Inclusive conservation requires amplifying experiences of diverse scientists

As conservation organizations seek to create inclusive communities, they should reflect on current experiences. Using interview vignettes, we bring to attention the isolation and discrimination experienced by scientists who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour, alongside additional burdens of diversity and inclusion work.

Navigating the pipeline from education to career is difficult in the best of times. In many environmental and conservation fields, the added rigours of fieldwork present physical and emotional challenges1. For people who identify as Black, Indigenous and/or people of colour (BIPOC), as well as those in other marginalized groups, there is yet another layer of unique challenges. These can create barriers to persistence in these fields, or for those of us who remain, our persistence is marked by the desire to overcome negative stereotypes, create more inclusive spaces and lay the groundwork for future professionals. As environmental and conservation agencies and organizations struggle to become more diverse and inclusive, we need to recognize that even the narratives about how students enter and navigate through the pipeline fail to incorporate the stories and experiences of those BIPOC who are already here. Understanding what the experience is really like for marginalized groups can help allies to empathize and build stronger structures to welcome, include and support these promising young scientists.

In a series of interviews that we conducted with BIPOC colleagues and peers who work in the fields of conservation and environmental science in the United States, we found a consistent story that we feel has not been adequately told. Our interviewees highlighted feelings of loneliness, isolation, blatant racism and cultural taxation (see Box 1). One person interviewed shared their experience of being in the field for the first time, living outdoors while collecting ecological data. They recollect being teased, ridiculed and ‘othered’ for desiring to maintain a hygiene status that was different from the status that their colleagues, primarily white men, chose to maintain while experiencing the outdoors. For her, as a Black, Muslim woman, and for many BIPOC and religious minority groups, meaningful experiences with nature are not inconsistent with cleanliness, which goes against the ‘roughing it’ perspective often taken by others in the field. However, the ridicule and behavioural expectations of her colleagues made her religious and cultural norms and values appear at odds with her chosen career. Another conservationist shared the experience of navigating stereotypes and slurs about his Native American background: being labelled ‘Crazy Horse’ or being used as a prop to uphold romanticized or oversimplified notions of Native American relationships with conservation. Other respondents recalled incidents where they were profiled by police for ‘looking suspicious’ while travelling to or from remote field sites.

For many, negative experiences such as these serve as barriers to entering or persisting in environmental and conservation fields. Such experiences may teach them and other BIPOC that their values, perspectives and interests are incompatible with conservation. Others choose to stay, and many of those work tirelessly to ensure others don’t have the same experiences, often contributing a disproportionate amount to this work compared to allies in majority groups2. There will be those among us who find this path and stick with it, despite or even because of our negative experiences. For many, the simple act of persisting in their lab or organization is activism. However, the challenges may be insurmountable for some.

When BIPOC are threatened for simply being outside, we cannot say that the field of conservation welcomes diversity. Indeed, evidence of failures to make conservation inclusive abound. Recent examples include the story of Black man Christian Cooper being threatened with police action while simply birdwatching in New York’s Central Park and the shared stories of discrimination in academia under the Twitter hashtag #BlackintheIvory. These ongoing experiences result in part from responses to racism from conservation and environmental organizations that have often been underwhelming and lacking in insight. Often there is a desire to overcome a lack of diversity by prioritizing recruitment strategies rather than targeting retention through examining and addressing inequitable structures or organizational culture. Additionally, diversity is often justified in an instrumental way that highlights its benefits to the environmental field rather than its inherent value related to equity and justice, leading to strategies and evaluation predicated on exploitative and unethical practices3. Further, a narrative perpetuated by some of these organizations has been that BIPOC tend not to work in environmental careers because they are uninterested or unaware of environmental issues, or that these individuals do not persist in the field because their desired salaries were too high for these organizations to pay4. However, recent research has found that factors such as poor recruitment, discrimination, isolation, lack of or poor mentoring, and limited promotions contribute to the existing lack of diversity. Many of these factors were reflected in the stories of the individuals we interviewed. We believe that the vast majority of BIPOC individuals who persist in the field are there not due to the diversity and recruitment efforts of organizations, but to the individuals’ strength of commitment and passion for their field, despite the inherent challenges.

As the United States and the world confronts our shameful history of racism, marginalization and oppression, now is a prime opportunity for conservation to take a critical look inward. We need to recognize that making these fields inclusive and equitable requires considerable change that must come from within. Organizations, agencies and institutions must be honest, introspective and proactive in acknowledging and addressing bias and prejudice in conservation.

Young BIPOC who enter these fields should know that they are unequivocally supported and welcomed and that they won’t need to shoulder the majority of the work to make the field inclusive, equitable and just. Underlying white privilege and white supremacy must be recognized. Safe spaces must be created for the discussion of underrepresentation and to highlight research that relates to environmental and social justice issues5. The work of BIPOC should be promoted, and not just work related to diversity — we are scientists in our own right, with our own expertise beyond our status as minority groups. Recruitment must be strengthened, to develop a critical mass of BIPOC that counteracts the current isolation, and to facilitate the development of meaningful partnerships with institutions and organizations of colour6. BIPOC care about conservation, we want to be involved in creating a better natural world for future generations. We shouldn’t each feel like the reason to persist is ‘because who else will if I don’t’. We want to be embraced for our contributions and our perspectives.

This piece is part of a collaborative book project by a team of BIPOC environmental and conservation scientists focused on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) in our professions. Our main aim is to highlight the stories of BIPOC scientists, as told and collated by BIPOC scientists. We want to share the challenges experienced by our peers and avoid their voices being interpreted through ‘a white lens’. We want to help better equip future generations of BIPOC scientists to be able to face these experiences in these spaces. Our other aim is to better inform the gatekeepers of environmental conservation — academic departments at universities, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and private industries — that their efforts for improving JEDI must be greatly improved. We are more than a statistic to prove that an organization or agency is diverse. We are invaluable scientists, researchers and professionals. We invite any BIPOC scientist that works in an environmental or conservation field to contact us about the possibility of your story being a part of this project.


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Correspondence to Nia Morales.

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Bailey, K., Morales, N. & Newberry, M. Inclusive conservation requires amplifying experiences of diverse scientists. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 1294–1295 (2020).

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