Bay Journal

We need to recognize the many faces that make up the Bay watershed

  • By Caitlyn Johnstone & Jim Edward on March 14, 2017
Jorge Bogantes Montero of the Anacostia Watershed Society takes a break from collecting freshwater mussels in the Anacostia River under the Kingman Island bridge in 2016. He says that to change, environmentalists need to listen to the needs and the stories of any community. (Dave Harp)

In an effort to create a better environment for everyone, the conservation world takes a vital step: including everyone.

The Chesapeake, the largest of more than 100 U.S. estuaries, is a trove of biodiversity. The Bay’s watershed stretches from New York to Virginia and boasts more than 3,600 species of plants and animals, 11,684 miles of shoreline and 150 major rivers and streams, giving it the highest land-to-water ratio of any coastal water body in the world.

Its people are just as varied as the natural environment. Along with the natural assets so loved by all, the watershed is home to a vibrant community of 18 million people and a bustling economy valued at more than a trillion dollars. Crowded cities, suburbs and forests are as plentiful in the watershed as its rural communities, wide open spaces and fishing villages. Why, then, in the collective effort to protect both the natural world and livelihoods, are some people taking on a challenge so decidedly homogenous?

The national initiative Green 2.0, released a report in 2014, calls attention to the “green ceiling,” wherein environmental organizations and agencies showed a racial composition that hovers 12–16 percent nationwide for people of color. The demographics of the U.S. population, in contrast, is closer to 38 percent. The reasons for the disparity, as well as the actions needed to address it, are many.

Now, in 2017, environmental organizations are taking steps to better reflect the population they support, as well as to understand that the term “diversity” goes far beyond race.

Discrimination is, unfortunately, a fact. While many would like to claim they’ve grown beyond such prejudices, discrimination is still a factor that affects hiring and promotional decisions within organizations. Many organizations are tackling issues of discrimination head on by first admitting it exists — by doing so, they are then able to take action to correct it. Much harder for organizations to pin down and admit are the issues of unconscious bias and insular recruiting.

In the matter of hiring, unconscious bias is a factor for both the interviewer and the prospective employee. When differences in the workplace are apparent — culture, economic status, race or experiential background — common ground and comfort is difficult to come by. Chante Coleman, director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition, said comfort and inclusion are paramount to efforts of diversity: “Inclusion is…I am comfortable sharing my biggest and best ideas at any moment. [The] broader piece is ‘I’m part of the decision-making process, my thoughts and input actually matter.’” The comfort factor affects many aspects of environmental work, from making a connection and building engagement with communities to the struggle to forge ahead in an organization.

The influence of unconscious bias means pathways are most frequently formed among similar groups. Once those connections are established, organizations continue to reach out only to each other for everything from projects to staff vacancies. “You only know what you know,” explained Sacoby Wilson, assistant professor at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and an authority on environmental justice. “You do business with what you’re comfortable with.” When that familiarity does not exist at the outset, connections are difficult to form and maintain.

Diversity engagement for environmental groups is more than social justice. Quite simply, the practical reasons of influence and effectiveness are as much an impetus as the desire to do what is right. “Where do we get our power? From the people,” Coleman said. “Our communities are becoming more diverse, and we will be leaving out a significant portion of the population if we don’t engage in diversity.”

Jim Edward, chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program Diversity Workgroup, points out: “If we want to accomplish environmental goals for the program, we have to engage the entire population in the watershed. …If we’re not engaging 40 percent of the population, we’re not going to get it done.”

A key element of the drive for change is missing when other populations are excluded. “In every poll,” said Ramon Palencia-Calvo, Latino Outreach Director for the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, “the Latino community is most on board with environmental policies philosophically.” In efforts to address urban stormwater runoff, no community is so negatively affected by the issue nor so positively affected by its improvement as the population of inner cities. Communities that have a cultural tie to the environment or are deeply affected by an adverse environment have more invested in its vitality.

Jorge Bogantes Montero is a stewardship specialist with the Anacostia Watershed Society and a man with an intimate understanding of what it means to have engagement with diverse communities, regardless of perceived inclusion or assumed background. “You have to be bicultural, really…having bilingual and bicultural people helps a lot to convey the message.” He emphasized that being bicultural is not incumbent on one’s skin color or background, and addressed income differences in the same vein. “Being [of the same culture] is not enough. If you are upper [socioeconomic] class and speaking to lower [socioeconomic] class and don’t take that into consideration, you will not be effective.”

The question of diversity is nuanced and far-reaching, and a lack of it is a barrier. “We need a diversity of ideas around the table to become more effective,” Coleman stated. Hiring from underrepresented communities in the watershed and being open to candidates with a nontraditional education or work experience will further innovate environmental efforts. “It is good to have people from different lived experiences and backgrounds,” Wilson said. “Have a prismatic approach to solving problems. We all have our own biased assumptions. Multidimensional people mean multidimensional approaches to solving problems.”

If diversity has such a multidimensional definition, how can environmentalists take hold of intentional change? “Listen to the needs and the stories of any community,” Montero said. “Be open-minded and be able to listen. Listen.” The skill of listening, of being a culturally competent and an effective communicator, is high on the list of desired qualities to have in new employees. Organizations can take steps in the way they recruit staff with culturally capable individuals.

Choose Clean Water, along with the Chesapeake Bay Funders Network, is looking to make those changes from within their comprehensive Diversity Equity and Inclusion Plan. In its development, these organizations embrace the need to listen by starting with self-reflective questions: In our governance structure, do we have a diversity piece? Hiring —  are we posting where diverse audiences will see it? Do our programs reflect diversity? Are we listening to a community to understand their needs? After we’ve listened, are we designing programs to meet those needs?

Efforts will lead to change when organizations are intentional about diversity. “[In response to a call for action] people respond, ‘we don’t have the resources,’” Palencia-Calvo stated. “Well, you don’t have the resources because you don’t make this a priority.” He is very clear on this point: There is a lack of leadership commitment to mandate diversity, yet change will not happen without an update to policies. “[With] an intentional start from management…others will follow through.”

The Chesapeake Bay Program, the partnership leader in environmental efforts for the watershed, is making those changes — starting with identifying how far there is to go. In the summer of 2016, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay conducted a self-identifying diversity profile assessment of Chesapeake Bay Program staff and their partners. Participants answered voluntarily and anonymously to questions regarding diversity and their placement in Chesapeake Bay Program leadership. The results show that the Chesapeake Bay Program is well below the national demographics for racial diversity. Eighty-four percent of respondents identified as white, with 13 percent identifying as nonwhite. Coleman, whose organization is a champion of diversity efforts, applauded baseline establishment and the posting of data as paramount to confronting the status quo. “Collecting diversity data is huge!” She said passionately. “It has to be included in our policies.”

With a strategy marked by transparency and actionable steps, the Bay Program is pushing to acknowledge and then improve those numbers before the next scheduled assessment in 2019. Its Diversity Workgroup, established in 2016 under the Stewardship Goal Team, put on a large workshop in November at Baltimore’s Masonville Cove that covered networking and candid problem-solving. The Bay Program is revising its grant guidance and using an environmental justice screening tool to assist grass-roots community groups and better target project funding. A new, full-time diversity staffer puts action behind the motion, and a specific diversity indicator is now part of the Bay Program mission.

Progress on this and other indicators is found at ChesapeakeProgress.com, a Bay Program-supported website designed for an accessible and transparent tracking of Chesapeake efforts. By tracking progress and improving the inclusion of diverse populations in environmental decision making, the diversity outcome will help lead to positive changes in other indicators with an infusion of new perspectives at all levels of engagement.

Diversity, especially in the Bay’s multifaceted watershed, is a powerful movement. “When [environmental groups] build across bridges,” Wilson
said, “we build a more robust environmental movement. It is powerful to understand…how to build across difference and have common ground to address problems.” The most successful restorations are those within a community that take ownership and continues to maintain it over time — that goes for the people of the community as much as the fauna, water, land and flora.

About Caitlyn Johnstone & Jim Edward
Caitlyn Johnstone is an outreach specialist for the Chesapeake Bay Program and Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. Jim Edward is chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program's Diversity Workgroup.
Read more articles by Caitlyn Johnstone & Jim Edward

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