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Moving Forward Initiative Guest Series: Interview with Dr. Dorceta Taylor on Diversity and Equity Initiatives within Environmental Organizations

Dr. Dorceta Taylor is the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and the James E. Crowfoot Collegiate Professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Dr. Taylor is the author of The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations, and Government Agencies (a publication prepared for Green 2.0: 2014) and The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection (Duke University Press: 2015). Both publications fundamentally seek to examine the state of gender, racial, and class diversity within environmentalism.

As part of The Corps Network’s Moving Forward Initiative, we spoke with Dr. Taylor about her inspiration for environmental work, her education and career path, as well as the efficacy of diversity and equity initiatives within environmental organizations.

Click here for Moving Forward Initiative Homepage


– By Cassandra Ceballos, Programs Assistant, The Corps Network
 

Growing up in 1960s rural Jamaica, Dr. Dorceta Taylor found herself instinctively drawn to the natural environment.

“I really think I was one of those people who was just genetically hard-wired from the womb to come out caring and wanting to know about plants and animals,” she said.

As a young girl, one of Dr. Taylor’s many chores was to take care of a rose garden near her home. The garden fascinated Dr. Taylor; the various colors and kinds of roses, the bees pollinating the different flowers. She thought it was “the coolest job ever,” and credits this early exposure with cementing her “respect, understanding, and curiosity” in biology.

Unable to attend school until the age of seven due to family responsibilities, Dr. Taylor taught herself how to read and write. In her studies, she came across a book that talked about the prestigious Yale University and decided then, at age seven, that she would one-day attend. “Ignorance is bliss,” she shares, “because, at the time I said that, Yale did not admit black students and it did not admit women. But since there was nobody to tell me otherwise, I put it as one of my dreams and decided to pursue it.”

In her first years of college in Jamaica, Dr. Taylor continued to pursue her interests in the biological sciences, specializing heavily in zoology and botany. Upon immigrating to the United States at age 20 she chose to continue along a Biology track at Northeastern Illinois University but was unable to register for an upper level Botany class in her first semester due to limited enrollment. Dr. Taylor instead enrolled in an environmental class at the suggestion of a professor. Her experiences in that first environmental class fundamentally shaped her life’s trajectory.

Though medicine is a common career trajectory for biology students, Dr. Taylor never wanted to be a doctor; she hates the sight of human blood. She felt stifled in the sterile setting of labs and much preferred to work outdoors. The environmental course offered Dr. Taylor an “opportunity to see how you can connect people to the environment and focus on human interactions with the environment,” rather than following more traditional STEM career paths. Yet, there was another side to this revelation. The lack of diversity in the environmental class both startled and disturbed Dr. Taylor.

“We were learning all this cool stuff about the environment, and pesticides, and I thought to myself ‘where are all the other black kids?’”

For the first time, Dr. Taylor found herself sitting in a science classroom as the only person of color. Surrounded by about fifty white students and a white male professor, she remembers thinking, “I know I left Jamaica, the Caribbean, but did I go that far out of space that I’m in a place where black and brown students are not taking these courses?”

Never one to be deterred, Dr. Taylor posed this question to the professor, who responded in front of the class that blacks are simply not interested in the environment. “I was stunned,” she said. This comment lead Dr. Taylor to the library, determined to debunk his statement. She left disappointed, “I pulled out every book I could on behavior and the environment and every single research article said exactly what he said: blacks are not interested in the environment.”

Those findings directly contradicted Dr. Taylor’s lifelong knowledge of environmentalism. She grew up amongst black and brown people who cared about the environment, studied the environment, worked in the environment, all with excellence. Dr. Taylor realized the problem was not with participation, but with perception, “this perception that somehow an entire race of people does not care about the environment. How, how is that possible? And what does that mean if you have that kind of racialized understanding of caring about the environment?” Fostering stereotypes about the parts of society that do or do not involve themselves in environmental work establishes a logic about who to hire or engage in those capacities.

Dr. Taylor graduated from Northeastern Illinois University in 1983 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Studies and Biology. She enrolled in the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment later that year. Concurrently, the environmental movement was in full swing on national and international stages. Intrigued by the interaction of society and nature, Dr. Taylor found herself particularly drawn to the burgeoning environmental justice movement. This interest influenced her decision to pursue an interdisciplinary field of study. Not only did Dr. Taylor fulfill her childhood goal of attending Yale University, she did it with pizzazz. Dr. Taylor holds a Master of Forensic Science in Social Ecology, both a Master of Arts and Master of Philosophy in Sociology/Forestry, and dual doctoral degrees in Environmental Sociology from the Department of Sociology and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Even now, Dr. Taylor vividly remembers her experience in that first environmental class, her shock at the professor’s racist remarks.  Unfortunately, this kind of racist understanding is not unique to the conservation movement. Such beliefs spring from historical rhetoric that erases the active participation and extraordinary contributions of persons of color in many aspects of our society. Growing up in a rural area of a developing country, however, she knew intimately the extensive body of environmental knowledge necessary to survive in such communities. Much of Dr. Taylor’s research works to rewrite, or “re-right,” the traditional narrative of environmentalism. She wishes to disprove, “the idea that black people are somehow so different from everyone else in the world that we don’t care, we have no knowledge.”
 

Documenting Black Contributions to Environmentalism

Authored by Dr. Taylor in 2016, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection comprehensively details the roles of race, class, and gender in shaping the environmental movement from the mid-1850s to the early 1900s.

“I thought that if I looked at slavery, I bet you we will find people of color doing amazing things either for the environment or to survive in the environment. We just haven’t documented it,” said Dr. Taylor. “…If you look at slave plantations, what slaves did. The fact that they had incredible knowledge of the plants, the animals, it’s just not written about. These were environmental activities. These were sustainable activities.”

In The Rise of the American Conservation Movement, Dr. Taylor analyzes the environmental characteristics of prominent figures like Harriet Tubman and Phyllis Wheatley, providing nuanced perspective on their lives. She writes about the environmental knowledge used by Harriet Tubman in operating the Underground Railroad, “she was a human minesweeper before we knew about minesweepers. She understood the water, could read the water so very well. It’s really quite a hard thing to navigate along water in a forest, much less at night.”

Dr. Taylor further argues that Phillis Wheatley, enslaved in the late 1700s, “was writing about the environment in a very positive way. Telling us to care about it for almost a century before Ralph Waldo Emerson, yet he gets credit for it.” Traditional narrative surrounding these women and their accomplishments does not include these environmental elements. 

The 1960s saw an explosion of social movements in the United States, including the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, and the environmental movement. 

The rhetoric of the civil rights and environmental movements established a false dichotomy between the two. The environmentalists at the time framed the environment as everything except for urban areas and everyone except people of color. It was mostly focused on middle and upper-class white people and the places where they lived and recreated.

“Through the 1960s and 1970s the environment is framed as the forests, the trees, the beautiful birds, the perfect oceans and lakes. It didn’t include the issues that related to urban areas or to poor people. Certainly not to persons of color,” said Dr. Taylor. “Part of the pushback of communities of color was a sense that, we’re not going to come out and march to save the bald eagle when we don’t have food in the house to feed our children. We have to take care of that first.”

As a result, documentation of the civil rights movement fails to account for the environmental activism of its participants. “We talk about the fact that blacks were carpooling and we talk about it in the context of we couldn’t get on the bus therefore, we had carpools. And guess what? Everybody now knows carpooling is environmentally friendly. But we don’t frame our activism in those terms.”  Dr. Taylor points out that, “there were more blacks carpooling in the South than environmental activists carpooling in the North. But white environmentalists get the credit for carpooling.”

Dr. Taylor stresses the importance of telling these stories, “I’m hoping a whole new generation of people of color go back into their literature, go back into their stories that their parents and their grandparents and great-grandparents tell them about the way they lived. About activities. And, rather than seeing it as backwards, understand not only how it plays into who we are as a people, but how we can use it to understand our contribution to the environment and that we were always extremely connected to the environment. If we weren’t, we absolutely would not have survived.”
 

The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations

In her 1997 journal article, American Environmentalism: The Role of Race, Class, and Gender in Shaping Activism, 1820-1995, Dr. Taylor writes that “the [environmental] movement faces enormous challenges in the future. Among the most urgent is the need to develop a more inclusive, culturally-sensitive, broad-based environmental agenda that will appeal to many people and unite many sectors of the movement.” In the 20 years since making that statement, Dr. Taylor has good news and bad news.

 The good news is there has been some increase in diversity.

A 1990 survey found that less than two percent of the staff at the largest environmental organizations were people of color. Most of the employees of color worked in the mailroom, on the janitorial staff, or strictly in entry-level positions. In Dr. Taylor’s 2014 report, The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations, and Government Agencies, she studied several hundred mainstream environmental organizations and found that people of color made up about 16 percent of the workforce, an increase of about 14 percent in 24 years. Meanwhile, white women have made incredible strides, making up 60 percent of the staffing at environmental organizations, up from 14 percent in the 1980s.

Dr. Taylor says her report acted as, “a jolt to organizations. Because I put so much data out there, it’s become very difficult for them to sit around and simply say people of color are not interested in the environment, that they don’t want these jobs or apply to these jobs… And all the data we have says exactly the opposite. Young people of color, old people of color, they will take these jobs, want these jobs, and are qualified for these jobs.”

The bad news is that we aren’t where we need to be.

Currently, people of color make up 38 percent of the population, a number expected to increase to over 50 percent in the coming decades. “We are a growing segment… 16 percent in environmental organizations is well below our representation in the general population. We are underrepresented, by a significant amount.”

Additionally, people of color working at environmental organizations continue to be concentrated in entry-level positions. “When you get to senior staff, Presidents and Vice Presidents, it’s rare to see [people of color]. We need to look at diversity as we look up the hierarchy. The mentoring piece is missing. People are being hired but they’re also leaving because they feel alienated, isolated, and the conversations that are taking place in these organizations are sometimes very hard for the young people of color to deal with, especially when there are very few of them. So, the institutional culture has to change.”
 

Moving Forward with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Dr. Taylor offers suggestions on how organizations might better approach diversity. Her first recommendation involves improved wages. “I find most [organizations] underprice the labor of young people of color,” she said, “they don’t put a market value on it. So that’s one of the first things.”

When many foundations talk about funding diversity they talk about it in terms of how many bodies are in the room. But when Dr. Taylor approaches it, she thinks in terms of wages and salary scale. “Your wages today determine your wages tomorrow, and next week, and way down the road. That part of the diversity piece is so critical in building job negotiation skills.”

Dr. Taylor’s undergraduate and graduate summer internship programs provide generous financial compensation to participants.

Spanning two summers, the undergraduate program consists of two cohorts of twenty students each. With over 400 applications a year, competition is high. The program focuses on very high achieving STEM students, with GPAs above 3.4. The grant includes money for travel expenses, including a car service from the airport. Meals and housing are also covered. Students make $4,200 for eight weeks. Dr. Taylor does this, “with the idea being that, when they leave here, they can go home and take their entire stipend back with them to help with college in the fall”

The graduate students start at $10,000 for 12 weeks in the summer, so that when they leave, multiplying the weeks over the summer, their biggest salary history is about $55,000/year. They can negotiate a different base salary than if they were paid $2,000 for the summer.

“It’s not just getting good students academically. It’s about getting the ones that participate to be really excited and proud of what they’re doing. And they can say ‘wow, look at what I earn.’ People tend to say ‘oh bring me some students of color’ but then don’t want to pay these kids. That’s the dirty underside to this diversity piece, is that nobody wants to pay for it.”

Dr. Taylor stressed the need to prepare young adults of color to be leaders in environmental conservation, rather than just entry-level employees. In her program, the undergraduates spend their first summer in a lab and their second summer in various environmental organizations.

“We have to think about where are we placing the students. If we’re not placing them in the labs and in the professional setting, we won’t diversify upwards through the pipeline. Otherwise all we have done is for them to say to us: find us these students and train them, when in reality we’ve only trained them for entry-level. So, chances are they’re only going to be in the organizations a very short time because they’re frustrated and don’t see the upward mobility. The hardest thing within diversity is for folks to realize that we are not just talking about back office. We’re talking about the front office. The presidential suite. Every part of the organization. And for these young people to have access to those [positions], to know that they can have access to these spaces, becomes really critical.”

Dr. Taylor hopes to prove there are students of color interested in conservation work. “We’re not the only program that is seeing that incredible demand from students of color,” Dr. Taylor said. “High-performing students of color, that want to do environmental justice, want to do conservation, forestry, those kinds of things. Those students are absolutely out there.”

Finally, Dr. Taylor advocates developing a strong cohort and network amongst young adults of color participating in environmental programs, guided by the spirit of mentorship.

“The few of us who run these programs can’t fix everything. In communities of color that kind of networking, especially in the environmental field, is not common. It’s important for students of color to understand how networks work. Some of these students are actually really good peer mentors and so we’ve actually appointed some of the very mature ones to help with the mentoring of their counterparts. It’s amazing how they can start helping each other.”


For Your Consideration: 

1. Read this summary of Dr. Taylor’s 2014 report, The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations. What surprises or stands out to you the most? Given the changing demographics of the United States population, what are the implications of the current state of diversity in environmental organizations?

2. Many stereotypes exist about what communities or types of individuals care about the environment. In your own career or education, have you been stereotyped or witnessed the stereotyping of others? If so, how have you reacted or responded? What are the effects of these stereotypes? Ask yourself, “what can I do to change the narrative?”

3. Dr. Taylor mentions carpooling as a sustainable activity most often credited to white environmentalists, despite the earlier use of carpooling by people of color during the civil rights movement. Consider other sustainable activities generally attributed to the mainstream environmental movement. Thinking critically, might there be other stories behind these activities?

4. In The Rise of the American Conservation Movement, Dr. Taylor documents the environmental consciousness of Harriet Tubman and Phillis Wheatley. Why do we not view the work of these women through an environmental lens? What are the effects of omitting such individuals from the collective of historic environmental figures? Pick a figure from this list of civil rights activists. Can you find information on the individual’s environmental contributions? If not, think creatively. In what ways might this individual have been an environmentalist?

5. Skim through Dr. Taylor’s latest research publication, Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Reporting and Transparency. What are the major findings from the report? Why do you think transparent reporting of diversity data is important?

6. For Corps: Dr. Taylor credits her early experiences tending a rose garden in Jamaica for sparking her interest in the natural world. Do you have a similar story or memory? Think back. When do you remember first gaining interest in conservation and preservation? Is there a standout influence?

7. For Corps: In this blog, we identify equal representation, mentorship, and fair wages as important elements of “diversity, equity, and inclusion”. What do these terms mean to you? How can you contribute to making the environmental workforce more diverse, inclusive, and equitable?

8. For Corps: What do you do (or can you do) to promote “professionalism” in your program? What do you do to help Corpsmembers explore career and educational pathways that build on their Corps experience?