15 Aug People of Color in the Environment: Building Community in DC!
As I sat in Yates Auditorium in the Department of the Interior listening to fellow interns present their projects behind a podium and a movie theater sized screen with their power points, I was amazed. Having this experience, a trip to Washington DC to present, connect, and learn from others at a week-long workshop would have been unimaginable to me just a few years ago. The summer before my sophomore year of college, the height of the coronavirus pandemic, I was struggling to find work and to feel hopeful for a future career in the environmental field. I was lucky to find a fieldwork opportunity at a conservation and restoration ranch near me after a long search, but I was still unsure of what the future held. I was still second guessing my decision to pursue my passion of working in the environment for the very real fear of moving forward in my career during the pandemic.
Thankfully, my diminished hope did not stop me from pursuing my dream. I continued my major in environmental science and applying for employment opportunities in the environmental sector. Coming out of the height of the pandemic I was more sure than ever that this is the field I was going to work in. Standing clear in my values while making room to adjust to the fluctuating job market and overall uneasy feeling about the future that the pandemic brought up, I gained resilience. A growing resilience to career ups and downs that is not only from my own tenacity, but from the many incredibly supportive people in my life, family, professors, friends. People I am forever grateful for.
Fast forward to August 2023 where I was attending a weeklong workshop on career leadership and professional development for my internship. As part of a cohort of over sixty interns for the Mosaics in Science, Latino Heritage, and Indian Youth Service programs I presented my research as a poster in the Department of the Interior (DOI) and attended panel discussions from DOI personnel about the department and navigating federal careers that were full of words of advice and wisdom.
A few phrases specifically resonated with me. One speaker told us to know we belong in every space, which struck me because of its boldness. Maybe not bold to everyone, but I have fought the feeling of the need to shrink my presence in order to fit into spaces. Perhaps a subconscious urge to disprove the angry black woman stereotype. Feeling that I belong in every space is a mindset I’m still working on adapting.
Another speaker told us she couldn’t be afraid to speak her peace and her voice in a room where other voices are not there. There was no option, but to be courageous. This particularly resonated with me because there’s so much more work than I could imagine that went into making my internship program, that aims to bring diversity into the environmental field, possible. I am so thankful for the work from everyone that has led to me working at a National Park and being in a room with distinguished DOI leaders. Speaking my peace is one way I can pay homage to people of color who are not in the room with me, where their voice isn’t present mine must exist.
There are so many more nuggets of wisdom from the panels I attended that week, many following a theme of shifting my mindset. From the idea that I can open doors by knocking on them, to Dr. Daniel Wildcat, an indigenous professor and author’s statement: Beauty surrounds us and much ugliness too. Which one will define you? Beauty or ugliness? I also learned about using keywords from the job announcement in my resume, following up on rejected applications, and more. While I learned something from every part of the workshop, the part of the week that was most memorable to me is being part of a community of environmentally focused people of color. I had previously known environmental spaces are predominantly white, but did not fully understand how much being part of a community of people of color in my work impacted me before attending the workshop. I really appreciated being in an environmental space with other people of color and enjoyed meeting everyone who was a part of the workshop. I especially loved meeting and learning about the projects of fellow interns.
While sad to leave DC, I left with new friends to cherish, invaluable knowledge that will support me throughout my career, and inspiration to become an environmental professional building a future that includes and welcomes people of color in the environment.