Who do we include in ecology?

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A few weeks ago the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting brought over five thousand scientists to Baltimore. It was the 100th anniversary – an event marked by an opening video address by President Obama and the highest-ever attendance at the meeting. In the halls of the conference center we became a sea of poster tubes and name tags, a moving cross-section of the people who represent our field.

Most people passed as a blur in the hustle of getting from meeting to meeting, presentation to presentation. But occasionally a name tag would stand out. Some people who I knew by name, others who I wished to know, and others who had taken the time to decorate their badges with illustrations of their study systems and organisms.

But I remember one name tag more than any other. His name doesn’t matter as much as what he wrote after it – “, Ph.D.”. Of the thousands of people with Ph.D. degrees I saw at the meeting, his was the only one that indicated his academic preparation. Why was that? I only saw him for a second in the crowd, so I don’t really know. I wished that I had time and reason to talk to him, but I do think I can make a guess.

I wondered whether the name tag was trying to say something that couldn’t be said otherwise. He looked like he was in his mid-20s, no older. And he had dark-colored skin. I think the name tag was saying, ‘you need to treat me seriously, because you probably won’t otherwise’. As someone who also looks very young and has consequently had people expect little from me, I have some experience with age discrimination. But as as someone with mixed ancestry who can pass as white both visibly and culturally, I have not experienced any racial discrimination. At meetings like this one, so full of new faces, we constantly make decisions about how to allocate our time and who we should talk to. I imagine that there are many unconscious decisions people make at conferences that lead to some people getting much less respect than others. It doesn’t help that many of our field’s best-known thinkers happen to have been a bit older, white, and usually male (see a recent NCEAS working group below).

working group

So seeing this name tag, I was disappointed to imagine our ecological research community still not making everyone feel wholly included or at ease. Leah Gerber and Elizabeth Tellman at Arizona State University organized an excellent diversity workshop around these issues at the conference. It was attended by about thirty people, ranging in professional status from high school students to university faculty to directors of major environmental non-profits, and in background from a much broader swathe of society than most parts of the meeting.

For me, one of the big messages that came out of the conversation was the importance of community-building and inclusion. Providing opportunities and structures to recruit a more diverse set of people into the field is only part of the story. Building environments where everyone feels comfortable bring their whole selves should become a bigger part of that story. That means breaking down many of the unspoken assumptions about what our scientific culture should look like, and supporting people who can model and help build the alternatives. Not an easy road, but an important one.

Here’s an example that may help to illustrate the point. The photo below is from a sustainable recreation and youth engagement workshop run by the United States Forest Service last autumn in Arizona (photo credit to them). It was a useful and worthwhile meeting, but you can see from the photo that there is a key group who were not invited to the youth engagement dicussions: any young people!

workshop

Here and throughout our field, we can build better structures and make more inclusive decisions. The Baltimore workshop is going to soon generate some actionable outcomes and bigger conversations, but it is not my place to present them here. The Green 2.0 working group is also leading larger efforts to open up more conversations about diversity in environmental organizations, and proposing specific actions that our groups can all take to build community and inclusivity.

The road is long, and this will just be a small part of a bigger movement. We should all at least talk about these issues.

I look forward to a world where everyone can do ecology, and do it in the communities and cultures they belong to. I hope it will be a world where no one’s name tag need say anything besides their name.

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