The Way Forward
When I was near the completion of my Ph.D., my mom threw a small party for me at a local beach just north of South Beach. We rented a few of the shelters with a bar-b-que pit and I invited friends, family and professors to attend. While chatting with a professor, he said to me, “Wow, it is amazing how many people flew all the way here to celebrate your graduation. When I graduated, I certainly did not receive this much fanfare.” I smiled gently and I said, “It’s not every day that a black female finishes a Ph.D. in marine biology. The Beantown crew shows up for each of us kids when we finish a degree.” My matter of fact delivery left him with nothing more to say so I turned away and walked back to where my mom was sitting with my aunties and uncles and family friends who had flown to Miami from Boston to celebrate my achievement. I looked around the table and my heart was filled with pride as I listened to the boisterous chatter of eight black Ph.D.s of different generations enjoying the moment. My Uncle Alvin has always been my number one cheerleader and he has attended every single graduation I have ever had. He is also the loudest person on the planet and as my aunt Lydia shushed him to pipe down, he protested by saying, “Why should I, how often does this happen?”. He stood up to give me a hug and my face smooshed against his chest. With one eye, I could see the ocean and in the comfort of his embrace, he continued to laugh as loud as ever in concert with the sea.
My journey to becoming a marine biologist has been both tumultuous and glorious. I have learned to never give up, rely on my inner strength, and to bring my own folding chair when necessary. I became an advanced, scientific and rescue diver at 37 years old.
As we continue our collective journey together to understand and rectify historically entrenched racist policies in the United States, and as we try as scientists to salvage what remains of some of the earth’s most fragile and important ecosystems, let us remember that each of us has the responsibility to invest in, foster and support black students to reach the highest levels of academia. Our very future depends on it.
How can you support young people of color pursuing degrees in environmental studies, marine biology and conservation?
- Believe in them. Show them that you believe in them by telling them that they are capable and that they can do the work.
- Get in the pool! Support them with your presence. Show up. Encourage them to keep trying.
- Diversify the narrative. Stop using material or curriculum that is comfortable only for you. Explore other narratives and change the story.
- Be an ally. Fight against systems of oppression and educate yourself on barriers to access to education for students of color. Know what your implicit biases are and make steps to change them.
- Educate yourself. Science and conservation are not immune to the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. The very people who are deemed ill fit for marine biology, conservation and environmental studies may be the very minds who have the ideas, perspectives and knowledge to solve some of the world’s most threatening issues. When black and brown people are excluded and left out, not only are they denied access and opportunity, but society as a whole does not receive the gift of their bright minds working together to help change the world.
- Change your spending habits. Stop supporting companies and industries that oppress people and the environment, and those who use their political power to support and uphold racist policies.
- End racist policies. Use your vote, your dollars and your voice to end decades-old racist policies in health care, education, environmental issues, the criminal justice system and in our economy that are upheld by the notion that blacks and other people of color are inferior to whites.
Systemic change is needed urgently in all sectors of society where racism pervades. Academia is no exception and the need for change is high. This is not just a university or departmental issue, it is at its core a matter of people treating other people with dignity and respect, and reversing waves of inequality that have been entrenched in our educational system for centuries. If we can embrace the immense diversity found across thousands of species, then surely, we can learn to accept the beautiful diversity that exists within our own.
- Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools. Broadway Paperbacks, 2012.
- Meatto, Keith. “Still Separate, Still Unequal: Teaching about School Segregation and Educational Inequality.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 May 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/learning/lesson-plans/still-separate-still-unequal-teaching-about-school-segregation-and-educational-inequality.html.
- Laura Jimenez, Scott Sargrad. “Remedial Education.” Center for American Progress, www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/reports/2016/09/28/144000/remedial-education/.The Cost of Catching Up, Jimenez et. Al, 2016 from Complete College America, “Corequisite Remediation: Spanning the Completion Divide,” available at http://completecollege.org/spanningthedivide/#home (last accessed May 2016).
- US Dept of Education Office for Civil Rights 2016 release “2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection, A First Look, Key Data Highlights on Equity and Opportunity Gaps in our Nation’s Public Schools”, https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/2013-14-first-look.pdf
- “2019 Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities Report Goes Live.” NSF, www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=297944.Retrieved June 13, 2020, https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/
- The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations. http://www.diversegreen.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/FullReport_Green2.0_FINAL.pdf
- Tessum, Christopher W., et al. “Inequity in Consumption of Goods and Services Adds to Racial–Ethnic Disparities in Air Pollution Exposure.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 26 Mar. 2019, www.pnas.org/content/116/13/6001.
- Purdy, Jedediah, et al. “Environmentalism's Racist History.” The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/environmentalisms-racist-history
- Mbaria, John, and Mordecai Ogada. The Big Conservation Lie: the Untold Story of Wildlife Conservation in Kenya. Lens Et Pens Publishing, 2017.
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