The annual Wege Speaker Series will tackle the topics of race, power and privilege in the conservation and environmental movements.
On April 13, The Wege Foundation presents, “Untold Stories of the Conservation Movement: Race, Power & Privilege,” by Dorceta E. Taylor, Ph.D., director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Taylor is speaking at 4 p.m. at the Aquinas College Performing Arts Center, at 1703 Robinson Rd. SE. The event is free, but seating is limited, so attendees must register online.
Taylor told the Business Journal she plans to provide historical context for the lack of diversity that has existed and continues to exist within the conservation and environmental movements, as well as discuss some of the biases organizations exhibit during the hiring process that lead to a lack of diversity.
Taylor said environmental historians have, for the most part, ignored the racial, gender and class exploitation that occurred throughout history in relation to the natural environment, such as the use of slaves to cultivate the land and the redistribution of land from native peoples to European settlers.
“Slavery was definitely used not only to pave the way for massive industrialization but also for exploitation of those resources,” Taylor said.
She added, “During the 19th century, we had a series of legal decisions that said basically, the Europeans doing intensive agriculture, their ownership supersedes that of native tribes.”
Taylor said far into the 20th century, people of color often were restricted from both joining environmental organizations and from participating in outdoor recreation.
“It was not until the 20th century that it became understood that women can do this stuff and be part of the environmental conversation,” she said. “And, into the 1970s that the question of, ‘Can minorities be a part of these organizations?’ Some of these organizations had racial restrictions on membership.”
There also were segregation laws that prevented people of color from fully enjoying national and urban parks.
“When we get to today, and people ask, ‘Why aren’t there more minorities going to the national parks,’ people don’t realize these were segregated spaces until the 1970s and those things have a legacy. We have to recognize that to be able to deconstruct and change course.”
Despite effectively being barred from participating in conservation and environmental efforts, people of color always have contributed to environmentalism and conservation.
“African American soldiers were in Yosemite during the 1800s patrolling and helping to build the roads and establishing the park, but you don’t see their contribution reflected in environmental history,” she said.
Taylor said until children of color see themselves reflected in environmental history and stories based within the natural environment, they won’t see themselves in careers in these fields.
“We cannot fully understand (lack of diversity in environmental organizations) unless we understand the long history of segregation and of the way we talk about conservation and the environment that includes and excludes folks,” she said.
Taylor said it’s imperative environmental organizations broaden their outreach and attract more people of color to their leadership and memberships.
“Socially and politically, we can’t afford not to have everyone engaged in environmental issues and to have a workforce that reflects the country,” she said. “All we have to do is flash back to the last election and look at the dismantling of environmental gains that will be taking place over the next four years. The white middle class alone will not be able to mount an effective opposition to what might come down the pike. Just from a demographic perspective, we need a broader, wider engaged coalition to effectively protect the environment as we move forward.”
She said leaders should confront their own contemporary racism or blind spots.
“Not everyone who doesn’t hire a person of color when they could is necessarily racist, it’s sometimes you aren’t thinking about it, or you’re not recruiting in the right place or getting your information out or you’re not realizing your own unconscious bias or stereotypes,” she said.
She said organizations need to ask themselves what factors might be behind a lack of diversity in an organization’s workforce, and if the answer is “no qualified candidates,” those organizations need to examine the reality behind that response.
“They aren’t visualizing someone like myself,” she said.
She added, “If you think that already, you aren’t going to interview them. That is the ultimate part of the work; what kind of frame am I really operating in, and am I willing to give equal chances to people and just give the interviews and hire the best person? If you do that, the pattern of hiring will change, I guarantee it.”
Taylor launched an undergraduate internship program, now in its second year, and she has no doubt her students are some of the best in the country.
“When I have a black female third year at Brown University with a 4.0 in environmental studies, nobody can convince me that this kid is a dummy,” she said. “Why can’t someone like that get hired into the organizations?
“Those are the questions that puzzled me. Given the grades I had and what I could do at Yale, what is preventing someone like me from being hired? That is the ultimate question these organizations have to start answering.”