L to R: Yenyen Chan ’94, ’02 MEM, Sarah Charlop-Powers ’09 MEM , Phil Rigdon ’02 MF, and Georgia Silvera Seamans ’01 MEM

As part of an ongoing series that explores topics relating to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) in the environmental field, Yale Blue Green, Yale’s environmental alumni group, hosted a livestream discussion on the influence and impact of race, ethnicity, and bias in natural areas management.

The program was moderated by Georgia Silvera Seamans ’01 MEM, an urban and community forester based in New York City, who opined that the management of public lands and natural habitats in the U.S. continues to be dominated by a longstanding hegemonic model.

“Land management in the U.S. tends to be Anglo normative,” she said, adding that there have been significant historical issues and consequences associated with this model.

Joining Silvera Seamans in the discussion were three fellow alumni who, like her, graduated from the Yale School of the Environment:

  • Yenyen Chan ’94, ’02 MEM – Park ranger, U.S. National Park Service
  • Sarah Charlop-Powers ’09 MEM – Co-founder and executive director, Natural Areas Conservancy (New York City)
  • Phil Rigdon ’02 MF – Superintendent of Natural Resources, Yakama Nation (Washington state)

Each offered their perspective on working in natural areas management and their approaches, models, and strategies to cultivate meaningful inclusion in this field.

In sharing their experiences, they provided examples of the lack of diversity in the environmental sector, including how contributions to U.S. conservation efforts by people of color have been forgotten or gone unacknowledged.

Diversity in Green Spaces

Chan, who joined the National Park Service (NPS) in 2003 and is based at Yosemite National Park, said many park visitors are not necessarily aware of the important history, legacy, and contributions of Chinese immigrant laborers to Yosemite in the 1800s, including the construction of major thoroughfares like the scenic Tioga Road.

As a Chinese-American park ranger, Chan said she is acutely aware that she stands out among her colleagues.

“When people visit the parks, they often just see white rangers, no minority rangers,” she said, noting that according to NPS statistics from 2000 to 2014, Asian-American representation within the entire park service was 2%, a figure that has remained essentially unchanged.

Chan indicated that while visitation to national parks has been mostly white historically, the number of Asian-American and Asia-Pacific visitors has steadily increased over the years, and she is regularly approached by these visitors.

“They often connect with me – they say it’s great to see an Asian ranger,” she said, adding that greater staff diversity at national parks fosters a more welcoming and inclusive experience, as well as inspiration for future environmental professionals of color. “It’s really important for visitors to see diversity, see that they belong at these parks, that they can see faces and realize, ‘I can have a job as a ranger or working in the natural environment.’”

Charlop-Powers, whose nonprofit works with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation to conserve and restore forests, wetlands, and other green spaces in the city, said the park system consisted of 30,000 acres spread across the five boroughs, with about a third being natural habitats that tend to be located in “areas that have experienced a range of social and environmental justice challenges.”

She added that while New York City has a strong public-private partnership model where tens of millions of dollars are raised each year for conservation purposes, most of these funds are channeled to a select number of prominent and well-known green spaces, leaving many other lower priority spaces struggling financially and ecologically.

“Places like Central Park receive huge amounts of philanthropic investment, whereas thousands and thousands of acres of natural areas tend to be underfunded and under-supported,” she said.

Rigdon, as head of natural resources for the Yakama Nation, highlighted the importance of conservation in providing sustenance for his people and preserving their culture, heritage, and traditions.

“Our way of life is still a practicing way of life.” he said. “We go out and we dig roots, we have ceremonies, we pick huckleberries, we hunt for deer and elk, and we provide that back into our people.”

He noted, however, that conservation for the Yakama people, as well as other Native American communities, is complicated by history, culture, and circumstance. This includes lingering stereotypes and misconceptions about Native peoples and their connection to ancestral lands.

“Sometimes people look at Native communities and they treat them like we’re dead societies,” he said, “We’re alive, we’re here, we’re connected to those places.”

He noted that John Muir and other lauded pioneers who started the great conservation movements in the U.S. failed to acknowledge and recognize the enormous contributions of Native peoples in caring for, preserving, and protecting America’s lands and natural resources, long before the arrival of settlers and the existence of those movements.

“There’s no mention that every forest and every landscape in the United States was shaped by our ancestors,” he said. “Those great conservation movements left out that history, and I think that’s the sad part.”

Going Forward

According to Chan, the NPS, which celebrated its centennial in 2016, has been “very supportive” of initiatives to increase diversity and inclusion across the park service and among visitors, and she was encouraged by the growing numbers of people from different backgrounds coming to the national parks and participating in related programs in the last five or six years.

She emphasized that these efforts, whether they are driven by the NPS’s Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion or another part of the park service, should continue to target populations that have not been meaningfully engaged.

“We need to focus on bringing in groups that may not have felt comfortable or have had as many opportunities to come to the parks and feel welcome into these spaces,” she said.

She added there is a continuing need to highlight the stories of immigrants who helped shape the environmental history and trajectory of the United States.

“It’s important to bring greater awareness to the many different cultures and important immigrant groups that have come to this country and the contributions that they have made,” she said, stressing that those stories should also be candid about the bias, discrimination, and racism these groups encountered along the way.

“It’s something we need to address today because it’s still something we see in our country now,” she said.

As an example, Charlop-Powers pointed out that the Central Park bird-watcher incident last year, in which a white woman called 911 and falsely accused an African-American man of threatening her, served as a wake-up call for nonprofit organizations across the country, and particularly those in New York City, to consider if the steps and goals they have taken to promote diversity and inclusion were adequate and commanded sufficient urgency.

She said the Natural Areas Conservancy, for its part, has responded on several fronts, including increasing investments to create training opportunities and pipelines for young people from diverse backgrounds to enter the field of conservation. Doing so, she noted, improves access and reduces barriers to entry in the natural resources field.

For Rigdon, the continuing efforts of the Yakama people and other Native communities to protect and restore their ancestral lands honor the struggles and sacrifices of their forebearers that included forcible removals, imprisonment, attacks, cultural assimilation, and loss of life.

“When you talk about social justice, there is that story that is forgotten, that isn’t talked about,” he said.

He added that this dedication to the environment and the Yakama people’s ties to the land serves as an important link uniting every member of his community, past and present.

“I continue to carry on as someone that is participating in what’s been passed on from generation to generation,” he said. “Our connections, our stories, our history, our legends are tied to these places. We can’t just pick up the reservation and move 500 miles to the north. We have to live here and continue.”