Wanted: Diversity in the Environmental & Earth Sciences Field

By Skipping Stones Staff

Over the past few years, there has been a growing consensus that in many western countries like the United States, the earth sciences and the environmental movement have a severe lack of diversity, both in terms of students studying these fields academically, and in the workforce. According to the National Science Foundation, African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics make up just about 14% of earth science undergraduate majors, even though they comprised more than 30% of the overall US population at the time of the study. This disparity continues as students enter the workforce. For example, African Americans make up 14.2% of the overall US population, but only 1.3% of geologists are black. When many people think of a geologist, they often picture an older white male roaming around the mountains. Based on Bureau of Labor statistics (74.9% of geologists are male), this image is actually often on point. Clearly these earth science related fields have a serious problem with diversity, and as a minority who worked and studied in the earth sciences for number of years, I have seen the unfortunate consequences this issue has had.

There are several reasons why it is essential to have more diversity in the earth and environmental sciences. Many environmental issues and natural hazards, from factory pollution to hurricanes, disproportionately affect minority communities. The devastation after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is a prime example of this, when there was particular damage to black-majority neighborhoods in New Orleans. Black communities and other minority groups in the United States often live closer to large polluting chemical plants, waste treatment facilities, and other areas that are potential environmental hazards. Since people who work in environmental fields often make decisions regarding these kinds of environmental issues, it is essential to have representation from minority communities, especially if they are disproportionately affected by them.

Many teachers and professors may recognize this issue, but often approach it in the wrong way. They may think that simply showing minority students why fields like environmental science or geology are worthwhile, is enough to convince them to pursue these fields in their careers. In reality, diversifying these fields and their respective workforce takes a much more nuanced and systematic approach.

In both of my colleges and the university, all of my geology professors were white, but the larger issue was that they did not understand what is was like to be a minority student. Many professors are simply not aware of the obstacles minorities need to overcome, such racial bias in job hiring, or social exclusion in the outdoors. White, affluent professors likely have different upbringings than most minority students, and as a result, the differing perspectives may result in friction if a professor expects a minority student to learn and perform in the same way that he or she did as a student.

In reality, minority students face a multitude of obstacles, and even if they are extremely smart and hard-working, they may have different priorities than the professors did when those professors were in school. Partly because my parents did not grow up in the United States, they were not able to provide me with the same level of financial education as many other parents provide. However, when I tried to take a financial literacy class to learn these subjects myself, my academic advisor did not sign off on it, because she wanted me to focus on a geophysics class that would “be more relevant for my thesis.” She might have gotten education on financial literacy from her relatives when she grew up, because they had lived in this country for generations and knew the in’s and out’s of U.S. tax system, buying houses, etc., but I did not learn that at home. This is just another example of how many minorities— especially first generation minorities, in this case—are at a disadvantage compared to their peers.

This can be the case in many academic fields but the lack of diversity among the people teaching earth sciences stands out, because it means almost none of the professors have the same experiences as the minority students they teach. At least in other fields, like physics or computer science, there may be a more diverse faculty who understands what it is like to be a minority student.

There was even a time when one of my geology professors taught us how a mineral called orthoclase, which has a whitish-pink hue, “was the color of our skin,” because it was similar to the skin color of Caucasian people. Implying that we should refer to mineral color based on the skin color of white people creates a Caucasian-centric method of analyzing geologic features, and unfortunately many geology textbooks use these types of references.

In order to solve the diversity issue, it is essential to understand the structural factors that have historically led many minorities away from environmental sciences and even the outdoors in general. Many young people who end up studying or working in the environmental field become interested in the outdoors from an early age. Sometimes they do this by practicing sports like skiing, rock climbing, or mountain biking, to name a few. Some of these sports require a lot of out of pocket expenses. Rock climbing, for example requires harnesses, ropes, carabiners, helmets, and climbing shoes, which all add up in cost. People in lower socioeconomic classes often don’t have the extra funds to pay for this kind of gear, and many (but not all) minority groups unfortunately tend to have fewer resources. Thus being able to frequently enjoy the outdoors may be a luxury for some.

So how can we address this lack of diversity? One solution is for elementary, middle, and high schools to help kids gain an appreciation for the outdoors by taking them on field trips to nearby outdoor sites, hiking trails, etc., to ensure students from all backgrounds get to experience the outdoors and have the desire to protect these lands. True, schools often lack the funds to even fully fund their regular activities, so adding outdoor opportunities to the curriculum may be more difficult. Some private efforts exist to encourage minorities to explore the outdoors through group outings, but these efforts often have limited reach.

It seems that the best way to encourage minorities to study and work in the environmental sciences is to change the culture around these fields and the outdoors. This starts with every person who regularly enjoys the outdoors or the environmental sciences. For example, if you go on hikes regularly and have friends who haven’t had the opportunities to, maybe ask them if they want to come with you. If you’re a professor, continue to understand how your students have different backgrounds than you, and how that might shift their priorities. Small acts like these can build up in making the outdoors a more inclusive space, and doing this may have a far greater effort than just academic outreach.

—Skipping Stones Staff




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