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Diversity has a role in environment education - September 20, 2012

What does diversity have to do with effective environmental education? Is gender, race, ethnicity, age and so on, a factor? I would argue, yes.

Recently, I was engaged in a conversation with several friends and colleagues from across the country, discussing issues related to diversity and environmental education. This may or may not have come up in your conversations. It comes up often for me. Some of my friends have asked, why race, in particular, is an issue as an environmental educator.

As I explain, sometimes when you’re trying to connect with diverse audiences, it is important that some of those teaching look like some of those being taught. The messenger makes a difference — in a whole host of ways. People often gravitate toward others who look like them. If young children don’t see any people of color associated with environmental causes, programs, and activities it is sometimes difficult for them to see themselves in similar roles. Modeling is important in education, as is finding good role models with whom youth can connect. Sometimes skin color does matter.

There are reasons why environmental groups are still predominately white. We have been largely ineffective at establishing relevance with diverse communities. It is not because people of color do not care about the environment. I think some of us tell ourselves that as an excuse, rather than face the perceived hard work ahead of us. There are, unfortunately, still gross inequities in our communities — social, economic, and environmental injustices.

As Rue Mapp, founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro notes, “this is a question related to the need for role models who might inspire youth from a culturally relevant perspective to explore environmental education.” While this may not be an issue that is important to everyone, it is important to Mapp and many others. Mapp, based in Oakland, Calif., has harnessed her passion for the outdoors and is helping to connect others. Visit www.outdoorafro.com to learn more about her efforts.

Dr. J. Drew Lanham, Alumni Distinguished Professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, added to the conversation, “It is all about young people seeing the possibilities. It’s not that people of other races or ethnicities can’t or don’t inspire, rather it is about seeing that you can do it because I am doing it. Inspiration is where you find it, yes, regardless of color. But inspiration when clothed in the same culture and having had to endure the some of the same struggles and overcome the same obstacles, is so much more powerful.

“This is especially true, I think, in our field as children of color — especially as African-American children, who from kindergarten through college are discouraged from careers in conservation because are told that ‘it’s not what black people do.’ ”

Lanham frequently writes about his own personal experiences with nature on his blog,wildandincolor.blogspot.com, where he shares “musings and adventures of a ‘colored’ man’s love affair with nature.” His passion is moving. His example is inspiring.

Still skeptical? Locally, Coastal Stewards, who reflect the diversity of our community, are making a difference. Coastal Stewards are often able to connect with audiences much more quickly than many traditional environmental educators.

And that connection is powerful. Leading by example, Coastal Stewards help others understand local environmental issues and feel empowered to make a difference.

Indiana birder Doug Gray is working with others across the country who aim to make birdwatching cool and more inclusive. After speaking to students enrolled in a youth camp, Gray was commended by the camp director who noted that she “was amazed at how much more the kids, especially black males, were attentive and engaged.” Their conversations about birds continued for the remainder of the week, even after Gray was gone. Gray got into birding largely because of his grandfather’s influence.

We are all living in more diverse communities. If everyone looks the same, something’s wrong — and there are things we can do together to fix it.

If you would like more information on the diversity and inclusion initiatives of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, please contact Carrie Samis at csamis@mdcoastalbays.org.

 

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