussion.

CB:  The environment that was defined was very euro-centric; did not speak to needs of POC.  It was about land rights. That what was “environment.”

CS:  Nobody made that bridge.  We took classes on colonialism and imperialism. That discourse is about land rights and the importance of protecting it, but there was no bridge between the environment and how protecting land rights of indigenous people is related to environmentalism.

CB:  “Environment” was meant at that time as “leaving it alone,” humans don’t belong…you had to be an elf to be part of the environment.  Most environmentalists now hopefully don’t think like that.  But you went to Humboldt.

RR:  I understood that redwoods needed to be saved, we shouldn’t cut old growth, the concepts of preserving for sake of preserving…but I was not necessarily in that stage of understanding myself enough to connect my identity to what was going on at  Humboldt and those kinds of values.  I did feel disconnected, like “me and my friends are not going to sit in a tree“. I was gung-ho on being a biologist and I took pride in being unique from my peers. I took pride in going to Humboldt because it was unique.  But I did not really understand racial dynamics and racial differences at that time.  Where I grew up it was ethnically diverse, where I hardly saw white people. I grew up around a lot of immigrant families and  being around Asian and Latino people was what I was used to seeing.

CS: My primary identity in SC was as a woman of color (WOC) and an activist. Everyone was really focused on brown power, black power, yellow power, red power…an exciting time to be an activist because it’s not like that anymore.  At that time, it was much further left than it is now, and there was a sense of excitement and urgency around the different campaigns that we took on and statewide networking that was happening.  Because we were involved in the statewide networks we were also connected to “adult” activists outside of the university involved in coalition building. We went to Watsonville to hear about farm worker unions, went to the Bay Area to listen to Jesse Jackson speak about Rainbow Coalition work.

CB:  Getting professors of color hired at UCSC.

CS:  Yeah, lobbying for ethnic studies. I was not thinking of the environment. I was thinking of how to get an ethnic studies department at UCSC or how do we retain SOC at UCSC, which at that time was the least diverse of all UC’s. Most SOC felt alienated, because it lacked diversity to such a huge degree. SOC easily connected with one another. There were no tensions between Asians and African-Americans, or Latinos and Native Americans, or whatever.  If you and an African-American person were the only two POC in the class, you were going to connect and you were going to be friends and you were going to study together.  It was a formative time because it helped us position ourselves in coalition with other POC’s.  Coming to SF to teach, it’s important you know how to work with all POC.

CB:  So all that activism, together with some of the classes, gave us a good foundation in race/class/gender analysis…I think things are different now in SC and around the country because of the kind of activism that was all about self-determination and coalitions back then. A lot of cultural shifts and political and economic gains that might have been made, we’re sitting on it now.  That’s why people are talking about cultural competency now, and hiring consultants to make their organizations more diverse.  Why is that the culture now?  It’s because of that activism that was happening back then that was really focused on racial solidarity and racial equality.

CS:  Racial solidarity brings us to the roots of WALC [the Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative].

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CB:  Also, all that stuff we talked about is stuff we needed and our students still need now.  You can’t really be a well-adjusted person in this country, a POC, if you don’t have a solid understanding of race and all of that.

POC, whether immigrant or not, that’s part of problem:  You don’t feel like you fully belong to this country, that this country is yours.  You have to make that step if you really care about those trees, or open spaces, the environment in general beyond what you experience in your neighborhood.  Racial analysis is important for me in becoming an environmentalist again.  Having that identity again was when I learned the history of Filipinos/Filipino-Americans in this country; it allowed me to feel like, to state that this is my country too—and by country I don’t mean the flag, I mean the place, the land.  When you think about your students and [the question of] “how am I going to nurture that sense of stewardship and responsibility for land,” it’s gotta go hand-in-hand with a good historical analysis of racial dynamics, gender, and class.  Our students wouldn’t feel half as invested in the beautiful places we take them to, and all the parks and various areas we ask them to be stewards of…if they did not get other information/knowledge which is the thing we bring to our classrooms from our background.

I say, “Look at the historical evidence:  It’s quite clear that every one of you comes from a community that is connected somehow to the history of this country, has contributed and struggled. “This is your land.”  When they get that, and those experiences out in nature, and get science and art, then they get a complete experience that speaks to them and allows them to say "environmentalism can be part of who I am"—in a way we could not say in UCSC.  That’s what WALC is, in a nutshell.  WALC is a program built by teachers of color (TOC) for diverse student populations because that’s what we can bring…analysis that allows students to embrace the environment.

CS:  Even though WALC is an environmental organization, its roots are in our work around race.  You should start with the Unity Club, Conrad. Tell the story!

CB:  WALC was first the Unity Club. It was me wanting that camping experience that she had shut down in college, a club we started at Balboa HS.  And the whole purpose was to build friendships across different ethnicities because there were a lot of racial tensions and fights along racial and ethnic lines at that school.  The idea of the Unity Club was to promote the unity and coalition mindset [CS: the solidarity] we had in SC. The idea was to take kids out of their environment (school), and take them places where they can develop friendships and relationships that they can then take back to school. Then maybe we can begin to change things a little bit, like the climate at school.  That was the “proto-WALC”, the basic idea of "let’s take kids out in nature".

RR:  When did that start? What year?

CB:  Probably, 1995 or 1996.

RR:  It was just a club, an extracurricular thing?

CB:  Yes, we met during lunch, we had bowl-a-thons and food sales up on the 3rd floor to raise money for our trips.  The teachers used their own cars, borrowed gear, etc.  We raised money for one camping trip at the end of the year.

RR:  Were you [Catherine] at Balboa too at that time?

CS:  No, I’ve always been at Downtown; we’ve both only worked/taught at one school. Conrad’s been at Balboa since 1994 and I’ve been at Downtown since 1994.  So, before I say how WALC started at Downtown, you [Conrad] should say how Unity Club became WALC.

CB:  It has always been about social justice and critical race analysis and academic success.  Then thinking about what the vehicle is through which we could more effectively teach, WALC grew organically from the Unity Club. When you take people out to nature, they ask questions.  All of the analytical frameworks and WALC themes grew out of those experiences.  The environmental education component was way we discovered to do what we wanted to do, better.  For the Unity Club to become better we needed to deepen their understanding and connection to the places we were taking them to.  It so happens that all those environmental education concepts—diversity, interconnections, sense of place—go hand-in-hand with the social justice and critical race analysis we were trying to teach and that we saw as critical to our students’ success.  So that’s how Unity Club turned into WALC. We changed the name to WALC, “Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative.”  That’s when we started applying for grants to fund the club, and it became an after-school program that offered credit for participation. If members attended all the trips and after-school meetings, they could get credit.  That was the beginnings of the academic nature/angle.  Then Catherine decides…

CS:  Conrad always says what I do is I take his ideas and make them better!  At the time Conrad started WALC with other teachers at Balboa HS, I was working on trying to restructure Downtown HS.  When I first started Downtown in 1994, it was a small version of a comprehensive HS, with a six-period day.  At a continuation school, you have kids who have been unsuccessful at a comprehensive HS. To think they will suddenly become successful just because they’re in a different, smaller version of what they were not successful in is not sensible. Downtown HS at that time was very much like that bad Hollywood movie about an inner city high school…

RR: Dangerous Minds?

CS: Well, but without the transformative teacher part, more like fights in the hallway, melees, and horrible attendance. A small group of teachers wanted to try something different, but met a lot of resistance.

For Conrad, the roots of WALC were about coalition and solidarity-building, but for me it was all about educational reform.  This continuation school was not meeting the students’ needs or offering a true educational alternative. They were failing and dropping out and we had graduating classes of 20 or 30 kids.  It was just not right.  I went into education to try to “do something” for SOC, inner-city students, and at-risk students. I submitted a proposal on how to restructure the school, which was to move to a project-based model where we work in teams and offer interdisciplinary project-based curriculum. When trying to figure out what my project would be, WALC made sense to turn into a project.  So WALC’s second year as a club at Balboa was its first year as project at Downtown. The next year Balboa restructured into “pathways” where Juniors and Seniors choose a pathway in which three periods out of their six-period day are integrated.  After a year of WALC as a project at Downtown, it became a “pathway” at Balboa.

CB:  Yeah, while they were going through a reform process at Downtown, Balboa was going through something similar, a restructuring of our 11th and 12th grades. We had some key grants that first year from EPA that helped as seed money for all of our equipment.  A lot of the grant-writing that we had to do helped to develop a lot of our philosophies.  The roots of this has always been about ethnic studies.

CS:  It has always been about the kids, first and foremost, not the environment first and foremost.  We were all TOC creating a program for SOC to try to make their education more effective.  WALC just finished its 14th year and has had the same goals and pedagogical principles since the start of our grant-writing. Our first goal is to increase the academic success of our students.  And being able to take them outside and expose them to nature is a vehicle for that, but it has always been about the kids first and foremost. “What do we want for them, what do we want to teach them, how can we teach them best, what can we offer, what can we give?”  It’s always been about that.  WALC never came from “the environment is important so therefore we should make our kids learn about it” perspective.

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RR:  Environmental organizations are talking about this big buzzword of “cultural relevancy” or the “relevancy” of their programs or even "any environmental work has to have relevancy with their target audiences”.  When it’s youth, it’s the terms of the environment and who usually has that access rather than on the youth of color that they want to serve. Working on the terms of the students is really what teachers do! It almost seems laughable that there are environmental education programs now scratching their heads wondering how to implement relevancy. 

The dominant cultures are making it so it’s not on our (students & POC) terms so we work towards being included.  How does that play out when you are teaching students? You are doing things on their terms, but other groups giving the same kind of knowledge and exposure and experience are usually not. How do you strike that balance?

CB:  Well, we’ve been asked a lot by other organizations to share our philosophy and pedagogy because they want cultural relevancy.  And we do share and we’ve done whole-day workshops where they get everything we give our kids so they see how we do it.  Our answer is always the same:  Cultural relevancy can’t be achieved with a workshop.  The kind of analysis we bring comes from a degree.  We read tons and tons of books on history, politics, economics.  We’re activists, so we always ask these teachers that want us to share, for that kind of commitment. We tell them this is about scholarship. You have to learn, have to read those books, take a class. You can’t just manufacture relevancy from a workshop. It’s not a magic bullet.

Think of what we ask of our kids, our immigrant kids that we want to succeed in this country.  What did I have to do to be able to navigate mainstream culture effectively?  I read all the damn books! I know Shakespeare, I know US History, that’s what our kids have to do.  To make something relevant to them, you have to go the opposite way as much as they have to. You have to put your nose to the grindstone and learn.  We did that as environmental educators and we did not come in with that expertise. We took classes and read books, spent summers in the mountains learning geology, fluvial geomorphology, put in time because we knew it was crucial to making the program solid and legitimate as a scientific academic program.  Catherine is a national board-certified science teacher. She had to do that in order to make this program work and be effective and she wanted to!

The whole “cultural relevancy of environmental programs and environmental education” is a deep kind of problem that I think workshops are not going to solve. There has to be a sea of change in terms of how to even get your certification as an environmental educator. There has to be some sort of ethnic studies component, you know?

CS:  There was not an ethnic studies major at UCSC, so all the activists majored in American Studies with an ethnic studies pathway.  We were all essentially ethnic studies majors.  None of us came into WALC as science teachers, but because we believed in WALC and wanted to do right by our kids, we did our homework, took summer and weekend classes, and…

CB:  We scouted.

CS:  We never took kids to places we hadn’t been to and studied first.  Especially in the beginning years of WALC I would spend hours and hours out and still to this day!  If you want to do a geology unit, take the summer class in the mountains. It goes back to the foundations of WALC. You have people who are ethnic studies majors who get into education because they want to serve SOC and create an environmental program that has roots in ethnic studies, but also because of our background we understand this is an academic program and it is our job to teach the kids and we need to teach a rigorous scientific curriculum.

We call our trips field studies, not field trips. Students have to do assignments and field journals and study the places we go.  The primary goal is to increase academic achievement of at-risk kids. How do you capture their attention and engage them in academia? Being out in the field can do that for kids.  It’s about how the environment serves them, not how they save a tree or plant a plant. We use the environment as a way to engage the kids in their education—because of that, we’ve learned and we’ve studied.

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CS:  The kids need a sense of place and attachment to somewhere bigger than they are and that will serve them and help them get their bearings and navigate as they go into the world. It’s not dragging kids out and saying “Hey, plant some plants.”  Through our curriculum and field studies we are fostering a sense of ownership and stewardship. This land is theirs, belongs to them. It always has.

Because we have that bigger picture, we can engage our kids. The larger context of “what it means to plant or compost, what it means to communities, to your people historically, to do this work and forge these connections with the land”, it’s a different context.  For other organizations trying to be relevant, I’m not sure…because their framework is so different, their starting point is so different. I’m honestly not sure how successful they will be, especially if they’re not willing to read the books and study and be scholars of the connections of POC and the land and the environment, it will be very, very challenging to engage POC.  I even think the term cultural relevancy is inappropriate; it’s not about culture, it’s about what are your people’s historic connections to land, your rights, the effects on your communities of environmental degradation?  All of these issues are historical and political. Not just “Hey, in my culture, we make tea out of a plant”. Even if that’s important, that’s an issue of being connected to the land and your people’s history in a place, not just about the tea being cool, it’s about a bigger context.  I think that the concept of making it cultural is not taking it far enough.

CB:  I think if you want to replicate this strategy, I would not necessarily recruit from the “environmental education department”, I’d go recruit in the ethnic studies department.  Honestly, we were at an advantage because all the stuff we talked about that we had to learn, that stuff was fun! Because we were out in nature we were learning, and that was an advantageous situation for us because yes, it was a sacrifice but we were willing and it was fun.  Whereas if you’re an environmentalist now and you grew up learning all that stuff and, I guess, having to take a course in African American history, Asian American history…

CS:  It would potentially be mind-blowing though! I agree learning science is fun, but there is also an element of steely determination to become a legitimate science teacher. There were the fun classes, but there was also the studying, the research, the book learning, it still was hard work.

CB:  I’m just saying, they’re at a disadvantage because they’re not camping and hiking…but race analysis is always tricky…especially for white people.  What’s harder, a white person learning race analysis or a POC learning environmental education?  The white person has a harder task because of all that baggage and stuff they have to get over in order to finally get to spot where it can work.

RR: Not only are you talking about all the scholarship and work to be effective, but you guys have lived it. You live an identity that you take with you in the work that you do.  So that also speaks to the success of the programming and how passionate you are…students feed off that as well.  The dedication they see in their teachers will reflect on them as learning individuals in the classroom. From being in the classroom or in field with WALC, it does take empathy to recognize what needs to be done as far as teaching on their terms and being a person who has lived the experience of being a POC in society.

I want to move more into more of the diversity topic and approaching the students first, then broader into the bigger profession of environmental work.  As working with the students, broadly, has the issue of diversity ever come up in the many years you have implemented the program?  The content you’re teaching, or out in a field study trip?  Like, the issue of a not-so-diverse environmental movement?

CS:  Diversity is something that is explicitly part of curriculum. The Downtown and Balboa WALC’s have different curriculums, because of the different structures, but both address lack of diversity historically among environmentalists or the environmental movement.

I have four semesters of curriculum, each with an environmental theme. One of them is my Activism unit, Struggling for Sustainability: Preservation, Restoration, and Environmental Justice, that you [Raynelle] did with us. In that unit we make it a point to explicitly study how we perceive environmental movements or environmentalists.  We surface all the perceptions of environmentalists as being white hippie tree huggers and then we proceed to study movements and activism all over the world in different countries. In third world countries, the US, the environmental movements among Native Americans fighting for land rights and we explicitly have curriculum about who accesses nature and wilderness and why.  There’s been more and more scholarship in recent years about the issue of access of POC to the environment like Mexican Americans and the Environment, Brown and Black Faces in America’s Wild Places.

I actually study with kids, things like the buffalo soldiers as early protectors of wilderness, and how that counters perceptions of the relationship between African-Americans and the environment. We study what environment and wilderness means to different people.  It’s not just that it comes up again, it’s about scholarship. Not about sitting around the campfire talking about how we feel being the only POC in the park, it’s about studying why we’re the only POC in the park and not the only POC that care about the environment.  It’s an explicit, very purposeful study.   Conrad teaches a US History class that is essentially an ethnic studies survey.

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CS:  This is all assuming they’ve learned the lessons [laughter]…much more ideal at Balboa than at Downtown, but not for lack of trying…

CB:  This is the ideal version; in the middle of February I’m still just some guy trying to teach them about some damn court case but by the time they graduate , it’s starting to come together.

CS:  I think they understand that disconnecting POC from land has been a tool of oppression, colonization, and imperialism. So when we take them to connect with the land, they will reclaim what is rightfully theirs and everybody’s.  What we do has that context:  Land was taken from all of our peoples, so how do we reclaim the connection, the rights, honor the people this land was taken from? We do that by forging relationships with the land again.

CB:  At the very least they can ask, “why are you wanting to kick me out of here, this land is un-ceded” At the very least, we can have them imagine Yosemite National Park as being part of Mexico once.

RR:  So when you talk about prepping them for what they’re going to experience at the park in the context of the history of land, what happens when they actually come across some incident of discrimination being a large group of urban kids in a national park?  (1) Can you describe an incident where that has happened?  (2) How were your students prepared for that incident given they had been prepped with history of racism or other historical events?

CB:  Yeah, that’s a great question.

CS:  There’s a lot of incidents.  The most popular incidents are people accusing us of doing things we didn’t actually do. If we camped next to a loud boisterous group that was violating quiet hours, or beer cans strewn about, the Park Ranger comes to us.  Or the bathroom is TP’d and they assume it’s our kids.

CB:  Yeah, that totally has happened.  In terms of how they handle it, we always tell them, “look, you have to hold yourselves to our standards. It doesn’t matter if people are going crazy at the campsite next to you, we have our own standards. We have to hold to our own standards because you already know people are going to have expectations of you. You always have to defy those expectations.”  That’s always part of camp orientation at the beginning of a trip.  More often than not, they [the kids] are good. All the time it’s not us! It’s some crazy frat boys that we have to ask to be quiet but rangers come to us first, so teachers have to go to the next campground and show them where the whiskey bottles were.

We’ve had docents say to us when we arrive to a site, “a ranger is going to meet you at the gate and he has a gun.”  So things like that…

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CS:  There’s also the “Are you supposed to be here?” type of reaction. We’re doing habitat restoration and they want to make sure we’re not plant vandals.  “Who told you you could do this?”  Even at McLaren Park in San Francisco, surrounded by neighborhoods of color, a Recreation and Park Department person has to vouch for us.

CB:  Adults have to be adamant and stern to people harassing our kids. It is really frustrating and still messed up to have to have a higher standard. It’s wrong to be blamed, just wrong.  There was a cultural competency workshop with national park rangers, talking about this issue, and there was movement on the part of some of these rangers so some good came of it. Some partner programs at Yosemite and Sequoia…there’s been an effort.

CS:  But it still sucks to go through that…

CB:  Yeah, it still sucks to go through it, but it’s just something you deal with before, and not just sit around and talk about because that is completely an inadequate response.  It’s just a reminder to our kids and to us that this critical race analysis is vital to be able to help them feel like these places are theirs as well, as they’re obviously made to feel exactly the opposite.

RR:  Have you experienced those interactions actually have a negative impacts on students’ engagement with the environment?  Have they felt…and then been like “I don’t see a place for me in this work”?

CS:  I’ve had kids gone through the whole curriculum and still think nature, environment, wilderness are for white people.  Even though we’re academically teaching them otherwise, they still really feel that the environment is the realm of white people.  And probably not just from incidents, park rangers, but from a whole lifetime of collected experiences.  We are competing with their whole lives, not just what we teach them in a semester or two years.  But we also have kids that believe us by the end and want to go into environmental work and see a place for themselves there.

CB:  They end up taking their kids out.

CS:  Programmatically what’s happened is we’ve learned to be self-sufficient.  When we first started WALC, we thought, Oh, there are ranger programs and docent programs. But because of earlier experiences of them not liking our kids or not being interested or even afraid, we have to do our own education pieces. We’ve created an organization and program where we do and facilitate our own programs because we cannot be sure others will have a rapport with our students.  It’s very rare we get someone ready to meet our kids with an open mind and an appropriate curriculum. The plus of it is self-determination in an academic environmental education program. We will create and deliver our own lessons ourselves for our students, rather than entrusting a stranger who may or may not be able to work with SOC, to teach and treat them appropriately.  That is the biggest programmatic effect of various forms of discrimination. We’re bound and determined to be self-sufficient.

RR:  Given that, it’s empowering to realize self-determination in the work, but is there potential or hope that one day, you can rely on other organizations or trust there’s competent staff and curriculum to work in partnership with more agencies as WALC develops in years to come?

CB:  That’s a good question…

CS:   I think they have to start hiring our kids. There would be more potential for collaboration and trust if they had more diverse staffs. I always ask if they have a POC they can send to us if nothing else. People understand the language of role models.  Our kids need role models.  The best way to start serving POC is to have staff represent the populations of people you are trying to serve and have them empowered to develop programs, curriculum, and relationships with groups, programs, teachers, and classes.

If environmental organizations are really serious about involving POC or SOC then their staff needs to reflect that.  It’s not hard to find them. Go to cities and schools, or farm country. Go to where POC are and create internships and summer jobs and pipelines to positions that will eventually serve those kids. It’s an investment, I think.  For me personally, that’s a way I would feel more comfortable with outside providers, if they had staff of color.

CB: Although there is some hope organizations that already exist can change and hire POC, the eventual solution will not come from those organizations "changing".  The eventual solution will come from more people like us creating organizations, then we work with each other.  That’s really where it’s going to come from. Otherwise I just can’t see the sea change happening in the mainstream environmental organizations that exist.  A lot of them are only doing it because of funding pressure [CS: That’s true; RR: “mandates”]; a lot of funders say, “Where’s your cultural relevancy, where’s your cultural competency in these environmental education offerings?”

CS:  “Who are you serving?  Why aren’t you serving a population that reflects the state of California?”, etc…

CB:  Yeah, it’s all grant-driven, and they’re going in directions they’d really rather not go, really…because…

CS:  They’d be perfectly happy to just do what they’ve been doing the past 50 years, and just keep doing it.  [CB: yeah]  Their whole premise is opposite of our whole premise.  We’re starting with the students and they’re starting with the place. We’re trying to figure out how to serve the students, and they want the students to serve them.  The whole premise is wrong.

CB:  Not to say organizations like that are useless and have no value…diversity’s good, right? We just need more organizations to be established that are coming at it from this angle.  It’s going to happen, it’s already happening.  We exist!  Other organizations exist and they may not have our model of taking kids out, but doing environmental justice campaigns in the neighborhoods,  [CS: grassroots campaigns]maybe it’ll get better. That’s history, right? We cannot rely on mainstream environmental organizations to change.

CS: No, absolutely not. We have to do it.

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RR:  People are recognizing with some studies and statistics out there now that in a certain year, the nation will be mostly POC. Recognizing the change is going to come, that’s the tough thing.  There are so many POC who are “the only ones” right now. I’ve heard so many stories….I’m one of them!  Certain times in my work I’ve left an organization or work with a particular group because I didn’t feel like I had the proper support to be successful. But how can you have that support if you’re the only one (a minority)?  Giving it time, and also making it an intention to centralize that aspect of including people who have not been included before?

CS:  That foundation of dominant culture of “environmentalism is white people;” the idea that they need to start being inclusive is sort of like integration. That doesn't change the power structure or fundamentally change anything at all. It still leaves the power with white environmentalism.  There is such a thing as POC environmentalism, in fact, there are more environmental justice organizations per capita in the African-American community percentage-wise or proportionately than there are nature/preservation organizations among white people.  One problem is that people don’t see all of that when they see environmentalism. The other problem is that POC working on environmental issues who work grass-roots and on the ground or have campaigns they are trying to accomplish don’t have time to help white people diversify, and why would they want to? They have much more pressing issues and communities to serve.  Coalition–building can happen among environmentalists of color. There are not necessarily that many coalitions happening between POC doing nature/wilderness and POC doing environmental justice (EJ) work, so more of those bridges can happen.  LEJ had a model of uniting ecology with the EJ piece and that could be an important place of unity.  Without the mainstream environmentalism and the white power structure, there are still coalitions and bridges that can be formed and built to create a community of POC working on environmental issues.  That has more potential than asking the dominant power structure to be inclusive.

CB:  And that is a framework I would rather work in.

CS:  I remember, we did this series of workshops for the “Adopt-a-Watershed” organization, an annual summer leadership institute, 1-2 weeks.  We did this intensive series for them about POC and environmental activism where we tried to change the way people saw environmental activism.  So Native Americans fighting for land rights is a form of environmentalism because whatever land they’re able to protect they’re going to take care of it better than people who steal it from them to develop it.  Looking at farm workers unions (UFW), Filipino , Mexican ,and Latino farm workers, one of the workers’ rights they’re pushing for is fewer pesticides, which are making them sick and giving their babies birth defects. Can we look at that as environmental activism because to the extent they’re successful in reducing the use of pesticides the environment will benefit.  And I remember a woman at the end saying, “These people are not environmental activists. Maybe they’re EJ activists, but that’s not environmental activism”. And I remember thinking, “OMG, you missed the whole point!”  Why aren’t EJ activists considered environmental activists??  Theyare environmental activists! Why feel the need to separate preservation/conservation from EJ activists?  If that is the dominant framework/culture of environmentalism, that says EJ activists are a different kind of environmental activist, then we can ally ourselves with EJ and expand EJ to include nature, wilderness, access, environment.  That would probably have more potential.

RR:  Any last thoughts you guys wanna give on the work you’ve done, specifically on the issue of diversity, or last thoughts you want to give our readers?

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CS:  “Everything we teach you about nature, you can apply to yourself,” is one of our mottos. Diversity is one of those things.  We tell our students that themes in nature apply to yourself and your community and your history.  We’re not just teaching about nature for nature’s sake, but because it has applicable lessons.

CB:  If you look at what needs to be achieved by the environmental movement and how will we achieve them, all that stuff will not happen unless there is diversity. That is where the power will come from; if not diverse, it will not succeed. If the ecological lesson and the history lesson hold true.

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In the Heart of a Minority

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Charles Nilon

Professor of Urban Wildlife Management

University of Missouri 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CN: And this is pretty much home now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With graduate student, Tommy Parker.

RR: Last things you want to mention?

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

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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A RACE CRITICAL ENVIRONMENT

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Conrad Benedicto, Director/Founder of

Wilderness, Arts, Literacy Collaborative (WALC) in SF

&

  Raynelle Rino-Southon, Author, The D Word, Creating a Niche for Diversity

The WALC Program at Downtown High School had been visiting Heron’s Head Park as a field study site for many, many years before I began managing the environmental education programming with Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ). In recognition of this and similarities in teaching approach and content, I decided to formalize a collaboration between the two by continuing to support WALC visits to the park and implementing semester-long units aligning both curricula. This relationship turned out to be one of the best experiences of my career and I continue to work and support the program, which is now approaching their 15th year in existence in San Francisco public schools!

 In the coming months we’ll hear directly from both Founders of the WALC Program in an in-depth interview I had with them. During that interview we touched on an aspect of their work that really spoke to my motivation to showcase examples of great work on the grounds; how our youth (and people) of color see themselves in their environment in hopes of having a healthier and a "just" life. This brought me to thinking about ‘A Race Critical Environment’ where, having the backbone of social justice is the crux of what makes environmental engagement relevant and impactful to young people of color. This Race Critical Environment speaks to the need to bridge communities of color and land together in order for our future generations to participate in the “environmental movement”. Race must be a part of the conversation.

Digging deeper into conversation, Conrad sent me this speech in its entirety. It touches on the aspects of delivering an environmental education programming that is quite rare, but much needed in this effort to engage at-risk youth and people of color in meaningful environmental experiences and connections. His speech spoke truth to the work. -It was delivered at the 4th Annual Earth Team Teacher’s Lunch, August 2005. 

“The Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative (WALC) is an interdisciplinary academic program operating at two inner-city high schools in San Francisco. We use outdoor field study experiences as a means to provide a conceptual and experiential foundation for a rigorous academic curriculum. During our camping trips, hikes, and weekly habitat restoration work, our students learn ecological concepts that they then use as a way to examine and understand the subject matter in their other WALC classes. These outdoor experiences also foster the bonds of friendship and affection amongst all of us that motivate both WALC teachers and students to accomplish things in the areas of academic and personal growth that are often quite inspiring.

We’re very proud of our students. At Downtown High School for example, where students are placed due to truancy, behavioral/safety concerns, and lack of credit due to F’s, WALC students often have 10-20% higher attendance and graduation rates than the school norm. At Balboa High School, Downtown High School’s biggest feeder school, as high as 30% of WALC students are accepted into the University of California each year and as many as 90% go on to some form of higher education—also above school norms. Both WALC chapters have the reputation of being the most academically rigorous pathway or project at their schools. We totally believe in contradicting the stereotype of outdoor/environmental education being not “academic” enough, not being “real” school. We’ve had our happy little successes over the past eight years and today I want to share with you some of the things we have learned in that time about trying to create an environmental education-based program that is specifically geared to meet the needs of low-income, inner-city students of color. Hopefully, you will find some of these insights useful in your own work.

Conducting an integrated environmental education program for students of color comes with a unique set of challenges and teaching opportunities that we in WALC believe should be met head on, addressed explicitly and substantively through the curriculum and not glossed over.

Our first challenge is that our students don’t claim open spaces or the “environment” in the way that those of us who have had more access to the wilderness do. What’s more, they are often made to feel like they do not belong there. In our eight years of experience, the incidents of people being rude or threatening to our students in places like Yosemite National Park or Pinnacles National Monument are far too numerous and consistent for us not to feel like many people still view the presence of our kids in places like these as an intrusion.

Our response to this is to make examining why an explicit part of the learning experience and, in fact, part of the character of our program. Why do most of our students feel a lack of connection to or common ownership for the environment? Why do other people sometimes react so negatively towards them during our trips? We deal with these issues directly. And by this, we don’t mean sitting around the fire circle and sharing how we feel. By this, we mean a substantive academic exploration supported by the analysis of historical evidence and scholarly writing. When we do that, our students are able to put their feelings and attitudes, and those of others into a larger context.

Much has been written, for example, about the effects of the Great Migration on the sense of connection African Americans had with the land. In order to escape racial violence and terrorism, millions of African Americans migrated from mostly rural areas in the south, where a connection to nature and the land had been established, to isolated urban conditions in the north, where this connection was severed. Within this history, our inner city students might find the origins of their own discomfort in nature. For generations of Asians and Latinos in California, the outdoors did not connote recreation, but backbreaking work in the fields. The word “camp” did not recall visions of marshmallows and hikes, but the canvas tent labor camps to which they were relegated to live. In learning this history, our students might be able to understand why they never went camping with their families when they were younger. There’s a sad connection between segregation laws preventing people of color from actually visiting state parks in the south, and the docent at Año Nuevo State Preserve inexplicably announcing to our students one day that the ranger who was to meet them down by the beach “by the way, has a gun.”

This historical contextualization of our students’ feelings or attitudes about nature and the treatment of them by others is an explicit part of our teaching because we want to nurture in them a sense of defiance about claiming their space in these natural areas. The next time our students are feeling weird in Lassen or Joshua Tree because people are staring or because a park ranger belittles them for needing a flashlight and a posse to go to the bathroom at night, their first response is not, “Man, when do we go home?” but, “Back up—I’ve as much right to be here as you.” Once we have nurtured this attitude within our students, it is easier to then foster those feelings of wonder, fascination, responsibility and stewardship for beautiful open spaces and the environment in general.

Environmental and outdoor education programs that find themselves attracting mostly white middle class students, despite the presence of students of color at their schools or in their communities, might look to see if the direct and scholarly confrontation of these issues can help them address the lack of diversity in their programs.

The second challenge/opportunity I would like to talk about is the general notion that the issues our students struggle through in their lives are not connected to environmental studies, that their shared experiences and concerns and those of the environment and environmentalists are irrelevant to each other. We, of course, do not agree with this notion, and have found the connections to be both obvious and elegant.

Ecological concepts observed, analyzed, and documented during our field studies can be powerfully instructive, particularly for youth of color. Ecological teachings—such as the function of diversity, the interconnectedness of organisms within an ecosystem, dynamic balance, and sense of place—that our society needs to internalize in order to sustain the environment are exactly the same concepts our students need to learn in order to navigate the issues of poverty, racism, and lack of opportunity they must face every day. In fact, conditions of nature are the same as conditions of social justice.

For example, when we teach our students the function of diversity within an ecosystem, they begin to understand through field observations, monitoring projects, and habitat restoration that a diverse ecosystem can be more stable and sustainable. Redundancy in a diverse ecosystem means that multiple species can do the same "job," which means that if the number of a particular species suffers due to disease, for instance, other species ensure that the “job" (keeping the rodent population in check, providing a host for a particular type of moth's caterpillar stage, etc.) still gets done and the ecosystem continues to function. When students have gotten a strong grasp of this concept because they've seen it, they've helped restore it, they've experienced it out in the field, then we can apply it to something like early African American history in my U.S. History class. By forbidding enslaved African Americans to read, speak their native tongues, practice their African traditions—and by making them conform to one language, one belief system, one all-encompassing legal status—slaveholding states essentially took away the diversity within this community; that same diversity which would have meant strength, stability, sustainability. That's why the struggle for literacy, the struggle for education was so important. It allowed the African American community to become more and more diverse—doctors, business owners, farmers, writers, lawyers, dentists, botanists, and teachers instead of only menial laborers. The result is a stronger community whose contribution to the landscape of American life resounds to this day. Diversity is a condition of nature and it is also a condition of social justice.

All of the WALC themes are both conditions of nature and conditions of social justice. “Sense of Place,” simultaneously our most basic and most complicated theme, is all about knowing how organisms or individuals fit within a larger context. When we teach our students how phenomena we observe at Lassen Volcanic Park—lava tubes, sulfuric springs, plug dome volcanoes, glacial erratics, cirques, rivers—fit into the larger context of tectonic and gradational forces shaping the landscape, it becomes a conceptual model they can then use to explore how individuals, communities, organizations, and even actions fit into the larger context of economics and politics shaping our country. Learning the concept of Sense of Place almost always leads our students to notice that they lack exactly that. Most of our students have some sense of being "left out." They don't feel like they are really a part of this country or land, and yet they are here. When our Chinese American students, for example, learn that Chinese people accounted for 25% to 30% of California's government revenues despite being only about 10% of the population during the 1850's, they get a sense of how they fit in, what role their people played in the larger context of California history. None of our students—from the Samoans to the Pilipinos, the Cambodians to the Salvadorans to the African Americans—need to feel like they "don't belong" here in the United States. The historical evidence is clear and the current economic, socio-political, and cultural evidence is clear as well—their communities had and still have significant places within the larger context of United States history, economics, culture, and politics. All we have to do is unearth that evidence, very much in the same way we do during our trips. The fact that students go through our educational system ignorant of this is unjust in and of itself. Sense of Place is a condition of nature and a condition of social justice.

After a semester or a year in WALC, students are conducting environmental justice workshops, voter awareness and registrations drives, school-wide exhibitions of their thematic projects, and producing public service announcement films for the environment—and they don't feel silly doing it. They have an excellent grasp of how they and their actions fit into the bigger picture. They have a Sense of Place.

In WALC, our field studies therefore literally provide a way for our students to analyze and understand all the novels, texts, and primary documents we have them read, draw conclusions for all the labs they have to conduct, write those monster papers they get at the end of each semester, and complete the numerous projects we assign, while at the same time giving us inspiration, and helping us become a community of people that genuinely care for one another (more or less—they still drive me crazy sometimes). Outdoor experiences are not cause to get out of school, they are opportunities for students to learn and for us to offer them tangible context and/or evidence for the concepts we study.

I would like to conclude with two more thoughts—one is related to what I’ve already said and the other not so much.

The first is that, in our efforts to connect our students with the earth, we teach them that all peoples—if you explore their histories and cultures deeply enough—have in their heritage: traditions, beliefs, and practices that contain ecological wisdom. We all have a heritage of environmentalism that we can recapture and embrace, and there is no need for us to appropriate the traditions and practices of other cultures—something that occurs far too often in our commercialized society.

The second thought is something that we try to articulate to funders and administrators, something that perhaps environmental educators should say more in these trying times of overemphasis on standardized tests and teaching to them. We’ve noticed that now there is an emphasis on organizations seeking to influence overall educational policy in the face of exit exams, API scores, state takeovers and merit pay, and a de-emphasis on smaller organizations that provide direct programs to youth. We support statewide efforts to balance out current educational policy, but we must continue to remind funders and administrators that it is smaller innovative environmental education programs that provide actual alternative models on the ground. It is more crucial than ever for environmental and outdoor educators to continue their practice, and be given support, because our work puts forth an alternative vision, and our successes provide the actual proof needed to win the policy debate.

Thank you very much for your time. I hope this little talk was of some use to you, or at least interesting to hear.

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 Cannot Be A Person I Am Not"

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Sonia Ortega

National Science Foundation

Program Officer, K12 Grant Programs

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The first conversation I had with Sonia was back in 2008 in Milwaukee. I was attending the Ecological Society of America's (ESA) annual conference as a SEEDS Mentor and heavily motivated to take a stab at science journalism. My goals were to connect with science writers, understand the current relationship between researchers and journalist, and interview some folks. And what better way for me to dive in, head-first by interviewing people of color about well,...diversity!

I was referred to Sonia as a good person to talk to about diversity. Little did I know that she was an extremely well respected professional in the society and gave me one of the most memorable interviews during that conference.

One of the stories she told me captured my emotions because it was a story of the empowerment she held with her being a Latina in science and a minority at Duke University in the 70’s. She persevered through some of the toughest times in her career and I gained a sense that she had a really deep understanding of diversity efforts in science careers. 

I was excited to speak with her again, four years later. Our conversation was to me… refreshing. And I was reassured by her ability to naturally articulate her perspective. I think you’ll see that she is one that can truly say she plays a positive and proactive role in inclusion at the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

RR: Can you give me a quick and dirty summary of Sonia Ortega? How did you get to being at NSF?

SO: I came here because I was very curious about how the National Science Foundation (NSF) worked. At the time I was a Marine Biologist Researcher. I was approached by a colleague who told me about a position he thought would fit me like a glove. And my first response to that was,

Sonia in 1987, at Duke Marine Lab, selecting oyster shells to use in her experiments

“You mean being a government beaurecrat?" I said, "No way!” But when he said it was a temporary position only for a year or two, I though one year is one year. And I though one year would be great, but one year turned into 23!

It really did change the way I saw my life. I was trained as a Marine Scientist and at that time I was thinking about continuing my research. I knew very little about federal organizations. The only thing I knew about NSF was this is where you apply to get funding. I didn’t know the processes or anything else.

I started to see myself less as a Marine Biologist and more as a person who likes to make a difference and work with people. I started questioning how I can have more of an effect on people rather than doing research. That’s when I made a switch. And the idea that when you’re here, you’re working at a national level and you really can influence a lot of things and really make a difference. That’s how I ended up staying here for so long.

But along with what you said before, I come with a background. I cannot be a

person that I am not. So in everything that I do, I bring my background in terms of my ethnic background, ancestry, the way I grew up and was raised, the way I think. I was raised in a family of very strong women and I bring that because that’s how I was raised. That’s who I am and what makes me who I am; both the cultural background and the experiences I had when I came here. Without knowing the language! All those things made me the person I am. You also become very sensitive to some of the issues, especially those you experience on your own.

RR: And there’s definitely the pathway where you started in Costa Rica and went to Duke. Going back to that statement, “I cannot be a person that I am not", I think for me and some colleagues of mine, we are often challenged in academic career choices (or even environmental professions in general) to express themselves, because the choices are dominated whites and don’t reflect all other cultures involved.

So I want to ask a two part question here, (1) I’m sure that the world was much different when you were at Duke at that time, versus now a days. But how was it then, (to still be who you are in that time) versus now a days where it is more diverse and the struggles you had back them may not have been what the challenges are now and (2) what does that mean to us now?

SO: I went to school in the mid-70’s. It sounds like a long time ago... and it was. There was no Internet, Facebook, cell phones, no word processing. These were the old times. There were typewiriters back then, to give you a sense. There were no mentoring programs, websites for you to connect to others. I didn’t know organizations that existed like the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Being in the south, it was a different world because I had to work so hard just to survive. There were a couple of graduate students around, some professors, but no resources at least that I knew about that I could go to. I tried to as much as I can, to swim and stay afloat.

I think that now its much different. Social media for one, the opportunities for students are more transparent and available and people can communicate easily with other students. You can find out what’s where, go here and there, you can Google pretty much anything you want. And that is a big, big difference between then and now. Also some universities are more aware of the need of diversifying their faculty members, providing students with trainings and training programs. None of those things were around before.

RR: And I can’t really imagine…one reason why I decided to continue was because SEEDS was there and I latched onto SEEDS as a sense of community for me. 

I’ve also read in your profile, that mentors have helped you through it. Can you identify any other ways, at that time, helped you stay motivated?

SO: Well, I asked myself many, many times, “Why am I doing this? I’m here away from y family, I barely spoke the language, I am having a very tough time. Why am I here?” I can just go back home and forget about it. But there were a couple of things that kept me going.

One was that perhaps it was a sense of responsibility because I got a fellowship and I felt kind of obligated to. It was the opportunity that I had and

there was maybe fear or the idea that I finally got an opportunity to change my life. And if I don’t do well and if I throw away this opportunity, I might not get another one. So the idea that I got something and I had to do the best I could, that somehow got me going.

I started looking at the alternatives, and I said well, if I don’t do something, if I don’t finish this degree, if I quit what are my options? My options

1987 Sonia studying oysters while a postdoc at Duke University.

were very limited. Whereas finishing it, this may take me somewhere. And it did! One thing led to another and I look at it in retrospect and I said, “Thank god I stayed and I kept at it”! Maybe it was fear, or the sense of going back saying that I failed. Something kept me pushing to say, “I cannot fail” It was very difficult. Looking back it was one of the hardest things I have done. And every time I think about it I say, "Oh, my gosh!"

I look at my nieces and nephews, and I say, “Look, no one said it was easy. I did terribly on my GRE’s, but you have to keep at it because this is the thing you want to do and it will lead you to a better life”. Education; once you reach it and get it, no one can take it away from you. That’s what kept me going.

RR: Can you identify any of those things that made you feel like quitting? Can you identify specific struggles within yourself that pushed you to your limits?

SO: I’m just very stubborn. Since I was a kid I would just refuse to give up. For example, writing. Reading or writing papers was hard because I didn’t’ have command of the language. Giving a talk, my first seminar I was absolutely terrified. And I went to one of my classmates and handed them a list of words I didn’t know how to pronounce. And I asked them if they could pronounce them for me because I don’t know if people are going to understand what I have to say. I gave my talk and I was absolutely terrified. Some of the grad students were very, very critical to everybody, not just me. That was hard.

I felt very isolated at Duke. Duke is a very prestigious institution with high standards. I had no clue what I was getting into. It was very high pressure there. The very first semester I didn’t feel supported by anyone.

1984. Sonia works on her dissertation in the “lab” while in Costa Rica looking at limpets

One thing that changed was when I moved from the main campus to the Marine Lab. That completely changed because I was horrified of the Department Chair and really afraid of a lot of the people on the main campus. But when I made the decision to go to the Marine Lab, I felt really free. I felt like, "Wow! This is what I came here to do." That’s where I had my mentor and the people there were very open and I felt much more welcome there. If I stayed on main campus I probably would have failed.

RR: and this was a phD program?

SO: a Masters program

RR: This might sound weird for me to ask but, you said you were afraid of the Deptartment Chair. What were you afraid of?

SO: Oh, I was terrified of the Dept Chair! I was soo intimidated that I would practice what I was going to say every time I would go into his office. And I went to him to move to the marine lab (because I needed permission), he automatically said, OK! And I was soo relieved that it was that easy.

RR: Well, was it because he was the "Department Chair" or was there something specifically about him that was intimidating?

SO:  I don’t know, maybe it was a combination of both. You know, he was very biased and he actually made a comment to one of my professors saying that I wasn’t smart enough to be in graduate school because I didn’t speak English and I was just trying to learn more about graduate school. He had his biases of, “Well, you know she’s here but she’s not like all the other grad students.” Of coarse I wasn’t! So, when I finished I was really temped to do something terrible, but I didn’t. I had to give a seminar to finish off my Masters degree, and I was really tempted to start speaking in Spanish, and at about 5 minutes into it, I might just stop and say, “I just wanted to give you a sense of what I went through when I first came here”. But I didn’t do it. I figured they might just fail me. But the thought occurred to me!

But you know after my talk, the Department Chair came to me and told me I did a good job! And I thought, "Gosh, this guy actually acknowledged that I did a good job!"

When I went back to get my PhD, things were much different. By then I was much more confident. I already had my MS, I spoke English, I had research experience, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I was older. When I went back I was very independent. I had my committee and told them exactly what I wanted to do.

RR: So you got your phD at Duke as well?

SO: No, at the  University of South Carolina. And part of the reason is because, and I tell people this and people don’t believe me…"I had a very good mentor at Duke. He was my advisor and was so good that I married him!" So, I couldn’t stay at Duke for an obvious conflict of

Sonia with partner, Alan. Iceland, 2010.

interest. I started looking where I could go and still be close by. I applied to South Carolina where I can still commute and travel back and forth. It was an 8hr commute and that was hard, but we also did research together since he’s in the same field. We would do a lot of our work in Costa Rica working in the field.

RR: So there was a stronger support system that you ended up with.

SO: Oh my gosh! It was like night and day. And he spoke Spanish because he had spent some time in Venezuela. So when I first met him he said that he had just come from Venezuela and wanted to speak Spanish. But I told him, “I don’t want to speak Spanish, I know Spanish. I want to improve on my English. I want you to correct me!” And he did. He was correcting me constantly. He was very good at correcting me. That really was the big change personally and professionally. And things did change quite a bit.

RR: Something I observe mainly in the academic realm of students and their experiences, is a different kind of understanding of diversity with respect to racial dynamics and socioeconomic differences between international students versus students who have grown up in the US. What is your perspective with what those differences are when we talk about increasing diversity in environmental careers?

SO: Right, because I had no clue about these things when I came to the US. And I was treated as an international student because, I was back then. I went to school not even thinking about these issues of diversity, in the 70’s, 80’s. No one was talking about it, and I didn’t even know what the issues were. It wasn’t until I came to the NSF in ’89 that I started being aware of all these things. Partly because I started working with some issues related to underrepresented minorities. I started seeing a whole world open up to me cause I didn’t even know about these issues of women and minorities. And all of the sudden I started to see all these issues I had very little knowledge of because I was concentrating so much on getting my degree.

For the last 20yrs I’ve been involved quite a bit through organizations like SACNAS. And there is a big difference in being a foreign student versus growing up here. I have colleagues here that are Hispanics or Latinos, growing up in CA or TX, and have had a very different experience than mine. And when I lived in New Mexico I was there for 3 years. It was a different environment where I was able to see the differences and what it means to be here as a different race or ethnicity than the majority. People look at you differently. It was an eye opener for me to start learning, seeing, and being more observant of people. What happens with the way people approach you or don’t approach you, and a lot of the times it’s not what people say, it's the things people don’t say that are as important.

RR: And in a sense, it is the actions that aren’t spoken about that reveal the truth about the situation. And the interviews here, if anything are meant to drive that out of the individuals. Is there anything you can specifically point out, maybe a general observation that makes you feel like okay, “Here’s what I recognize in something I'd like to change to include more groups or different perspectives”. Can you identify things that tend to happen And what can be done?

SO: Well, here’s my experience at NSF: If you really care about those issues, that’s the main thing. I think all of us have the ability to change something if you want to change it and are aware of it. Here at NSF, I’ve made it one of my personal goals to be as inclusive as I can in a lot of the actions I have been involved in. For in, every program I was running at NSF where I had to put together a panel of reviewers, the first thing I always thought was, I want to have this panel as diverse as possible. And the first people I want to invite on this panel were people of underrepresented groups. Because, I can always fill these seats with the majority but those underrepresented groups are in high demand and they are very busy people. So I’m going to ask them first, way ahead of time because they may commit to something else. And others would often ask me how I do it. And I would say, “Well, because I make that a special effort. I’m aware of it and I want to make a difference.” When I came here to NSF, the panels weren’t very diverse. Because look at who puts together the panels; the people who may not be aware or care about the issues so they aren’t going to put the effort.

I’ve done a lot of those things here at NSF; its always on my mind. It’s part of me that I notice things. Say I go to a group, like in this conference recently. They gave us evaluations for the event and asked us if we have any suggestions or recommendations. And I said, “Yes I’m very disappointed about how little diverse your group is”. And they didn’t say anything and were probably not aware. Yes, it was a great conference, I enjoyed it and met interesting people. But I started counting. There were like 500 people on the list of participants so I started counting the number of Hispanic last names, I see and I count only 10!

It’s that awareness; it’s the first thing. Some people aren’t even aware of it. Because, why should people be aware unless it’s your thing? Unless it affects you or unless you’re mandated to do it. Whenever you have a diverse group of people, people with different perspectives or different ways of seeing things, the outcomes are always better than when you have a single group of people that are all alike. And there is scientific evidence of that.

But its that first step that people need to take and take with them everywhere, anywhere. Whenever you have the opportunity to invite someone, when you are going to invite a group, be aware of it, and think about it. It has to be one of your priorities or one of the things that moves you.

RR; Sure, the common frustration is that a lot of people come across those that don’t care or are not aware. And sometimes that can be a delicate conversation to say, "Well, this is what I value, this is what my priorities are." That dialog becomes difficult because if there are others that don’t value it but have good intentions, they often don’t know how to approach it. So, how do we (or do we even make efforts to) have them understand it? Or is it on their own pathway whether they do it or not. And I think you spoke about it before when you said, “I have to speak about it, I have to say it in the evaluations”.

SO: Yes, but you also live by example. By doing the things you can do, others will notice. And here at NSF, people do notice. I mean, you go through my panels and it’s very obvious what I do and people comment about it. So all I can say is, “Let me know if you need people to serve on your panel”, or offer my connections to others putting panels together. Helping out my colleagues who might not be thinking about it may or may not invite them, but at least you’re making an effort. And some have asked for help and some are just helpless.

I think some people have good intentions and those are the ones you can help and influence for the better. Not everyone is going to be sensitive, of coarse.

RR: Is there anything you can say about today and modern times for 2012, the state of the world now?

SO: Well I just got back from spending a couple of months abroad in Southeast Asia. And one of the things I realized is that the world gets smaller as we develop all these connections. And the opportunity is really up for grabs for just about anybody. For the young people, the world is open to many more opportunities these days, but you have to be very open-minded about them. People have to be willing to take some risk in places you never thought about. For those who are looking for career opportunities and exploring, I think people needed to be looking worldwide. Look beyond boarders, even beyond their own fields and be a little bit broader in their perspectives. Start looking for other things like having your own business, being an entrepreneur, or working abroad or doing things that during my generation, when I was a grad student we weren’t even thinking about. Now it’s a different world. On one hand its smaller, on the other hand its wide open. Especially for under-represented students. I see opportunities world wide, but for whatever reason, I don’t think they are taking advantage of them. Its one of the things for underrepresented students, its particularly a challenge to go abroad or do something different.

Sonia's visit to Malaysia

You Tube: [youtube=http://youtu.be/mNGV-uu47d8]

RR: Do you think the sciences will ever get to that point where you’re see a diverse palette of people?

SO: Well, it depends on where you go. Like when you go to orgs like SACNAS meetings and its like, OH MY GOSH! This is how it should be everywhere! And its interesting to see that I’ve been going to SACNAS for over 20yrs now and that organization is much more diverse than it was back then when I joined. It was mostly Mexican Americans and Native Americans. Now you see the whole world as the majority of people. Some white people are there because the conference offers a lot that can benefit everyone. You see all these ethnicities and its kind of very refreshing to be there and of coarse you don’t see it in other gatherings.

I’m not sure how long it will take but I know that the world will continue to diversify everywhere, especially here. Look at where we are now, the demographics. You can’t deny the changes in the country. I think it’s going to continue as time goes by. People are mixing. You see something that I didn’t see when I first arrived there. All kinds of combinations of people together from diff races, backgrounds, there’s a lot more of that. I didn’t see all of these mixed couples when I was in graduate school. You see them now on campuses, which is great!

I think the world is opening up a little bit more. Look at these issues of gays and more tolerance. Ten years later I find out some of those kids I went to grad school with are gay but they were in the closet. And now there is a little more openness. It’s still not perfect, but openness to accepting people who are different from you, thinking different...that’s great! Its part of having a diverse group of people. Back then, it wasn’t that we didn’t have the people, but we didn’t have the thinking that we had to be inclusive; that the world was composed of people of different make-ups and ways of viewing the world.

To learn more about Sonia Ortega and her work, check out her profile on the Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development Initiative (MELDI)