Environmental Justice

“Now is a Good Time to Hold Up a Mirror.” Bay Area Conservation Groups Say They Want to Become More Diverse. What’s Stopping Them?

September 22, 2020
Photo by Inga Gezalian on Unsplash

Day to day, Kelli English works with National Parks Service staff and leaders to oversee services for the four National Parks historic sites in the East Bay. As Chief of Interpretation for the John Muir and Eugene O’Neill National Historic Sites, Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park, and Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, she spends much of her time at a desk dealing with budgets, staff management, and event planning. But sometimes, she gets a call to assist with public programming — a highlight, still, when she can step away from her supervisory role to engage with youth and visitors, and normalize the idea that Black people can be park rangers.

As an African American woman, English is a bit of rarity in the environmental world. In a field that continues to be majority white, she has longevity. This year she celebrates 19 years with the National Park Service. Over those 19 years, English has seen people come and go, and has seen the issue of diversity among park staff come and go. But she remains a rarity. With diversity, race and equity back in the forefront of the national conversation, it’s another chance for outdoors and conservation groups to consider why.

English says that if she were a betting person she would put money on the idea that there is a higher rate of attrition among people of color in environmental institutions. But there’s no data to confirm this claim. The last comprehensive research on racial diversity in the environmental field was six years ago, and it was national study, leaving even less of an idea about what staff and leadership diversity looks like in the Bay Area.

Nonetheless, the 2014 Green 2.0 Working Group report is what we have, and it shows a lack of ethnic minorities in environmental institutions on a national scale. Titled The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations, it reported findings across three organizational structures: conservation and preservation organizations, government environmental agencies, and grantmaking foundations. Of the 293 institutions that took part in the study, 84 percent lacked racial diversity on their boards and among staff.  

In 2018, the Annual Census of Employees in State Civil Service showed that staff diversity in the environmental and conservancy fields of state government average 61 percent white in California. The census included the Coastal Conservancy, Department of Conservation, Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many organizations to slow down operations. This pause offers an opportunity to reflect on the national conversation on race and equity and how environmental institutions can enact structural change in a field that continues to lack racial diversity. Experts who’ve studied the field say conservation leaders must address and cultivate change to the systemic structure that contributes to marginalization and exclusion of people of color. But what many have found is that it’s not just demographic surveys that are lacking – it’s any kind of information at all.

Words Matter

In 2019, a team at the Lawrence Hall of Science and the nonprofit outdoors group Youth Outside set out to try to survey environmental education organizations about how they were addressing — or not addressing — equity, inclusion, and diversity. The group interviewed 51 national conservation group leaders, from a pool that’s largely white, and 26 Bay Area-based environmental educators, all of whom identified as people of color. The differences in perception between the two illustrate many of the problems that still hurt the field: while many organizational leaders said diversity, equity and inclusion were a priority, the educators interviewed suggested that many organizations haven’t taken meaningful action to make it so.

“We recognize that many of the findings resonate with what we know about the field, and existing research says about it,” said Valeria Romero, research group deputy director and senior research lead at the Lawrence Hall of Science. “We were trying to amplify the experiences of professionals of color within outdoor science programs.”

Laura Rodriguez, a director of programs at Youth Outside, suggested that organizations eager to tackle the issue start at the most basic level by defining diversity, equity, and inclusion. There, too, the report showed organizational leaders and educators tended to have different understandings and assumptions.

“You have to tailor definitions to whatever work you’re doing. One organization might have a different focus on what equity means than another,” Rodriguez said. “There is no one definition or one understanding that is right, but we have to be very clear about why what we’re talking about is right for us.”

Many leaders saw diversity as a challenge of better communicating goals and values to the public, from which staff equity and inclusion would follow. Educators often saw it the other way around, suggesting that if leadership prioritized equity and inclusion in the workplace, then diversity would follow.

“There’s a strong desire to think about advancing equity and inclusion as strictly an external-facing policy — using the right words, having an equity statement,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t keep saying our intentions are good, I’m not a racist, therefore I’m not a part of the problem.”

“There’s a strong desire to think about advancing equity and inclusion as strictly an external-facing policy — using the right words, having an equity statement,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t keep saying our intentions are good, I’m not a racist, therefore I’m not a part of the problem.”

Romero said she supports organizations creating a paid staff position for someone to think critically about the organization and its systems. If it’s an individual, working group, or committee, the question of whose voices are at the table is critical.

Kelli English said the National Park Service has an office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion, which has helped improve conditions for staff. “It enables the agency to hone in on this issue,” English said. “It trained NPS staff around the country to facilitate dialogues about privilege and bias with our colleagues.” 

Workplace Environment & Retention

The Lawrence Hall/Youth Outside study also called attention to a disconnect between where leaders and staff of color see diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as most necessary. Leaders tended to prioritize attracting black and brown participants to external programs, not fostering an inclusive internal work environment. Staff reported persistent patterns of workplace racism that made the organization’s commitment to diverse students or customers ring hollow.

Staff members who were the only person of color or one of very few on staff said their experiences were often marginalized compared to the experiences of the dominant white culture. Survey participants also reported that when they did raise issues of micro-aggressions or racism, instead of engaging in difficult conversations, the response from colleagues was that the staff of color were “making people uncomfortable.”

The report highlights one focus group participant who said, “I feel like my job would have been ideal if I didn’t feel so marginalized in the space. I feel like I have two jobs: I feel like I have to go do my job and also exist in a really really white space… I’m the only black male on staff… I’ve been a professional for a long time, [and then] I started working in environmental education and it is the most racist space I’ve ever been in my life. Oh my gosh, it’s just like so much work to be done. Racist burnout is real.”

English served as a supervisory ranger at Yellowstone National Park and community outreach specialist for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. But her path to leadership was not without what she describes as “sad and tired stereotypes.” When she was an intern at Indiana Dunes National Park, the park’s director of education questioned, in disbelief, whether she had indeed graduated from Harvard. Later, a colleague at Yosemite National Park implied that she had not earned her supervisor position.

“I think the idea of a hostile work environment has extended far beyond gender discrimination issues. It is extended to employees of color feeling like they [are] in an unwelcoming work environment.”

“I think the idea of a hostile work environment has extended far beyond gender discrimination issues,” English said. “It is extended to employees of color feeling like they [are] in an unwelcoming work environment.”

Rodriguez said that the constant barrage of small racist assumptions, like the kind experienced by English, leaves staff of color deeply affected while white staff don’t notice what seem like small incidents that the staff could just brush aside. “Micro-aggressions are often veiled, but their impact on a person is not subtle,” she said.

To counter overt or veiled hostility, and build an inclusive work culture, organizational leaders need to build trust with their staff members of color and a system of feedback loops, Rodriguez said. “Leadership has the responsibility to think about what it means to create space for voices of individuals of color, especially when the organization may be predominantly white,” she said. “It takes courage to hear people give us feedback and not put up our defenses, and say, ‘This person is being problematic,’ instead of embracing the feedback.”


Dee Rosario, a member of the East Bay Regional Park District Board and 37-year veteran of the Park District, recently reminded fellow board members that in 1972, the union representing park staff and a coalition of women’s group sued the District to force it to hire more women and minorities. Rosario, who is Filipino-American, was part of the subsequent affirmative action policy.

As a student at the then Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), Rosario had applied for a student teaching credential program. Then he learned one requirement was attending classes day and night. “I couldn’t do that — I was head of household, taking care of my brother and two sisters,” Rosario said. “I freaked out, dropped out my last quarter, and got a summer job with the Park District.”

Rosario possessed rudimentary carpentry skills and experience gardening for his neighbors. Not a broad skillset for a park ranger. But, he added, “everybody that came into the Park District in the early ’70s, ’80s, was taught on the job. It’s almost impossible to do that now.”

While the Lawrence Hall / Youth Outside study highlighted the importance of improving existing workplace conditions for staff of color who are already in the field, there is still a recruitment challenge. In 2019 the Lawrence Hall team partnered with Crissy Field Center for a second study focused specifically on hiring. One of the study’s major takeaways was that organizations should recognize a wide range of experiences and identities that offer value to the workforce but may not align with traditional ideas of professionalism or academic qualifications.

“How do we think about expertise and skills?” Romero said. “How important is it for someone who comes into an organization with science expertise, versus someone who comes from and has experience engaging community?”

For many people who might be ideal park rangers or conservation staff, the expense of the traditional college route can be prohibitive. A college degree requirement leaves out people like Rosario, who has now spent nearly 50 years with the East Bay Regional Park District. “Education can count, but so can experience,” English said. “I think it’s a mistake to discount either. As a hiring official, I value both.”

Stagnation & Regional Data

Rosario joined the East Bay Regional Park District in the 1970s and stayed and grew into various roles over the years, and now as a board member wants to make sure the same opportunities continue. It’s often hard to establish diversity numbers at a local level, but a Workforce Diversity Committee of the East Bay Regional Park District, which publishes its statistics annually, suggests that the percentage of self-identified minorities among District staff was 34 percent in 2019. Only 11 percent of self-identified minorities received a promotion in 2019, compared to 32 percent in 2018, but promotion statistics reflect promotions to better-paying jobs, not into positions of leadership.

“I made sure I was on the Workforce Diversity Committee,” Rosario said of joining the East Bay Regional Park District Board. “I wanted to take on the fact that diversity in the Park District had decreased. Right now, there is one person of color in upper management.”

The District set a goal for 2020 to extend professional development opportunities to staff to increase understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The District’s mid-year budget includes proposed general fund appropriations to continue training.

Other Bay Area park districts and land managers have made similar efforts. The San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission announced in September 2018 that it would establish an internal Diversity and Inclusion Committee on Equity. The committee hosts workshops and reviews policies to work towards a more fair and inclusive workforce for SF Rec and Park staff.

“You can diversify your staff, but if you are not disrupting practices, policies, and systems that disproportionately push out people of color, you’re perpetuating the marginalization of people of color.”

In July, the Peninsula Open Space Trust, one of the wealthiest regional land trusts in the country, made a public commitment on its blog to continue to discover blind spots around diversity, equity, and inclusion. POST has been a majority-white organization since its founding in 1977. The Trust listed an organizational action plan that includes the help of outside experts.

Romero says such efforts are a critical first step, but that agencies and districts also need to really listen, and think about organizational change. “When we think about equity and inclusion within the field, we have to center staff of color and what their experiences are,” she said. “You can diversify your staff, but if you are not disrupting practices, policies, and systems that disproportionately push out people of color, you’re perpetuating the marginalization of people of color.”

As organizations reconsider the ways they recruit and retain staff, a new program at Merritt College offers training in the specific skills for students to get jobs in conservation and park fields outside the traditional academic pathway. “I was always told if I wanted to study biology and environmental science, and have a career, [I] had to become an academic, go all the way through to a Ph.D.,” said Brad Balukjian, the founder and director of Merritt College’s Natural History and Sustainability Program. “I saw an opportunity to create a program that could fill the Bay Area environmental sector’s job needs in many different ways. We should recast or rethink training and education to provide options for people to work in nature and for the environment.”

In 2019, Merritt’s program included a total of 194 students. Fifty-one percent identified as other than white, and 65 percent didn’t possess a bachelor’s degree. In January, the public community college in Oakland received state approval to award Certificates of Achievement for students who complete coursework in three tracks: Natural History and Resources, Conservation and Resource Management, and Urban Agroecology. The program has been closely involved with the East Bay Regional Park District, city of Oakland parks, and California State Parks, and includes representatives from each of those groups on an advisory board.

[Disclosure note: Bay Nature is on the advisory board for this program.]

Balukjian said he’s encouraged by partnerships with nonprofits and government agencies that see the program as a training ground for the next generation of employees. “Over the long term,” he says, “we hope to create a pool of people who will end up in leadership positions.”

But as both the lack of data and the Lawrence Hall / Youth Outside report show, the pipeline isn’t the only, or even the most significant problem.

“I think now is a good time for [organizations] to revisit their strategies and stated commitment, and think about the greater national social conversation we’re having about anti-racism,” Rodriguez said. “Structurally, everything has to be looked at: hiring and retention polices, feedback systems, professional development and training. Now is a good time to hold up a mirror.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the park where Kelli English served as supervisory ranger. It was Yellowstone National Park.

About the Author

Tamara Sherman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, whose features and profiles have been published in The Oakland Post and Berkeleyside. She occasionally does many things, but she is always planning a slow adventure in a beautiful landscape.

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