In the United States of America, societal structures of oppression frame and underpin nearly every field and industry, including environmental education. Despite growing attention on efforts to diversify the environmental education workforce in the United States, environmental fields have had minimal success attracting and retaining professionals of color. This study sought to explore how Environmental Educators of Color experience and are impacted by workplace culture, practices, and policies. Through focus groups, Environmental Educators of Color (n = 26) shared their perspectives related to equity and inclusion in environmental education work environments. This study draws on critical race theory (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017; Tate, 1997) as an analytical framework to center racial equity in our understanding of the experiences and perspectives of Environmental Educators of Color. Analysis of data included thematic emergent analysis (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016) to identify themes in focus group transcripts. Findings indicate that the workplace practices are frequently and unintentionally reinforcing the status quo of systemic racism and marginalization that Environmental Educators of Color experience.
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In the United States of America, the field of environmental education is made up of nearly-all-White practitioners, leaders, researchers, and funders and many are concerned by the inability of organizations within the field to attract and retain professionals of color (that is, people who self-identify as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color—BIPOC) (Johnson, 2019; Romero et al., 2019; Sherman, 2020). Snow and Romero (2014) found that 94% of residential outdoor science program leaders were White. For comparison, current estimates of the US population identify people of color as 40% of the population, and as 50% of youth under the age of 16 (United States Census Bureau, 2020). Despite increasing racial diversity in the United States, representation of people of color in environmental organizations is not keeping up, including in the area of environmental education (EE).
In this context, many individuals in the EE field in the USA are currently going through a period of reflection and reexamination in an attempt to overcome decades of practices that have resulted in a nearly homogenous White workforce (Johnson, 2019; Taylor, 2014). There is increasing recognition of the need to address history, culture, politics, and power in EE, both in terms of educational content (Cole, 2007) and among practices as a profession (Johnson, 2019). For example, a 2016 survey of EE professionals identified a need among respondents to “better reach underserved audiences and successfully address barriers to access of all sorts” (Children & Nature Network, 2016, p. 4). There is a pressing need to improve the understanding and expertise within EE organizations regarding a wide range of equity-related issues.
Scholars and activists have advocated for the transformation of environmental education through a lens of equity and inclusion, requiring changes at the systems-level, with a close examination of and shift in policies and practices that guide the field and organizations within it (McGhee, et al., 2018; Romero, et al., 2019; Rowland et al., 2020; Taylor, 2014, 2018). To be successful, EE organizations must address pervasive issues of inequity and exclusion in the work environment, which we define as the shared perspectives, underlying assumptions, values, norms, and practices within an organization that shape satisfaction and sense of group membership, relationships, and work processes (ERC, 2019; Heathfield, 2020; Kaplan & Owings, 2013; Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2011). In this way, the field-at-large and organizations can critically understand how inequity and exclusion occur in both pre-existing workplace practices and in the equity, inclusion, and diversity initiatives that are meant to remedy them through organizational and social change.
Within the USA, scholars hold that race is embedded within the fabric of the nation—shaped by the historical, social, cultural, and political context as a means towards grouping people together based on racial superiority or inferiority (Haney-Lopez, 1994; Spring, 2016). Subsequently, the conceptualization of race mediates individuals’ lived experiences and has contributed to the subjugation and oppression of groups of people throughout US history, namely BIPOC communities (Spring, 2016; Tatum, 2007). Okun (2021) has further highlighted how white supremacy shapes work culture. As Okun states, “White supremacy culture is the widespread ideology baked into the beliefs, values, norms, and standards of our groups (many if not most of them), our communities, our towns, our states, our nation, teaching us both overtly and covertly that whiteness holds value, whiteness is value.” (para. 13). Okun (2021) has proposed several characteristics of White supremacy culture that include a sense of urgency, paternalism, either/or binary, quantity over quality, and worship of the written word. In this regard, White supremacy is a foundational structure in the USA that has greatly informed and shaped constructs of race and, subsequently, the lived experiences of BIPOC communities (Bell, 1993), and therefore, it is imperative to examine work environments through a lens of racial equity.
Drawing on the framework of critical race theory (Tate, 1997), this study illuminates the experiences of Environmental Educators of Color (i.e., environmental educators who self-identify as BIPOC) within the work environment. Specifically, we aimed to understand how Environmental Educators of Color experience and perceive organizational work environment practices, in general, and specifically in relation to equity, inclusion, and diversity. In examining structures of race and racism, we also see the varying ways in which structural systems shape racialized identities and how race intersects with other social identities, a concept identified as “intersectionality” (Crenshaw, 1991; Tatum, 2007). In other words, intersectionality makes clear that multiple forms of discrimination—such as racism, sexism, and classism—undergird structures, political systems, and (in)visible representations of communities, and directly impact the lived experiences of marginalized individuals or groups in complex and cumulative ways (Crenshaw, 1991; Yosso et al., 2004). In the context of race and the environment, Carolyn Finney urges environmental practitioners to engage race and embrace a narrative of complex history: “When Americans deny the possibility of how this history has influenced our experiences, or when anyone frames the ‘race’ discussion narrowly, all of us lose the opportunity to move forward” (Finney, 2014, p. 114). In this paper, while we center race, we also recognize that advancing racial equity requires us to look at other forms of inequity and injustice.
In using critical race theory, we aim to elevate the voices and experiences of Environmental Educators of Color, thereby creating an opportunity for a counterstory—a narrative that challenges and disrupts the status quo (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017). Utilizing a case study design (Yin, 2011) and culturally responsive evaluation practices (Hood et al., 2015) enabled the research team to center BIPOC voices while minimizing the risk of causing further harm or re-traumatizing participants.
The findings of this study highlight the many ways that Environmental Educators of Color continue to experience marginalization, exclusion, and oppression within EE organizations. Although many EE organizations have made efforts to prioritize equity, inclusion, and diversity, many initiatives continue to be White-led and fail to center racial justice. These findings point to how organizations continue to enact practices within the work environment that lead to the frequent and unintentional reinforcement of the status quo of systemic racism and marginalization that Environmental Educators of Color experience. In this paper, we highlight these counterstories and conclude with recommendations to support EE organization leaders and White staff members in advancing racial equity and inclusion. While the particular historical, social, and cultural context of race in the USA is unique, race and racism are globally relevant. This study suggests that White supremacy and pervasive structures of racial oppression must be acknowledged, named, and dismantled in order for outdoor and environmental education organizations in the USA and globally can move towards racial equality and justice.
The authors of this paper are members of a partnership of researchers, practitioners, and organizational leaders who share a commitment to amplifying the lived experiences and voices of communities of color in environmental education. Each partner brings expertise in working towards the mitigation of the systemic marginalization and exclusion of communities of color in the environmental education field. In addition, the authors of this paper bring a diversity of perspectives based on our respective social identities and positionality. Three of the authors identify as Latina women; one identifies as a Black woman; three of the authors identify as White, two of whom also identify as women. All of the authors hold citizenship in the USA. Four of the authors work within an academic tier-one research university, and three of the authors work in a non-profit organization. The partners came together to discuss the intersections of our work and to identify strategies and tools for building organizational capacity to address issues of inequity and exclusion. At the core of this partnership lies a belief that race must be at the center of equity and inclusion work, particularly within the US context. An outcome of this collaboration was the research study described herein, which subsequently informed the development of a professional learning model for organizational leaders and professionals of color as well as a suite of briefs that highlight strategies to mitigate systemic inequities in environmental education.
The need for racial equity in EE
The conservation and environmental movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that gave rise to the field of EE in the USA, arose from the desires of wealthy White men to preserve the majesty of wild places for their recreation, hunting, and enjoyment, often at the expense of Indigenous and Black people who were removed to allow for the establishment of parks (Mock, 2017; Tuck et al., 2014). The national parks in the USA have been termed “The Great White Outdoors” (Ebbs & Dwyer, 2020) due to an overwhelmingly White workforce and visitors, a result of the dominant White value system which failed to adequately consider how structural racism is embedded within the attitudes, values, agendas, media representations, and hiring practices of the parks, despite programs and strategies being implemented to increase diversity and reach communities of color. Exclusionary practices of national parks have resulted in a negative, unwelcoming space for many people of color who feel they are “outsiders'' in the parks because their historic and lived experiences have been excluded (Finney, 2014).
One explanation for the lack of focus on racial equity in EE is that it continues to emanate predominantly from and identify with the values of White, male, middle-class culture (Lewis & James, 1995; Mclean, 2013). Homogenous cultural norms in the field of EE obscure the sociocultural histories of communities of color, rendering their experiences invisible and serving as a barrier to building meaningful relationships with those communities (Finney, 2014; Warren, 2016). For example, the highly-influential notion of nature deficit disorder (Louv, 2005) advocates for children to have a relationship with nature more resembling the bygone days of previous generations, espousing a way of being in nature harkening back to a White, middle-class upbringing of a heterosexual boy in the 1940s (e.g., tree houses, forts, fishing, exploring). In doing so, Louv ignores a long history of BIPOC connection with the outdoors as well as how BIPOC communities in the USA have been denied physical and social access to such experiences (Dickinson, 2013). Conceptions such as nature deficit disorder privilege the perspective of White heteronormative patriarchal values and assumptions and continue to dominate practices and priorities in the field, thereby limiting who engages with, or even relates to, the goals of mainstream EE (Nxumalo & Cedillo, 2017). By prescribing how people should feel, encounter, and be affected by nature, the dominant White narrative limits the capacity of the EE field to consider more inclusive imaginings of diverse and culturally-relevant learning experiences. As a result, mainstream EE has largely failed to meet the needs of BIPOC communities by erasing their historic and lived experiences (Sachatello-Sawyer & Fenyvesi, 2004) and upholding spaces of White privilege that contribute to mistrust of environmental organizations among communities of color (Finney, 2014).
Racial and cultural diversity issues in EE have been a concern for decades (Agyeman, 2003; Lewis & James, 1995; Marouli, 2002; Stapleton, 2020; Taylor, 1996). More recently, the conversation around these issues has shifted to include a critical reflection on Whiteness in EE (Mclean, 2013); Indigenous, postcolonial, and decolonizing perspectives on place (Root, 2010; Tuck et al., 2014); critical consciousness of place (Miller, 2018); and positionality (Stapleton, 2020). In response to this critical reflection, issues of equity, inclusion, and diversity—what has become known as DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion)—have emerged over the past few decades as some of the most pressing challenges among environmental and EE organizations (Johnson, 2019; Stapleton, 2020). The continued disproportionate underrepresentation of people of color at environmental education organizations surfaces the need for critical conversations about racial and cultural diversity among those responsible for setting the agenda for outdoor and environmental education (Johnson, 2019; Lewis & James, 1995). And yet, as illustrated by numerous studies, the EE field at large continues to fail in recruiting, hiring, and retaining people of color into its workforce (Johnson, 2019; Mclean, 2013; Miller, 2018; Stapleton, 2020) despite studies affirming that undergraduate and graduate students of color feel conservation is important, are interested in the environment, and have similar preparation for environmental-related jobs as White students (Taylor, 2018; Weintraub et al., 2011). Systemic structures and practices discourage qualified BIPOC from applying for jobs due to the actual and/or perceived lack of equity, inclusion, and cultural relevance among organizations, and the lack of mentors, role models, and colleagues of color in the field at-large (Advisory Committee for Academic Diversity, 2017; Johnson & Okoro, 2016; Weintraub et al., 2011).
As a result, there seems to be a greater awareness of the need to create both culturally inclusive learning and work environments that ensure the representation of diverse viewpoints. More just and equitable environmental learning experiences require that EE practitioners and curriculum designers invite, recognize, value, and attend to the diverse lived experiences and perspectives of learners from all backgrounds, particularly of learners who have been marginalized and excluded in these spaces. Miller (2018) and Mclean (2013) furthered this argument, stating that without critical analysis of race, White educators privilege their ways of knowing and exclude students of color from meaningful participation, reproducing and extending the structures of a predominantly White EE workforce. It is therefore not surprising that students often experience more success in learning when their educators have experiences and backgrounds that match their own (Gershenson et al., 2016). It follows that Environmental Educators of Color with a similar socio-cultural lens as their BIPOC students are better able to deliver culturally relevant instruction and to serve as role models, signaling opportunities for future careers in EE for those students. Therefore, a racially diverse workforce, at every level of an organization, is critical for interrupting a self-perpetuating system and for creating culturally relevant programming that reflects the needs, values, interests, and priorities of communities of color (Johnson, 2019).
To achieve this, there is a critical need for staff and leadership within those organizations to critically analyze the structures and practices within the workplace that perpetuate a predominantly White EE workforce. Evidence in the field of education suggests that a positive, supportive working environment increases connection, the sense of group membership, and satisfaction that has been shown to improve educator retention and protect against burnout (Badawy, 2015; Badri et al., 2013; Choi et al., 2017). Skaalvik and Skaalvik (2011) found that teachers who have a higher sense of belonging are less likely to feel emotionally exhausted and more likely to have higher levels of job satisfaction than teachers with a lower sense of belonging, and are less likely to leave the field.
Recent initiatives studying practices in EE and related fields such as museum education have identified practices that make systemic improvements related to equity and inclusion, such as ensuring reflection on the organization’s vision, mission, and core commitments; creating systems of shared leadership (Garibay & Migus, 2014); developing shared language and communication skills (Jennings & Jones-Rizzi, 2017); having greater transparency, and career development and advancement opportunities (Advisory Committee for Academic Diversity, 2017); establishing long-term goals and metrics around equity, diversity, and inclusion (Johnson, 2019); and forming representative leadership teams, boards, and staff (Rowland-Shea et al., 2020). Yet, limited research has examined the experiences of Environmental Educators of Color within the work environment. The study presented in this paper focuses on outdoor science education, a subfield of EE with connections to place-based education (Greenwood, 2013; Wattchow & Brown, 2011) and builds upon previous investigations of people of color in EE (James & McAvoy, 1992; Miller, 2018; Stapleton, 2020) and environmental organizations in general (Advisory Committee for Academic Diversity, 2017; Taylor, 2014, 2018). We focus on perspectives that are critical to understanding the current context of environmental education—those of Environmental Educators of Color.
In this paper, we use critical race theory (CRT) (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017; Tate, 1997) to gain a deeper understanding of the experiences and perspectives of Environmental Educators of Color. CRT provides a framework to examine, critique, and expand how EE organizations address issues of equity and inclusion in the work environment. CRT first emerged from the legal field in response to the embedded structures, policies, and laws that perpetuate racism and oppression of people of color in the USA (Ladson-Billings, 1998; Tate, 1997). Within education and social science research, systems, structures, epistemologies, and methodological approaches reflect White, Eurocentric narratives and values that privilege dominant ideologies (Perez Huber, 2009) and continue to marginalize, oppress and exclude people of color (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017; Ladson-Billings, 1998). CRT provides a framework and tool that engages in the “deconstruction of oppressive structures and discourses, reconstruction of human agency, and construction of equitable and socially just relations of power” (Ladson-Billings, 1998, p. 9). Through methodologies like testimonies, counterstorytelling, and participatory research, CRT re-centers narratives to amplify the voices and lived experiences of people of color to disrupt the status quo (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017; Delgado Bernal, 2002). Drawing this together, CRT holds five key tenets that aim to guide scholarly research, as summarized by Delgado and Stefancic (2017, pp. 7–11):
Racism is endemic:
CRT holds that racism is normal in that it is embedded within institutional systems and structures. That is, “because it is so enmeshed in the social order, it appears both normal and natural to people in this culture” (Ladson-Billings, 1998, p. 11).
Race is socially constructed:
CRT recognizes that race is socially constructed and is not biological. Race is a product of social thought and relations that are context-based.
CRT holds that because racism is endemic, systems of structures are grounded in White supremacy and therefore benefit the dominant (White) group. The implications for this are that social and policy change can only occur if the interests of both groups converge; that is, the changes benefit White people.
CRT recognizes that there is not one lived experience for people of color and that racial identity is an ever-developing process. It also recognizes the role of intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991) in identity formation—that individuals hold multiple social identities that intersect and contribute to varied lived experiences and forms of oppression.
CRT recognizes the critical perspectives, narratives, and voices of people of color and the need to elevate these stories to disrupt dominant ideologies and narratives.
Within CRT, scholars aim to understand intersecting structures of power and oppression that shape the lived experiences of individuals and communities that hold marginalized identities, such as “race, sex, class, national orientation, and sexual orientation” (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017, p. 58), what Crenshaw (1991) has coined as “intersectionality.” When we recognize the importance of intersectionality, we begin to gain a more nuanced understanding of the varying experiences of racialized identities.
In this study, we draw on the tenets of CRT in our methodological and analytic decisions and interpretations because the field of EE was founded on the institutional structures of White supremacy and has manifested in ways that continue to uphold White ideologies and practices. To understand the workplace practices of EE organizations, particularly surrounding equity and inclusion work, it is imperative to center race and investigate the ways that race has shaped the structures, systems, and practices within the field and organizations. The counterstories told by Environmental Educators of Color about how EE organizations address issues of equity and inclusion provide opportunities for critique and transformation (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016). The research explores various perspectives about “whose interests are being served by the way the educational system [within EE] is organized, who has access to particular programs, who has the power to make changes and what outcomes are produced by the way in which education is structured?” (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016, p. 61). The remainder of this paper examines the role of workplace culture in the lived experiences of Environmental Educators of Color.
Study design and methods
Our research uses a case study approach (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2017) to understand the experiences and perspectives of Environmental Educators of Color inclusive of the ways EE organizations address equity, inclusion, and/or diversity. Case studies provide an in-depth description and analysis of a particular aspect of an organization to understand what is happening and why (Yin, 2011). A case study goes beyond description and helps explain real-life experiences that are too complex for survey research alone to capture. Case studies create tacit knowledge, and as more are contributed, they can be weaved into a theory over time (Yin, 2011). Internal Review Board approval was obtained through the academic institution.
This study draws upon data collected from three 90-min focus group interviews with Environmental Educators of Color. Each focus group had 8–10 unique participants. The focus groups aimed to leverage educators’ expertise, based on their experiences and perspectives, about the articulation and enactment of equity, inclusion, and diversity in organizational work environments. Focus groups were carefully designed to engage participants in authentic dialogue. We began with building community agreements to facilitate the co-creation of a “brave space” (Arao & Clemens, 2013)—from the concept of “courageous conversations about race”—which encourages participants to take risks in dialogues focused on race and racism (Singleton & Hays, 2008, Singleton & Linton, 2006; Sparks, 2002 as cited in Arao & Clemens, 2013, p. 141). Establishing a brave space allowed participants to develop trust with one another and the facilitator, and to contribute their expertise, perspectives, and lived experiences with each other.
We then spent time creating a common language through which participants could reflect and share their thoughts on the words “equity,” “inclusion,” and “diversity.” These initial conversations were critical to creating a space in which participants could honor, value, and hold each other’s perspectives. The remainder of each focus group was guided by three overarching questions:
In regards to equity, inclusion, and diversity, what challenges do you think exist in environmental education?
Thinking about these challenges, based on your experiences, what have you seen organizations do to address these challenges?
Based on what we have discussed, what types of strategies would further help organizations to address these challenges?
As each question was presented, participants spent 3–5 min writing reflections on post-it notes. Participants then spent 15–20 min offering their experiences and perspectives. The facilitator placed post-it notes on a board for community viewing and organized similarly themed perspectives together. The facilitator occasionally asked questions to gain clarity or to encourage participants to build on or add new perspectives. In this way, the facilitator served as a guide to help organize participants’ ideas to support participants to connect ideas, identify similarities, and build on critical points (i.e., perspectives that may not be shared among many and yet create a counterpoint to dominant narratives).
Focus groups were audio-recorded and transcribed. The data were analyzed using a thematic analysis approach (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016). The analysis aimed to identify patterns across participants as well as critical points. A summary of key insights and learnings was included in a preliminary report and presentation that was then presented to participants for additional input and feedback to ensure research findings resonated with the participants’ contributions, experiences, and perspectives.
Case study bounds
This study is situated within outdoor science education, a subfield of EE with connections to place-based education (Greenwood, 2013). For our purposes, we define outdoor science education as programs that provide outdoor-based science learning experiences. This can include residential, overnight programs, community-based programs, and nature centers. In this way, we targeted recruitment to focus on outdoor science programs and provided initial framing in the focus groups to support participants’ reflections on their experiences in outdoor science programs. This particular case study focuses on educators who self-identify as a BIPOC and had work experience in outdoor science education in an urban region in California.
Within the scope of this study, we center BIPOC perspectives by focusing on Environmental Educators of Color. This study used a purposeful sampling approach to recruit Environmental Educators of Color. Invitations to participate were sent through professional networks with which the authors were previously connected through prior work. Networks were asked to forward the invitation to their respective communities, including education staff in EE organizations. Criteria for selection included individuals who held an educator role in EE, individuals who self-identified as BIPOC and were able to participate in person. While living in the San Francisco Bay Area was not an explicit inclusion criterion, recruitment efforts were targeted in this area, and therefore all participants worked and/or lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition, focus groups were facilitated in English, therefore participants were proficient in speaking English. Participants were invited to complete a questionnaire that included a series of open-ended questions to learn about their lived and professional experiences. This questionnaire was originally designed to serve as an application to inform participant selection. However, after receiving these questionnaires, the research team decided to hold space for everyone who expressed interest. Twenty-six educators expressed interest in participating and all were included in the sample. Participants’ questionnaires were coded using an emergent thematic analysis approach to describe the sample of participants.
Coding of responses indicated that all educators were working in an EE organization at the time of participation, representing 17 unique organizations. Participants’ professional experiences and responsibilities represented three types of primary roles within an organization (though some held multiple roles): educators facilitating direct experiences with youth (n = 12); coordinators coordinating education programs (n = 9); and managers holding additional administrative and management responsibilities (n = 5). All participants had some level of active teaching/instruction as part of their role. Educators represented a wide range of years of experience in the field: 1–2 years (n = 9), 3–6 years (n = 11), and 7–15 years (n = 6). Participants shared additional perspectives, based on their lived experiences, that they felt would contribute to the conversation. While we did not systematically collect participants’ demographics (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender), their descriptions illustrated the rich experiences and perspectives they held that largely stemmed from their own lived experiences and identities. For instance, four participants self-identified as women of color; two participants identified as bi/multi-racial; two participants identified as queer; two participants identified as immigrants. In addition, participants shared how the location of their upbringing and/or where they resided at the time of the focus group was also an important aspect of their identity: four participants were San Francisco Bay Area natives; one participant shared that they lived in multiple countries in the Americas, and one participant shared they were a “country girl turned city slicker.” In this way, we see the intersection of the lived experiences and identities that have shaped the way they have experienced and made meaning of the world around them.
It is important to note that the sample included in this study was limited to San Francisco Bay Area, California environmental educators identifying as BIPOC, from a selection of organizations that may or may not be representative of the broader EE field. Therefore, we cannot generalize study findings beyond the sample of this project. By design, this research presents a counterstory and amplifies the experiences and perspectives of Environmental Educators of Color.
“Equity,” “inclusion,” “diversity,” and “work environment” are terms interpreted in vastly different ways because they are often either undefined or used with multiple meanings. With regards to equity, in particular, Philip and Azevedo (2017) noted that “the very conception of equity in the [science] field is a moving target, shifting widely in meaning across contexts and research perspectives—a fact that points both to conceptual and theoretical imprecisions and the politically contested nature of the term” (p. 526). For clarity, we developed definitions of these terms (see Table 1) through discussion and consensus building with our partners to guide the study. The definitions were used to create a common language, deepen discussion among participants in the focus groups, and frame our study findings.
Our findings indicate that Environmental Educators of Color are routinely leaving the field because they feel like they are not wanted in the field and that they are therefore being pushed out, for three interconnected reasons: 1) educators feel tokenized, marginalized, burdened, silenced, and burnt-out; 2) they perceive differences between their own and their organizations' definitions and understandings of equity, inclusion, and diversity; and 3) educators experience only a superficial level of attention, across all aspects of organizations, being given to how equity, inclusion, and diversity are prioritized and implemented. The following sections describe each of these themes, based on the perspectives and experiences that Environmental Educators of Color shared in the focus groups. In the final section, educators’ recommendations for improvement are summarized.
Theme 1: Environmental educators of color feel tokenized, marginalized, burdened, silenced, and burnt-out
Navigating White dominant values and institutions
Environmental Educators of Color shared stories of feeling a sense of “culture shock” when they initially started working in EE, noting that they experienced a work environment with deeply embedded White dominant values that resulted in feelings of isolation. Educators shared that, in addition to at times being the only person of color on staff, they felt a disconnect between the organization’s values and their own cultural values and lived experiences. Many educators shared stories of encountering and experiencing microaggressions, unconscious bias, exclusion, racism, and, overall, a work environment privileging White dominant cultural values. Participants pointed to examples of “everyone else” wearing similar name-brand clothing and outdoor gear or listening to, playing, and singing similar music. Educators reported not feeling comfortable playing their preferred music, wearing their preferred shoes, and talking about their families. When educators were asked to share, they often felt tokenized or marginalized, as organizational leaders and peers made assumptions ranging from assuming that a person speaks a particular language because of their appearance or name, to asking individual people of color to share broadly about the experiences of BIPOC communities. One participant shared:
[At my organization,] we have almost 20–25 staff; there’s only three people of color and I am the only brown person. Recently, I was placed at a site where their main reason for placing me is because “oh, she speaks Spanish so she’s going to fit in perfectly with [this] community.”
In this example, the participant highlights how perceptions of Latinidad are essentialized into a monolithic experience wherein Spanish-speaking individuals are the most apt to work with and in Latinx communities. The experiences shared across the focus groups point to a work environment that leads to feelings of exhaustion and burnout, despite a love and passion for EE and the outdoors. One Educator shared:
I've only been doing environmental education for two years and I'm over it, I don't want to do it anymore… 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 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 in my life…; racist burnout is real.
These experiences exemplified the pain that educators experience in not being able to bring their authentic selves to the workplace, but rather have to conform to or hide from dominant values grounded in White supremacy culture.
A forgotten history
Educators described organizations—and the EE field at-large—in which staff rarely discuss the historical context of systemic oppression and marginalization of communities of color, specifically within an environmental context (Brune, 2020; McLean, 2013; Noisecat, 2015; Purdy, 2015). The racist roots of the environmental movement, including some of the first recognized environmental advocates (e.g., John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt) and the formation of public lands, are not acknowledged (Noisecat, 2019). Educators shared that in their experiences, organizations often ignore, exclude, or are unaware of the history of Indigenous people. Educational programming often includes “camp songs” that have controversial or harmful historical contexts, and are situated on stolen land without recognizing the current and past presence of Indigenous people. Some Educators shared that by omitting the history of Indigenous people, a culture is created that inhibits the challenging of dominant narratives about conservation, environmentalism, western science, and connection to nature, ultimately silencing BIPOC voices. One Educator shared,
[I want organizations to] straight-up acknowledge that environmentalism was created by [people of color] first. I had a huge disconnect that my ancestors were a part of the environmental movement and honored the earth, and then the colonizers came in and took that away from them and converted them, and now I'm in 2018 trying to say, ‘I've been connected to this my whole life. This isn't something that you're teaching me and awakening me to.’
Theme 2: Environmental educators of color perceive differences between their own and their organizations' definitions and understandings of equity, inclusion, and diversity
In focus groups, Environmental Educators of Color collaboratively defined equity, inclusion, and diversity in complex and nuanced ways. Definitions of each term included the need to examine the connection to historical structural and systemic oppression as well as power and privilege. For example, Educators described equity in the context of understanding and actively removing intentional barriers that have resulted in a lack of “access” to outdoor spaces and educational opportunities for BIPOC communities. They emphasized that individuals and organizations alike need to understand the historical context of EE, listen to and amplify marginalized voices, and examine the intersectionality of one’s identity (e.g., race, gender, socioeconomic status, culture) as it relates to equity, inclusion, and diversity. Educators further noted that equity, inclusion, and diversity are not independent or mutually exclusive of each other and that addressing these issues at the systems level requires an understanding of how they inform one another. On the other hand, Educators shared that they experience organizations, including organization leaders, framing equity, inclusion, and diversity through a common lens of “access for all.” This framing is most commonly outward-focused (that is, on participant demographics as opposed to staff) and does not recognize the systemic and historical factors that have shaped the dialogue and subsequently, the way that organizations prioritize actions to address equity issues.
Theme 3: Environmental educators of color experience that the attention to how equity, inclusion, and diversity are prioritized and implemented across all aspects of organizations is relatively superficial
Educators acknowledged, based on their experiences, that many EE organizations are actively creating initiatives to address equity, inclusion, and diversity, or what they called “DEI initiatives,” as it is a “hot topic” in the EE field currently. Educators described that these initiatives are either led by White leadership at the exclusion of BIPOC voices (marginalization) or that the burden of change is placed on a few individuals of color without providing sufficient institutional support (burdening). One Educator summarized this common experience:
[Diversity, equity, and inclusion is] this White-savior complex that is … really creating a separatist movement where there is still a form of “other.” [People of color] are still an “other” and [White leaders] still have dominance. [Diversity, equity, and inclusion] always come from the top down. They are never from the grassroots … or from the community.
Environmental Educators of Color pointed out that the work environment of many EE organizations is shaped by hierarchical systems of power, wherein positions of power are prominently held by White people. This positions White people to shape and determine DEI initiatives, excluding staff who may have a different set of lived experiences and perspectives.
Within these DEI initiatives, Environmental Educators of Color described leaders within organizations being focused on how to integrate DEI into their programs, with a particular focus on outward-facing educational and public programs (as opposed to the internal work environment). Often these efforts are focused on increasing the proportion of communities of color represented in staff and learners, rather than examining internal systems and practices that would cultivate an equitable and inclusive space for staff and learners of color, as illustrated in previous sections of this paper. Environmental Educators of Color identified a need for organizations to be clear on their goals of equity and inclusion, and to more specifically consider the extent to which goals may be driven by diversity, equity, and/or inclusion. One Educator illustrated a critical point of tension that emerges where organizations lack clarity on their goals:
I feel like [in] every outdoor job I've worked on, [organizations are] always promoting that they're trying to be more diverse [by] hiring more diverse people [or] trying to bring more diverse schools in there, but it's not apparent because you end up being the one black guy, or there's one other black girl or an Asian or [Latinx] person, but it's like a very small number, so I don't really know what the goal is in terms of them saying that they're wanting to integrate and diversify… [and] then when [organizations] bring in students with diverse backgrounds, [the educators generally] have such a hard time with it and they just kind of complain about it throughout the week. It's like, are [organizations] really wanting to change that and bring in different faces; or are you just saying that because it's getting cool to say “oh, we want to do this, we stand for this” but not really standing for it?
These systems of power also shape the extent to which an organization creates space for critical reflection and dialogue. Educators shared examples of how organization leaders will facilitate dialogue about equity and inclusion but that resistance from White leaders and/or peers emerges as the conversations create discomfort. In some cases, this has led to the staff of color being told they “are making others uncomfortable” when sharing about their lived experiences, speaking up to challenge microaggressions or unintentionally racist narratives, or commenting on ways that the workplace perpetuates their sense of isolation and marginalization. At other times, Educators shared that conversations were often “one-off” with little to no follow-up. For Environmental Educators of Color, these experiences reinforce a narrative of performative DEI initiatives that do not challenge nor disrupt the status quo.
Recruitment and hiring: a numbers game
Educators agreed that DEI initiatives often centered around recruitment and hiring as a means towards diversifying staff and learners. These initiatives primarily focused on recruiting more candidates of color without addressing other factors that have serious implications for how effective an organization may be in recruiting, hiring, and retaining staff from historically excluded communities. These other factors raise questions such as: who composes hiring committees (e.g., hiring committees that include people from multiple positions in the organization, community advisors, students, and people of color at the table vs. all or mostly White organization leaders)?; what professional or lived experiences are identified and valued as qualifications (e.g., experience living and working in the communities served by the organization vs. teaching experience broadly or valuing a certain education degree)?; what counts as valuable expertise (e.g., if expertise of how to advocate or implement equity and inclusion are considered job qualifications)?; how is the job description framed (e.g., emphasis on connecting children to nature vs. serving underrepresented communities)?; what is the timing of the hiring process (e.g., offering positions that start immediately vs. do not begin until several weeks after the interviews)?; what is the monetary and nonmonetary compensation (e.g., salary, housing, benefits, gear, and so on)?; and what is the structure of staffing positions (e.g., seasonal, part-time, temporary vs. full-time, or permanent job opportunities)?.
One participant shared that compensation is a particularly critical aspect that organizations must consider through a lens of equity. This participant reported that, being a child of an immigrant, there is a value of caring for elders within their community. In this way, when they look for employment opportunities, they must consider whether the compensation will position them to be able to send money to their family. In this example, it is evident how compensation policies perpetuate the exclusion of individuals on the basis of race, immigration status, and class. These findings resonate with some researchers, who continue to advocate for organizations to be reflective in their hiring practices and that organizations must always consider how their practices may be deterring potential applicants, marginalizing current staff of color, and reinforcing the status quo (Beasley, 2016; Roberts & Chitewere, 2011; Taylor, 2018).
In addition, Educators pointed out that organizations are often not focused on advancement pathways within the field. One Educator shared that while they have seen EE organizations hire more people of color in entry-level positions, they have not seen advancement pathways leading to higher-level positions:
I also ask myself the question, what does a pipeline look like for more people of color to be in this industry? Because I've been hearing a lot about how we want the industry to be more diverse ... But I see organizations taking in interns, usually [people] of color, and then not following up with them when they are done, what is up with that? ... So, my question is, where is the pipeline?
In this example, the Educator highlights that the EE field must consider the various entry points for staff of color and also build an infrastructure that supports professional growth and advancement within the organization and the field at-large. Educators emphasized that if leaders do not reflect on the structures and systems within organizations and the field and begin to address the systemic barriers in place, then people of color will leave organizations just as quickly as they entered.
Room for improvement: recommendations from environmental educators of color
In the focus group interviews, Environmental Educators of Color called for various ways in which organizations can begin to make room for advancing equity, inclusion, and diversity. These findings are further contextualized in the discussion section of this paper to follow.
Embrace and engage in authentic and difficult dialogue:
Leaders should practice engaging in, providing space and opportunity for, and facilitating difficult conversations related to equity, inclusion, and cultural relevance. Seeking support from organizations or professionals who have expertise in facilitating conversations around equity and inclusion may be the first step. These conversations may surface issues that organization leaders may not feel ready to deal with. If not facilitated in a thoughtful way, they can cause further harm to individuals from marginalized communities. Organizations should not be deterred from engaging in this work, but rather need to be prepared to embrace challenges that will emerge and result in productive struggle.
Articulate clear equity, inclusion, and diversity goals and outcomes:
Leaders’ goals should go beyond numbers to articulate what equity and inclusion look like in all areas of the organization, including the work environment and programming for learners. Instead of articulating goals related to diversity or reaching a certain percentage of “diversity” (which can feel inauthentic and tokenizing), organization leaders should critically think about their goals related to equity and inclusion and consider how such goals are set. Through this process, it is vital to consider who to engage in identifying goals and outcomes and how to do this.
Establish hiring processes that focus on equity and inclusion:
All aspects of the hiring process, including job descriptions, qualifications, and interview committees, should express the organization’s commitment to equity and inclusion. By engaging more people of color in the hiring process, opportunities will arise to include their perspectives about who and what qualifies for positions working with youth from a diversity of backgrounds.
Implement participatory, or vertical, decision-making processes:
Creating systems and structures to enable people at all levels of an organization to be recognized for leadership and to participate in decision-making processes provides opportunities to meaningfully incorporate a diversity of perspectives—in particular, those of staff of color. Opportunities to participate may necessitate thinking about whether there are particular time points at which leadership can engage all staff for input. Transparency and clear communication with staff about decision-making and staff participation are critical in fostering a sense of agency among staff.
Provide opportunities for professional growth and mentorship:
Organizations should provide professional learning opportunities to support the advancement of Environmental Educators of Color in the field. Professional learning can include sending staff of color to conferences, providing funded time to participate in webinars or in-house workshops, providing resources and tools that focus on improving teaching and establishing mentoring systems that support reflective practice and peer learning. When considering mentorship models, there should be an equal value placed on two-way mentorship (i.e., mentors and mentees learning from each other), acknowledging that each individual brings valuable knowledge and experiences to the relationship. These opportunities are important for the growth and retention of all staff and are particularly essential for staff of color who are most likely to feel isolated and in need of professional peers with similar identities.
Establish systems to foster an inclusive space for staff:
Organizations should consider how they can support Environmental Educators of Color in establishing spaces in which they feel empowered, included, and valued. They can help staff identify mentors of color in the field, and also provide staff time for affinity spaces where staff can gather based on similar identities, either within the organization or in the region. There are growing networks that invite participation by Environmental Educators of Color. These spaces are critical, as they enable Environmental Educators of Color to step out of the “teacher” or expert role and into a refuge with peers who share similar experiences. The use of affinity spaces should be complemented by organizational policies, strategies, and practices that support the entire staff to come together across boundaries of identity to form a more inclusive work environment.
A lack of a living wage disproportionately affects people from low-income backgrounds. Within the broad category of compensation, organizations should consider housing, benefits, position type (part-time, seasonal, or volunteer vs. full-time), and equipment/gear necessary to perform the job. It is important to recognize that while lack of a living wage can negatively affect all individuals from low-income communities, the impact of such policies and practices must be examined critically, through an intersectional lens. For example: How might low wages affect a person differently if they are low-income and also identify as a refugee, or a woman, or a parent, or as Black, or as all four? In what ways do EE organizations consider these factors when setting compensation packages? While it may be difficult for organizations to change existing policies or to work around existing infrastructures related to hourly rates or benefits, opportunities may arise to consider how to offset other expenses related to cost-of-living or execution of job responsibilities. Such considerations can greatly reduce unnecessary burdens that historically marginalized communities experience, and they can also contribute to a greater sense of value among educators.
The findings highlight recommendations voiced by Environmental Educators of Color and it is the purpose of this study to center these voices through the lens of critical race theory. The recommendations the Educators voiced spanned multiple organizational capacities that are commonly cited as necessary for organizational systems change towards equity (Equity in the Center, 2020; Kaniaet al., 2018). Table 2 illustrates the alignment of these recommendations with some organizational capacities.
These recommendations have the potential to disrupt the status quo by pushing back against common traits of White supremacy culture (Okun, 2021). For example, creating a culture where difficult dialogue is embraced pushes back against fear of open conflict, and implementing participatory decision-making processes pushes back against paternalism, power-hoarding, and one-right-way thinking (Okun, 2021). Moreover, these recommendations encourage organization leaders to look beyond a numbers-focused approach to increasing diversity (i.e., hiring more people of color), which, without a commitment to changing organizational approaches to work environment, professional learning, or career advancement, is inherently a temporary solution and a mere workaround for the problem.
That said, given the long-standing history of White supremacy culture in nonprofits and the environmental field, it is necessary to recognize that sustaining organizational equity requires a critical and constant review of the systems that most often benefit White men (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2021, p. 9). Organizational leaders need to create and sustain a continuous and comprehensive plan and process to review superficial changes. Addressing the Educators’ recommendations in isolation would likely result in insufficient action that would not significantly mitigate the impacts of racism and White supremacy culture on BIPOC staff. As such, when considering how to implement Educators’ recommendations, organization leaders must thoughtfully consider the entire ecosystem of their organization as they create systems that institutionalize efforts toward equity and inclusion work, allowing for institutional responsibility as opposed to burdening individuals (Garibay & Migus, 2014; Jennings & Jones-Rizzi, 2017; Johnson, 2019; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2021).
Study findings align with existing bodies of work in the field of education (Garibay & Migus, 2014; Jennings & Jones-Rizzi, 2017) that continue to highlight how imperative it is that EE organizations examine their practices regarding equity and inclusion to ensure that they are being intentionally receptive and responsive to the experiences of their staff of color as they work to make their organizations and the environmental field more just and equitable (Children & Nature Network, 2016; Johnson, 2019; Mclean, 2013; Miller, 2018; Stapleton, 2020; Taylor, 2018). Findings illustrate a critical counterstory to how EE organizations are centering equity, inclusion, and diversity: Environmental Educators of Color described an experience where initiatives related to equity and inclusion often focus on diversifying the workforce or target audience demographics without giving critical attention to the systems and structures that perpetuate the marginalization, exclusion, and oppression of educators and other staff of color if and when they are hired as part of a “diversity initiative.” By highlighting the voices and experiences of Environmental Educators of Color and their recommendations for a more inclusive working environment, this study illuminates opportunities for EE organizations to foster a work environment for Environmental Educators of Color wherein they feel seen, valued, and heard. The geographic boundaries of the sample included in this case study is, as previously stated, a limitation. Future research should examine larger samples representative of the range of EE organizations in the USA and across the world to draw broader conclusions of the state of equity and inclusion in the EE workforce.
While this study focuses on the context of the USA, and particularly the Bay Area of San Francisco, we maintain that the insights and implications can be applied to places and circumstances beyond, and can be helpful for the field-at-large in considering how to approach and advance equity and inclusion. In the USA, this means engaging in critical reflection about the role of race within the field-at-large and within organizations; the extent to which White leaders are engaging in dialogue and enacting systems-level change that disrupts systemic racism; and in what ways the EE field-at-large see, uphold, value (and compensate) the expertise that Environmental Educators of Color bring to the dialogue and work of equity and inclusion. When we center the racialized experiences of Environmental Educators of Color, we begin to see the need to unravel and transform intersecting structures and systems as a means towards eradicating White supremacy culture and racism.
Although socio-historical legacies of race may be different in countries outside of the USA, issues of power inequity are present across countries and cultures. We hold that it is critical to center racial groups that have been underserved and underrepresented in environmental education to ensure relevance beyond the mainstream and dominant ideas of environmental education. We believe this practice can serve to diversify both the content of and the participation in the field of environmental education, and support success in achieving the goals of equity and inclusion in environmental education.
Data is available for review.
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Lead funding for this study was provided by the Pisces Foundation. Additional funding was provided by the Clarence E. Heller Foundation.
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Romero, V.F., Foreman, J., Strang, C. et al. Racial equity and inclusion in United States of America-based environmental education organizations: a critical examination of priorities and practices in the work environment. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education 25, 91–116 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42322-022-00099-w