The Hidden Duties For People Of Color In Environmental Science

Courtesy of Loyola University Chicago

“I assumed you were working toward Environmental Justice.”

It’s a no from me. 

As a woman of color with a background in diversity, equity and inclusion, I’m not surprised to hear this comment. This assumption is detrimental because it forces me into a field people think I should pursue because I’m a person of color. I’m an environmental science major and former chemistry minor — I want to conduct research. 

I understand the importance of being socially aware, but it doesn’t give me experience in my intended field. This assumption silos me into a field my white counterparts might not be associated with as a default. I want a job in environmental science, but as a women of color, I’ll also have to shoulder the burden of this “hidden job”. People assume people of color (POC) are willing to teach or create materials and content about diversity, equity and inclusion for free.

Often at environmental events, workplaces, clubs or even in classes, I’m one of the few — if not only — POC in the room. Along with being the token black student, I often feel relegated to be the spokesperson for all POC. I feel responsible for bringing up the racial aspects of the topics we discuss in class, or else they may be ignored entirely. This is problematic because 1) I can’t speak for my entire race much less other ethnicities, 2) it doesn’t give me experience in my intended career path, and 3) I will not be paid for this work.

The hiring of “minorities on the boards or general staff of environmental organizations does not exceed 16 percent in the three types of institutions [Mainstream NGOs, Foundations, Government Agencies] studied,” according to the State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations, or the Green Report 2.0. Even if minorities are hired, they “occupy less than 12 percent of the leadership positions.”

Conservation and preservation organizations don’t fare much better: “Of the 493 staff hired by conservation/preservation organizations in the last three years, only 63 (or 12.8 percent) were ethnic minorities.”

This can lead to tokenization of POC in their workplaces — they are seen and not heard. The few non-white hires create a convincing tableau of visual diversity, but the organizations may still lack actual programs or actions that reflect a deeper understanding or care for the concerns and interests of their non-white hires. This can place an undue burden on the few minorities who are hired to point out racial discrepancies or blinders within the organization.

While interning in Michigan, I worked in the field, sampling local waterways. This required me to walk in creeks that ran through the backyards of people’s properties. I was informed by my white coworkers they were often questioned by curious and confused residents and police. 

This information did little to assuage my growing fear of being mistaken as an intruder due to my skin color and being immediately thrown into a hostile situation. Black people must navigate these sorts of jobs and suspicions very differently than white people, yet my coworkers and superiors were entirely unaware of this difference in treatment and didn’t know how to help or they might even need to help me. 

When I raised these concerns to the people around me they were initially skeptical.

Eventually, they understood my perspective after further discussion. They were so affected by my points that they asked me to lead a discussion about the different safety needs for POC when doing fieldwork. I successfully raised these concerns to my organization, but it was evident that they had long been blind to the safety concerns I noticed my first day in the field. I realized that I might have to do this sort of extra, uncompensated work in the future simply to make my workplace more welcoming — or at the very least more bearable and safer – for myself and other POC. It made me also realize that other POC must do similar work to make their organizations and workplaces more holistically inclusive. This won’t be in a job description and is unique to POC. 

Loyola is no exception. Sophomore year, I helped organize science-based educational events for a club before committing to increasing awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Having had success with previous plans, I felt confident that this was a task I could undertake. Unfortunately, I was mistaken and greatly disappointed. I was neglected, received little help, and isolated from a group I once felt embraced by. 

I even began noticing differences in how my events were marketed compared to my white counterparts. I ultimately decided to leave the club for my sanity. This decision left me in despair because not only was I leaving behind three years of work, but I had also held this club in high esteem and felt hopeless due to the outcome. I committed to this club but the club didn’t commit to me.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated event. Another Loyola alumni and friend of mine, who is also a woman of color, felt the exclusion after finally agreeing to attend an event with me hosted by the aforementioned club. We attended an ecofeminism panel and immediately noticed the all-white panelists. Women of color are vital to ecofeminism and to not include them on a panel is insulting. What is even more disappointing is one of the panelists remarking, “I don’t know a lot about ecofeminism.”

My friend asked me why I wasn’t on this panel, having a decent background in ecofeminism and being an active student of color in the club. This event and the cold shoulder during a meeting reaffirmed her original hesitations about this club and she did not return. I don’t blame her. I felt I constantly made myself a resource for this club and it stung to realize I was overlooked for a less qualified white counterpart. Not every POC wants this kind of attention within their organization, but it’s important to ask colleagues if they’re willing to share their expertise. I raised these issues to the executive board, but it should not have been my responsibility to point out the lack of diversity and inclusivity. 

This experience translating to a career leaves less to be desired.

I wasn’t hired to be a diversity manager, yet I did some of the work that a diversity manager would. Engaging in this type of work wasn’t meaningless, but it gave me no meaningful experience in my actual environmental interests or career goals. 

The fact that this repeatedly happened was immensely frustrating for what I wanted my personal and professional growth from these positions to be. Sadly, I knew if I didn’t do anything to address these concerns then they might never be addressed at all.

As my undergraduate career comes to a close and my first post-grad job looms in my future, I fear that as a black woman, this hidden job will follow me into the next stage of my life.

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