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.