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.