Making Strides Toward Equity and Inclusion

“Diversity is about all of us, and about us having to figure out how to walk through this world together.” Jacqueline Woodson

Since starting to work on diversity, equity, and inclusion, I realize that I have many more questions than I have answers; talk about a complicated problem. Growing up in school, there was always a correct answer to the math question or the geography question, but what is the answer to the diversity question. How does our community, the environmental community, become more diverse and inclusive? Hate to break it to you, but I do not have an answer to this question. However, I do have a lot of ideas, and the best way to have a good idea, is to have a lot of ideas.

Let’s start with what we want to accomplish. Our end goal is to have an industry that is more diverse and inclusive. This is goal is two-fold: (1) the racial make-up of our organizations must reflect that of the communities we serve, and (2) we must engage more environmental justice communities in a meaningful and impactful way. There are a great deal of differing ideas about how we accomplish this, like posting jobs at historically black college campuses, changing our organization’s governance documents to reflect our commitment to diversity, or setting diversity demographic goals (i.e. our goal is to have one person of color on our Board of Directors in the next year). All of these are great ideas, but are they great ideas for right now?

Instead I have another suggestion. Hear me out. I am supportive of a complete cultural shift in the way we think about institutional racism, unconscious bias, and outright discrimination. And we are not going to break down these deep-seated and ingrained barriers until we have a deep understanding of what these obstacles are and how they impact the space we all live in.

Through talking to many experts and learning what we can about these issues, the Choose Clean Water Coalition has made strides toward beginning this cultural shift. We created a tool-kit to help organizations know how to craft job postings and know where to post jobs in order to attract more diverse candidates, we committed to diversity in our strategic plan, and we set diversity demographic goals for our annual conference. Another harsh reality, this is not nearly enough.

The Coalition keeps plugging along this path to create a change in our community, and we finally experienced some quantitative success and I believe this success can be scaled up to a community level.

Over the last year, the Coalition brainstormed how to attract more diverse people to our conference. We self-reflected on our previous conferences and asked ourselves some questions: Is the content of our conference attractive to a diverse audience? Are we giving out scholarships to the right people for the right reasons? Are we using the right channels of communication to promote our conference? Not surprisingly, the answer to these questions was no.

The end result of our reflection: From last year to this year, our conference demographics improved substantially. We attracted significantly more people of color to our conference for the first time ever. Why? Intent. As an organization, we decided that changing the demographics of our conference was a priority. Last year, at our 6th Annual Conference, we collected our diversity demographics for the first time, and let me tell you, it was not pretty. However, we did not need to see these numbers on a piece of paper to know we had a problem, and had our work cut out for us.

The theme of our 7th Annual Conference was “Clean Water: Bridging to New Partnerships.” One of our goals is to build partnerships with communities that we have not traditionally engaged…and we do not traditionally engage diverse audiences. Every decision we made in our conference planning, we made a conscious effort to incorporate diversity. We changed the content to include an environmental justice track, which featured all diverse speakers. We facilitated a cultural competency training, which helps participants build awareness of how cultural differences can impact people in an organization and motivates participants to rethink their behavior and attitude toward others. We kicked off a Young Professionals of Color Mentorship Program, pairing a diverse pool of future environmental leaders with an equally diverse pool of mentors who will help facilitate their rise to oversee the future of our green community. Our opening speaker was Reverend John Crestwell, a black reverend from the Unitarian Universalist Church. He spoke on the Black Lives Matter movement, and how our movement must be united and inclusive to succeed.

Just looking around the room at the conference, there were more faces of color. If we can intentionally improve diversity at our conference, why can’t we do this in our community? The Coalition figured out one way to walk through this world together…and even if it’s just a 275 person conference, we have to start somewhere. And small successes will keep us on a path to greatness. Remember, we all smile in the same language.