Brown faces, urban places and green spaces: achieving diversity in environmental fields

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2009 Programme for the International Student Assessment results showed the United States ranking 19th in math and 14th in science out of 31 countries. Following this news, President Obama announced a $250 million proposal to increase funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. As he stated in his budget message, “In a generation, we’ve fallen from first place to ninth place in the proportion of our young people with college degrees. We lag behind other nations in the quality of our math and science education.”

The following post, contributed by Kellen Marshall-Gillespie, graduate student at University of Illinois-Chicago and recent recipient of ESA’s 2011 Graduate Student Policy Award, tells how diversity in environmental fields shows promise for the future of science.

The student diversity was astounding, beautiful brown faces with shining eyes sat attentive and hanging on every word of the career panelists. This was the scene at last year’s Green College and Careers Fair organized by the Ecological Society of America and The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program. The goal was to diversify environmental and ecological careers by reaching out to underserved communities: The hope is to change the face and fields of environmental careers by providing opportunities to those who traditionally lack access.

The career fair was hosted at The New School in New York City—over 100 high school students (from 9 schools around the New York-New Jersey area) were treated to a highly professional career fair, including structured school-to-college workshops. The event was made possible with support from the Toyota USA Foundation. Students received information about environmental and natural resource careers and topics such as research ethics, laboratory work tips, resume guidelines, reference letters and tips on being successful in college. Other sessions included exhibitor presentations, a financial aid workshop, mock job interviews and a career panel.

The career panelists—Victor Medina, Kellen Marshall-Gillespie, Charlee Glenn and Ann-Marie Alcantara— were young professionals and alumni of both the LEAF and ESA’s Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS) program. They addressed more than just traditional college talk—they got to the heart of being minorities in fields where they are underrepresented.

Glenn, a panelist and SEEDS alumna, shared her story of how ecology became an interest, which subsequently developed into her current position as Diversity Programs Assistant for ESA’s SEEDS program. Medina, a LEAF alumnus, discussed how he uses his educational and personal success to influence others within his community to do better—not only for themselves but for the environment as well. Alcantara, also a LEAF alumna, talked about her goals of being an environmental journalist and the challenges and success of being a Latina within such a field. Speaking of my experience as a panelist, I felt empowered sitting with my peers, sharing first-hand knowledge of what it takes to succeed at all costs—even when there are struggles, adversity and culture shock.

As I engaged with the young audience, I realized the importance of my influence as a minority and took the opportunity to discuss the legacy of African Americans within STEM fields. I felt honored to remind them of great inventors and scientists who contributed towards the advancement of multiple disciplines, and I shared that our perspective within all STEM fields is vital, especially within urban environmental fields. In the audience, those faces all looked at me and for the first time I felt someone looked up to me. Many students during the conference and the panel section had random questions, ranging from being a parent to having natural hair. Others wanted to know how to identify next steps in accomplishing academic success.

I was overwhelmed with the spirit of possibility that stared me in the face that day. I experienced being a role model first-hand, and I thought of how valuable an experience this was for me to have the privilege of such a captive young audience. It had been a first for me to be with so many faces that mirrored my own, and it was a rare occasion that I whole-heartedly believe both TNC and ESA are working to reverse. The experience taught me that there is a method to reaching, engaging and retaining minority populations in environmental disciplines. In order to network with those student populations, there must be minority mentors available to talk with students about their experiences and to share in their stories of conflict and success.

That day, being a person of color wasn’t considered being a minority. Students were able to interact with professionals that looked like them and came from communities like theirs and learn about how programs, such as LEAF and SEEDS, can change lives through various environmental career paths and open up doors that would not be accessible without their dedication to diversity.

Kellen Marshall-Gillespie’s Ph.D. research focuses on holistic approaches to assess ecosystem health. Marshall served as a legislative intern for an Illinois state representative and has also engaged with Chicago city officials on environmental issues of particular concern to the African American community. She notes that she is working to “develop policy conversations that would be inclusive of emerging environmental justice issues such as food deserts, zoning of urban agriculture, and barriers to entry, access to natural spaces, brown vs. green space, and sustainability and green infrastructure at all levels of government.” Marshall is a recipient of a National Science Foundation IGERT Fellowship.

Photo Credit: Lina Oliveros

Author: Katie Kline

Moderator of EcoTone and ESA's communications officer.

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