Science Education

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.

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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)