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Environmental groups try to reach diverse new audiences with programming, outreach to HBCUs

Chesapeake Conservancy Manager of Equity and Community Engagement Gabrielle Roffe and Executive Vice President of Programs Mark Conway said the conservancy is working to qaddress lack of diversity in environmental advocacy.
Chesapeake Conservancy Manager of Equity and Community Engagement Gabrielle Roffe and Executive Vice President of Programs Mark Conway said the conservancy is working to qaddress lack of diversity in environmental advocacy. (Rachael Pacella / Capital Gazette)

Last summer, the Chesapeake Conservancy hired two bilingual outreach assistants to address a gap at Sandy Point State Park: the park’s predominantly Hispanic and Latino users were unaware of educational programs offered at the facility’s nature center.

The two created culturally relevant programs such as Música Reciclada, where kids made instruments using recycled materials, Pintando la Bahía, a painting program on the beach, and a Spanish-language storytime called Historias en Español. They also helped with kayaking, fishing and nature programs and translated for others.

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Manager of Equity and Community Engagement Gabrielle Roffe said the programs were a success. They hired two outreach assistants again this summer, she said, who have produced videos to engage virtually with park-goers during the pandemic.

Through new programs, non-governmental organizations hope to address a long-standing problem in environmental advocacy: a lack of diversity.

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Many have created internal committees focusing on diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, and say they weigh those subjects more heavily as they consider where to conserve land and invest in restoration. Another focus is showing students from low-income communities and communities of color that there are careers in the environmental field.

About 15% of those surveyed identified as people of color, according to a 2019 diversity survey distributed by the Chesapeake Bay Program. One of the program’s goals is to have workers of color comprise 25% of the bay clean up by 2025.

“When you think about the history of environmental racism and the environmental conservation movement, it was by white people for white people,” Roffe said.

Conservancy Executive Vice President of Programs Mark Conway said change wouldn’t happen overnight, but it also doesn’t need to take forever.

“We want to make sure we work with all our waterways, that we ask the right questions to the right people and that we pursue the right projects and opportunities to make sure that we are moving the ball forward,” he said.

That includes capturing more than just the colonial history of the Chesapeake Bay, Conway said. The conservancy has helped protect land important to indigenous and Black communities at Fones Cliffs, Werowocomoco and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park.

In 2014 the Maryland League of Conservation Voters launched a program called Chispa, “spark” in Spanish, to engage in more policy discussions. The league’s Deputy Executive Director Ramón Palencia-Calvo said they want to give people the power to speak out about the environmental issues important to them, using their voice. No one knows better what is going on in the community, he said.

“That’s very important to us, that these communities have a strong voice and that this empowerment happens on their terms, not ours,” he said.

Through the Promotores program, the league provides government training, how to engage an elected official, community organizing, and environmental stewardship. They also include lessons about the history of the environmental activism of Latinos in the U.S.

“That is very important, that we center this work with our identity,” Palencia-Calvo said.

One of the Promotores graduates was hired at the league as a paid fellow. Making the connection between environment and career is also essential, Palencia-Calvo said, especially when talking to youth.

One way the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay is helping make that link by offering scholarships to its annual Chesapeake Watershed Forum. Students from historically Black colleges, including Morgan State University and Bowie State University, have been awarded scholarships to attend the forums in recent years, which bring together more than 400 professionals to share ideas about saving the bay.

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While Bowie State University, the state’s oldest HBCU, doesn’t have an environmental science program, chemistry professor Alan Anderson said leaders at the school are making environmental preservation a priority through solar panel installations, trash pick-ups, and later this month, a campus tree planting.

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay came to partner with Bowie State through a memorandum of understanding between the school and the Environmental Protection Agency. This fall, students will monitor water quality at two sites near campus using the alliance’s training and equipment. Courtney Matthews will help with monitoring and attended last year’s forum.

She wants to become a medical doctor whose focus is research and said environmental studies could help because health is tied to the environment. She is also interested in ways scientists use creatures like sea sponges or horseshoe crabs to produce medicine.

Last year while attending a conference, Matthews said she realized she and other BSU students were among the few Black people at the event. She said she had the chance to talk about the lack of representation in environmental science and the challenges Black people face at work, such as microaggressions.

She said more connections with HBCUs could help to address the disparity.

“I feel like the only way we can overcome this lack of diversity is just getting involved,” she said.

Later this month, the alliance will train Matthews and Anderson to use the water monitoring equipment. This spring, the alliance will work with students to develop a seminar series for next year’s Chesapeake Watershed Forum.

The statistics nationally are stark for undergraduates earning degrees in environmental sciences: less than 3% of graduates are Black, Morgan State University professor Scott Knoche said. He said he thinks academia has failed to meet students where they are and has failed to show them the career opportunities in connection to environmental studies.

There is a clear pathway to becoming a doctor, but the environmental science path is less defined, he said.

“We have a story to tell as environmental scientists, and we are failing to tell it,” Knoche said.

For a long time, environmentalists focused on subjects like endangered species, he said, a distant concern for communities of color more heavily burdened with pollution than white communities. According to the American Lung Association, decades of residential segregation resulted in Black Americans living in areas exposed to more air pollution from sources like highways.

“Environmental scientists have not met the minority students in minority communities, in the location where they are at, so to speak,” Knoche said. “I think we, as environmental scientists, need to focus more on environmental issues that affect minorities.”

This summer, the Sierra Club apologized for the racist views of one of its founders, John Muir. Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay Executive Director Kate Fritz said the environmental movement needs to own some of that legacy and work harder to include more people.

“The movement has worked very hard to protect bald eagles and fish species, but we have not worked very hard to protect humans,” she said.

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The alliance has issued a guide for staff to use in the office related to cultural sensitivity and bias. A “field guide” is being written workers can use while at community cleanups or other events with tips like language to use.

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The conservancy is also looking inward, work that has been led by Roffe since 2018. Staff members started learning from one another through monthly meetings where they would give a presentation on an issue they were grappling with, such as accessibility in the outdoors industry, diversifying a board, and a presentation about a person’s experience recognizing their white privilege.

“As a staff, there was a lot of passion and hunger for learning and growth,” she said.

By practicing inclusion, equity and compassion with one-on-one relationships on the staff, Roffe hopes the wider community and organizations learning from the conservancy will follow suit.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also has an internal committee and a task force on the board to address diversity. President Will Baker said they aren’t resting on their laurels, but they face some challenges in creating a more diverse organization: low staff turnover and a hiring freeze because of COVID-19.

Baltimore Program Manager Carmera Thomas-Wilhite leads the foundation’s equity, inclusion and justice committee established in April. She said they are compiling resources for staff right now. They have started a book club, hold virtual discussions about racism, and log-in and learn sessions where staff can share lessons about subjects like environmental justice.

They’re just getting started, she said.

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