Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Blog Series #2: Speaking of Race

By Pamela Templer, VP of Education and Human Resources, ESA and Teresa Mourad, Director of Education and Diversity Programs, ESA

“I can’t breathe.” These last words uttered by George Floyd galvanized protests against the ongoing racism embedded in the systems and culture in the United States of America and galvanized a movement that demanded critical self-reflection. We all know that science has not been immune to racism. In response, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) hosted a listening session entitle “Speaking of Race” June 3, 2020 with about 180 people participating.  The session, moderated by Pamela Templer, ESA Vice-President of Education and Human Resources and Chair of the Committee on Diversity and Education, generated many rich reflections. We include below some of the thoughts expressed during the listening session.

Starting Constructive Conversations about Race

One of the critical perspectives we heard is that the starting point of conversations about race is not about science, but injustice. We need to recognize that the issue of racism in ecology is real. We can no longer sweep the topic aside by saying that racism does not affect ecologists. We need to also humbly accept the reality that a Black scientist or student who has experienced racism might say, “I don’t trust you.” Trust needs to be earned. For those who genuinely seek to understand, the least threatening place to begin is from a place of curiosity rather than setting out to convince someone about injustice. This creates space for feelings to be shared.  We need to learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

 As we begin to take steps to talk about race, one of the first things we tend to do is to turn to colleagues who are minorities and ask them to explain the problems they face as a minority. It gets very tiring for them, especially when there might only be one or two people from minority groups in a lab group or organization. It is the responsibility of all people to educate themselves first by both reading and listening. We provide a link to resources below.

Participants assured our minority students and colleagues in the session that they always have the option not to respond to anyone, ally or not. For some, turning to people they can identify with and trust, seeking help from their elders and their own community helps tap the well spring that keeps them going. Reminding yourself of the goals for being in school or in your career can also help re-focus your spirit.

What does being an ally look like?

During the listening session, we talked quite a lot about what  being an ally really means.  An ally should be independently informed and well read; someone who has done their own research and who has assessed their own personal bias or racism. An ally is someone who may be proactive and reach out to lab members, or others in an organization, or may be there to lend support when asked. Sometimes, being an ally just means listening to those who have suffered an injustice. We need to consider what the people who are impacted need. Sometimes, an intervention in a situation that is unfair may be unwelcome and it would actually make things worse for the people they are trying to help.

At other times, being an ally means being an advocate. Allies speak up when they can amplify the voices of those they are allied with rather than focusing on their own voices and/or views. Being an ally is not a title you give yourself. It is something that must be earned and maintained.

There are multiple ways to be active: Participate in a peaceful protest. Talk with colleagues or employers about promoting and practicing anti-racism. Cook a meal for those who join a protest, build medic kits or donate to organizations that are helping the cause.  Participating in conversations about racism with family and friends are just as important.

What can faculty or managers do?

During the listening session, we also talked about actions that faculty and managers can take. As instructors, you can open a discussion with students by inviting them to call out in the spirit of learning when something you say is inappropriate.  Acknowledging the pain is a critical first step, even if you cannot do anything, as this discussion will begin to build trust.  You can also involve minority students to recruit other minorities into the lab or field research opportunities. Leaders, mentors, or PIs who offer support, acknowledge what is happening, and are there for students are much appreciated even if they are not experts on these issues.

Graduate institutions and departments need to develop an institutional action plan to keep moving forward. If the campus has become a hotbed for police activity, steps need to be taken to demilitarize campus.  Faculty and managers can create a safe culture where people feel free to turn to them for support. Institutions must also realize there are many other communities hurting even though they are not in the press right now. It is important to consider the full range of issues such as those faced by immigrants.

 In most institutions and organizations, there is a Human Resources (HR) department. However, more often than not, HR departments are set up to protect the organization. Finding an ally, a colleague, or a mentor who has your back before going to your formal supervisor or someone in a position of influence is usually very helpful. Many organizations have Ombudsmen or Employee Assistance Programs that can provide confidential advice.

How did ESA get SEEDS started, and how can we start similar programs in other disciplines?

We were really glad to see a number of SEEDS alumni participate in the web meeting and perhaps it was unavoidable that the question of how SEEDS came to be was raised. SEEDS – Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability – is ESA’s flagship diversity mentoring and education program. ESA was among the earliest scientific societies to draw attention to the lack of diversity in our field. The first Women and Minorities in Ecology Report (Bentley et al. 1993) recommended the creation of a mentoring program that led to the founding of SEEDS in 1996.

A small group of visionary leaders approached and received major funding awards from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to implement a program to help minorities succeed and make them feel valued in the field.  Annually, the SEEDS Program works with approximately 100 students from underrepresented minority groups in various program components like field trips, mentoring at ESA annual meetings, leadership meetings and the undergraduate research fellowships. Our future goal is to increase support for SEEDS campus chapters  to enable a greater number of minority students and mentors to participate (Dhanota 2020). For those interested, we have published two papers detailing the work and success of the program (Mourad et al. 2018; Ahern-Dodson et al., 2020).

Yet, we know that SEEDS is but a small program and there are many wonderful programs in the field, with millions of dollars invested. To really shift the needle, however, we still need to dismantle the systems and structures that are oppressive and unjust, retool racist decision-making criteria and processes over recruitment, retention, and promotion, and lift-up minority voices for an equitable science.


Visit the ESA website for resources.

Learn more about specific ESA DEIJ efforts.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) Blog Series 

The DEIJ special blog series hopes to promote a love of ecology from diverse perspectives and voices, foster divergent thinking, and encourage innovative solutions. Our goal is to celebrate the true breadth of the ecological community and address barriers to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. Topics can include a range of subjects about career development, obstacles that need to be removed, personal experiences of being underrepresented in STEM, creating an inclusive work environment, environmental justice, or any topic related to DEIJ. We welcome all ideas.

Please submit your contribution, with a suggested title and full contact information, to Alison Mize, director of public affairs (alison@nullesa.org).