The Peer Mentor Mindset

Mary Jones

As part of my Environmental Fellows Program placement with the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of Michigan (also known as DDCSP) this summer, I was charged with designing and leading a peer-mentoring program among our undergraduate scholars.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the program, DDCSP is a two-year-long summer fellowship that connects undergraduate students to research opportunities (in year 1) and internship placements (in year 2) in the environmental field at the University of Michigan and in the greater Ann Arbor area. Like the Environmental Fellows Program, it focuses on students from under-represented backgrounds in the field, including people of color, first generation students, and low-income students from colleges and universities around the country. 

Based on feedback from past participants, the peer mentor program aimed to strengthen support systems for incoming scholars while providing additional leadership opportunities to returning students. Through the program, ultimately we hoped to cultivate a vibrant network of University of Michigan DDCSP scholars and alumni that participants can draw on for guidance and support for years to come as they begin to enter the professional sphere.

Logic Model for DDCSP Peer Mentor Program

Logic Model for DDCSP Peer Mentor Program

As someone that loves structure, I wanted to make sure that we laid out clear expectations for the responsibilities of our first cohort of five peer mentors. I found myself fixating on numbers, including how many community events the peer mentors would lead, how many one-on-one meetings they should have with their mentees, how many times they should meet together as a peer mentor group, etc. As I watched the program unfold over the summer, however, I was reminded that the magic of mentoring often happens outside of these forward-facing tasks, shining in the most everyday circumstances. Take the following story: 

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The scene:

It’s the evening of the first day of our all-scholar weekend retreat at the Battle Creek Outdoor Education Center. All 40 of our DDCSP scholars, including first-year and second-year students, are lining up in the mess hall after a long day of activities in the hot sun. The room holds a dozen circular tables and is filled with the smell of newly-warmed beef and veggie patties. The students are exhausted, staring longingly at the hot food as the line inches them forward towards the counter.

As people start to sit down, they follow paths of least resistance, choosing seats with familiar faces. Almost like clock-work, the weary group seamlessly divides along predictable lines, self-sorting into the social cliques that have been slowly emerging. First-year students sit with first-year students, second-years with second-years.

Softly, one of the peer mentors boldly breaks ranks and plops their tray down at a table otherwise full of new, first-year faces. They smile, and despite the tired mood permeating the dining hall that evening, they initiate a conversation.

End scene.

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DDCSP Scholars successfully complete low ropes team building activities at their summer retreat in Battle Creek.

DDCSP Scholars successfully complete low ropes team building activities at their summer retreat in Battle Creek.

On first inspection, this instance hardly seems noteworthy. Observing this moment at the retreat, however, reminded me of that it is in the simplest, most commonplace of actions that we show what it means to be a mentor. Often, these choices are small, so small, that they don’t even register on our radar screen as acts of leadership. But their impacts can be huge. In the case of this peer mentor, as the retreat continued more students began to follow their example and seek out new people to interact with both at mealtimes and beyond. By the end of the weekend, the staff noticed that the ridged boundary between first-year and second-year of students had started to erode, and the group began feeling like a more cohesive whole.

One person, of course, cannot take all the credit for this shift, but they did make small, intentional choices that facilitated this building of community between the scholars. Unlike their “official” responsibilities of being a peer-mentor that I had spent so much time developing, these actions occurred out of the spotlight, behind the scenes.

This realization has prompted me to reflect on the fantastic peer mentors I have had in my own life and who have supported me from behind the scenes this summer as I navigated my fellowship and re-entered the job market. When I consider my own peer mentors, I think about the office mates I had at the University of Michigan who always wanted to know how I was doing, readily volunteered to help run our larger events and field trips, and would bring donuts to share during particularly busy weeks. I think about two of my good friends from graduate school that made sure the three of us Skyped every month to check-in about life, even when we kept needing to reschedule the conversation. I think about my own cohort of 2017 Environmental Fellows, sharing highlights and low-points of their summers on our group text-chain, always followed by a deluge of messages of affirmation, support and love.

Like the moment in the mess hall, all of these acts were simple gestures, baked into the everyday life. They involved people being attentive to the needs of others within hectic circumstances where it is so easy to be lost in your own experience.  More importantly, they required awareness, humility, and a willingness to step outside of personal comfort zones and bare-bones expectations of what it means to be a colleague, supervisor, and friend. 

As I wrap up my fellowship and provide recommendations on the peer-mentor program for next year, my mind keeps returning to Battle Creek, watching this student pick up their tray with a veggie burger and chips, deciding on a table to join at dinner. I am struck by the fact that their actions in this moment were likely not prompted by the prescribed list of peer-mentor responsibilities that I had so carefully crafted and communicated. More likely, it came from an internal drive to support others and build relationships.

This summer has reaffirmed for me that mentorship is not just about being a designated advice giver or leader of group activities. Instead, it is all about having a mindset towards serving others that underpins whatever required activities are laid out by any peer-mentoring program. It is this mindset that gives us courage to be kind through small, everyday gestures that lay the foundation for authentic, lasting support systems and relationships. Like so many things in life, it really comes down attitude.

Mary Jones graduated with a M.S. in Natural Resources and Environment (Environmental Justice) from the University of Michigan in 2017. She recently accepted a job offer at the Toxics Action Center in New England as a Community Organizer

Applying the Academy

Janae Davis, 2016 Fellow

So I’ve been hearing from various sources within and beyond the halls of the higher education that the academy is losing relevance in the applied arena. Some have suggested that there is often a disconnect between what decision makers want and what academics can offer. I’ve also heard from academics and professionals alike that this misalignment of interest combined with many academics’ lack of engagement with issues on the ground have reinforced the perception of the academy as an “ivory tower”, an elitist institution that is detached from and out of touch with the real world. As a result, the contribution of academics is often seen as irrelevant and sometimes even unwelcome in some spaces of the applied arena.   

While I’m not planning to join the academy upon graduation, it is undoubtedly my background at this point and the dominant perspective I brought to my fellowship at the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center (NWF-GLRC) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. During my time there, I had the opportunity to learn about some of the ways my studies can make a difference in conservation advocacy.  One story in particular stands out to me and I’d like to share it with you.

As a political ecologist, I study the intersections of society, the environment and forms of sociopolitical power that impact both humans and nonhumans. A major topic in political ecology is the ongoing power dynamics inherent in environmentalism – power dynamics that are rooted in historical struggles tied to race, class, gender and a variety of other social categories.  As I began my fellowship, I wondered how this knowledge could inform my work at the NWF-GLRC. As it happened, my fellowship coincided with a time when NWF-GLRC staffers were beginning to address the lack with racial diversity in their staff and networks. NWF is just one of numerous environmental organizations that have been criticized over last twenty years for its neglect to engage people of color.  Recent events in the US showing that racism permeates our social institutions (ex. police shootings, voting rights discrimination, environmental injustices) have dramatically increased attention to the issue. Dorceta Taylor’s 2014 groundbreaking report exposing the meager progress environmental organizations have made toward reflecting the racial diversity of US in their staffs served to highlight the role of the environmental movement in perpetuating systematic racial exclusion. 

At NWF-GLRC, staffers were just beginning to grapple with issues of race and white privilege in a concerted way.  It was a somewhat emotional time because some staffers were passionate about dismantling long-held biases within the organization’s work while others felt uncomfortable with the ways that engaging diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) might challenge some of the most fundamental premises that guide conservation advocacy.  For an organization like NWF that focuses on protecting wildlife, social problems and the environmental needs of humans (ex. clean drinking water) are not a priority.  The challenge for environmental organizations pursuing DEI is for them understand that their whiteness is a social problem that directly affects conservation outcomes.

As I began talking to staffers, I realized that most of them knew little about the racial and class biases that shaped the early environmental movement and how they continue to limit the participation of racial minorities today. During a meeting with my supervisor, I offered to give staff a presentation on the topic.  He thought it was great idea and immediately arranged for me to present at the next staff meeting.  During my presentation, I explained how the modern day environmental movement’s racial and class homogeny can be traced back to the movement’s inception. I also discussed why engaging DEI was critical to the NWF-GRC’s strategic vision and future viability.  At the end of my presentation, staff members commented on how it gave them some context for the changes they were being asked to make. One staff member put it succinctly.  He stated, “Everyone is telling us that we need to do this work but no one has ever told us why we should do it, until now”. 

At that moment, I realized the value that an academic perspective could lend to the applied field.  Until then, I also had my doubts about academia’s relevance to professional organizations like NWF.  Like many of my colleagues, I too have been disillusioned by many academics’ disengagement with the world.  However, my experiences this summer have shown me that this is just one way of pursuing a career. I have decided to straddle the fence. In this time of rampant ecological degradation, climate change and social injustice, academics and those working in the applied fields cannot afford to be segregated. Current problems require thinkers and doers from all fields and backgrounds to work together.  Collaborators must approach this work with humbleness, openness, curiosity, patience and an expectation to learn about “the other” and their perspective.  The beauty of all of this is that I get to return to my academic life with the knowledge and experiences I gained this summer and help scholars consider the view from the ground. There so much work to be done.  Let’s find a way to actually do it.

I’m a PhD student in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts studying equity and inclusion issues in international conservation.  Before working with the National Wildlife Federation, I collaborated with the National Park Service and American Rivers. I would describe myself an activist, outdoor enthusiast and spiritually-minded woman who loves to dance. If you have any questions, feel free contact me at jadavis@clarku.edu or find me on LinkedIn.

Breaking down Barriers and Building Bridges: A community approach to research

Teona Williams, 2016 Fellow

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If it is inaccessible to the poor, it is neither radical nor revolutionary. Those are the words that proudly cover my Facebook timeline photo. I start with this because I have always seen myself as a “woke” academic. For those of you unaware of that terminology, “woke” refers to a person who is aware of inequalities and inequities that happen all the time in the world, and works to dismantle them. Being a “woke” academic allowed me to engage in my first passion, historical research, while still feeling directly engaged in my own community of S.E Washington D.C. In essence, I could spend all day in the National Archives, and all night protesting gentrification in my neighborhood. Being a “woke” academic also allowed me to avoid the negative connotations rightly placed on academic research. In Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai SmithI learned how research as currently practiced today has legacies of exploitation among marginalized groups. As a proud African American woman from one of those low income communities that to some would be a perfect sociological experiment, I could avoid all the pitfalls associated with academic research because I was aware of those issues. 

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Enter my work with the Environmental Fellows Program. I was placed in Flint, Michigan during the aftermath of the turbulent water crisis, which the city will be dealing with for decades to come. I was an outsider in every sense of the word. I was not from Flint or Michigan. I attend an elitist institution that many Flint residents will not have the opportunity to attend, a lesson I learned painfully at one of the community events I attended. In my mind this was all okay because: I had an environmental justice background; I was “woke”; I was from a similar community. These elements of my identity shielded me from a truth I denied in myself for years: that I was trained as a “formal” academic. I was cultivated in the Ivory Tower. I am ashamed to admit this out loud, but I used jargon.

 It wasn’t until I was held accountable to a community that I really had to start wrestling with my own privilege. In academia our work is judged by institutions, it rarely is judged by the people we research. We produce to get into major publications and conferences. While the issues we highlight are important for the world to see, rarely do we have to return to that community to start working on solutions. In this community I was out of my element. I was sitting in a meeting with two Flint residents presenting my proposal, spewing out my jargon, ready to receive a standing ovation for how articulate I sounded or compliments on my well thought out proposal. Instead I received question after question, challenge after challenge. I was pushed to think in new ways. I knew whatever I produced could not be for my own gain, it had to be for the neighborhoods who would use it.

Rarely, as academics, do we have to go back to that community we spent so much time “working with” to help move beyond having a dialogue about the issues and working to find solutions.

 This project is for the community based organization that went out of their way to help me connect to residents. It is for the woman who told my friend she wanted to take her “babies” to the park, but she didn’t feel safe. It is for the grandma who told me she tries to organize trips to take her grandkids up north to swim because the water in Flint is dirty. It is for the single mother who spent 25 minutes diligently completing my survey, because she was going back to school for urban planning, and thought park development is so crucial to a neighborhood.

 My research was not my research; I was merely a vessel who had been “trained” to do it. The data and the project belongs to the neighborhoods. It was a very humbling and introspective moment for me. I realized very quickly how ingrained I was in the Ivory Tower, and how insecure I feel about my own place as an academic. I realized that I rely on jargon and theories, because I want to present myself as a “credible” researcher. I don’t want people to hear the “poverty” in my own voice. During my undergraduate years, I was immediately forced to do more than code switch, I had to assimilate so people would look at me and not see an affirmative action baby.

 Having the privilege to be accountable to a community helped me realize that I never had anything to be ashamed of. My upbringing is my strength. Doing research with a community versus for a community is my passion, and jargon is left best for those journals no one ever reads. I want the world to read and understand my work, because it is not my research, it is for my community, my family, my people.

 This blog post is dedicated to the 100 or so residents that my team and I had the honor to speak with, and for the community organizations that took the time to nurture me this summer.

Teona Williams is a second-year Master's degree student at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Her field of study is Environmental Justice, where she researches the nexus of race, class, gender, and nature. Her master thesis focuses on African American university students' attitudes towards outdoor recreation. After graduation, she plans to pursue a PhD in environmental history in which she hopes to focus on race and protected areas. Before moving to Michigan, Teona spent two and half years working at The Pew Charitable Trusts as a Communications Assistant in their international environment program. She is also a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship alum. As a Watson Fellow, she received funding to conduct research in India, South Africa, and the Caribbean for a year.

Public Health Leadership Still Needed in Climate Planning

Mayra Cruz, MPH

Before starting my fellowship at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), I read Mailman School of Public Health’s oath out loud with my 400 fellow graduates. Health is a human right...I will work to ensure that people have the chance to live full and productive lives, free from avoidable disease, injury, and disability and supported in their pursuit of physical, mental, and social well-being. I promised to uphold these words throughout my career and for many years to come.

To me, climate change is the biggest threat we will face as a human race. People will not be able to live full and productive lives if they must contend with polluted air, warmer and longer lasting heat waves, and intensifying storms. The public cannot be supported in their pursuit of physical, mental, and social well-being if they must decide whether or not to evacuate their homes due to rising waters or cannot seek refuge from scorching heat for their children due to high electricity costs. If we do not address the health impacts of climate change and connect that a healthy planet means healthy people, we are failing people everywhere. Without fighting climate change, public health cannot and will not improve.

I thought about this constantly this summer as I worked to create a Net Zero Guidebook that will be utilized by the 101 cities and towns in the MAPC region who aim to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in a holistic manner. I read through countless toolkits, handbooks, and climate action plans to garner best practices to include in my work. While doing my research I noticed that public health was not a priority in relation to climate action planning. I looked at many committees and taskforces that are in charge of planning and without fail did not see someone who was in the health care realm represented. I grew more frustrated as I tried to find plans that addressed the need to improve public health through climate change action, but the plans generally did not explicitly enumerate public health as an outcome or area of improvement. This needs to change. These are missed opportunities to ensure that actions not only reduce emissions, but improve the health of everyone including those most unfairly impacted by climate change.

It is difficult to not connect the need for public health amidst climate action planning while watching the catastrophic effect of Hurricane Harvey on Texas and Louisiana. The majority of my family lives in Houston and has witnessed the devastation brought on by a 1-in-1000 year storm. Sprawling urban development, climate change, and poor city planning all contributed to the destruction of Harvey. Public health leaders will be needed in the recovery process for years to come and can help affected areas rebuild better and smarter. As a field public health identifies vulnerable populations, analyzes the health impacts of initiatives, and works across fields to ensure positive changes to people’s lives. We are a key and crucial player in the fight against climate change. We cannot be forgotten and we must ensure we are included in important conversations taking place all over the country discussing how we aim to fight climate change.

We as public health practitioners are taught that health is a human right for everyone no matter what their sex, race, resident status, or socioeconomic status may be. It is time to also recognize that a healthy planet is a human right as well.

Mayra Cruz is a recent Master of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences graduate with a Certificate in Climate and Health. She is an advocate for public health and environmental justice within climate change action. She is living in New York City currently, but originally from Houston, TX. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email her at mcruz.ehs@gmail.com.