We all know the old adage of “use your words”. It has become synonymous for stop that inappropriate behavior and talk it out. But what if those words actually did harm although intended for good; would you still use them? Are we in the scientific community, or society as a whole, concerned enough? When we discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion we should take great care in recognizing different challenges, needs, and histories. To do otherwise would be egregious, a willful ignorance. It isolates disparities from a historical context resulting in an inaccurate understanding of the root causes of the disparity.
My placement with The Nature Conservancy allowed me to work closely on the Billion Oyster Project. I explored different methodologies of data collection and analysis while expanding my knowledge on marine ecosystems and bioremediation. The NYC program team at The Nature Conservancy was amazing to work with! I was made to feel like a true member of the team where my opinions and recommendations were valued and welcomed. Engaging in this atmosphere on a professional level not only emboldened me to speak freely but also revealed to me just how much words matter.
Early on, I participated in a science chat where several staff members gathered to discuss an article relevant to current ecological discourse. The article went to great lengths to state that the future of urban ecological research should become more interdisciplinary, and listed quite a few disciplines and theories that it interacts with: all of the social sciences, urban planning and design, plus the biological and environmental sciences. All of the mechanics but none of the nuances. Absent from the list and the article were history and, perhaps more important, a critical examination of society and culture intersecting race, law, and power—in other words: critical race theory. In a world where we seek to be inclusive, it is dishonest to leave out race. It is negligent to discuss ‘urban’ ecology without discussing race whereas, in any other context, urban would reference black people.
A colleague mentioned her experience of how words matter and how words can be a barrier to entry. She spoke about a parent not wanting to send her child out ‘in the field’ having spent so much time getting out of it. This opened my eyes to how the words that we often use to do this very necessary work may be a barrier to others participating. It also lends a more nuanced perspective as to why “black people do not participate in environmental work” as there have been a history of pejorative stereotypes regarding black people and the land in America because of their enslavement.
Nature has very different meanings for different people in America based on a brutal and problematic history regarding race. ‘Nature’ can be innocuous to some yet pernicious to others. With a beginning rooted in unequal freedoms and the unequal freedom of movement for persons based on the color of their skin, nature in America was at once a haven for those escaping enslavement yet also a dreaded place if caught. Woods and mature trees have been the site of many lynchings; are we sensitive to this history when we engage these communities regarding nature? Are we sensitive that ‘fieldwork’ has a very different meaning to the African American community? Or that ‘citizen science’ may exclude undocumented immigrants? Do we regard these “microagressions” that may trigger past hurt? Unfortunately, historicism never considers the ‘other’; after all, academia—the ivory tower—was never meant for others.
Words matter; not only its meaning but its use as well. Tackling these questions and ideas leads to understanding the underlying causes of outcome disparities and relationships within our society. And if we are tackling root causes then that also means tackling words and disciplines rooted in colonialism and the history of the pain embedded in them. There can be no environmental justice without social justice.
I’m a graduate student in the Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management program at The New School; my focus is on sustainable food systems as a driver of environmental conservation. I have a deep interest in bioremediation and agroecology, particularly in the Caribbean. I am currently collaborating with coffee farmers in the Blue Mountain region of Jamaica to start a cooperative in efforts of restoring ecosystems, mitigating climate change and building a green economy. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on LinkedIn.