In a livestream program organized by Yale Blue Green, Yale’s environmental alumni group, Thomas RaShad Easley, a diversity professional and former assistant dean for community and inclusion at the Yale School of the Environment, shared his perspective and insights on how environmental organizations can more effectively advance and foster “DEIAJ” (diversity, equity, inclusion, access, and justice) at an institutional level.

Thomas RaShad Easley
Thomas RaShad Easley

Leveraging his background in forestry, diversity, and education, Easley recently wrote on this topic in a book, “Mind/Heart for Diversity,” aimed at those who are leading or supporting DEIAJ efforts.

“I wrote the book to target people that are leaders – who are executives, diversity professionals, and people who care – who want to implement or see diversity actualized in the organization,” said Easley, who emphasized that the need now is greater than ever. “With all of the racial unrest that was happening last year and with everything going on in the pandemic, we really need leaders who are courageous.”

Moderating the program was Lauren Graham ’13 MEM, chair of Yale Blue Green, who was mindful of the low representation of nonwhites on the staff and boards of environmental organizations across the country – including the most prominent ones – and the efforts needed to address this disparity.

“A lot of people want to engage in DEI issues,” she said. “They just don’t really know how, or the risk of engagement is too high.”

Easley said the first step is not to ignore or avoid the issues but to confront them, directly and honestly. This includes acknowledging injustices perpetrated against minorities, people of color, and other groups to acquire their lands and natural resources.

“Acknowledge past atrocities,” he said. “We have to, because if you don’t acknowledge the past, you will repeat it.”

At the same time, Easley stressed the importance of structuring these conversations in a manner that doesn’t seek to accuse or blame, but rather to promote understanding and galvanize collaboration and support in finding solutions.

“We acknowledge it in a way that’s not accusatory because at this point, everyone present now may be benefactors of this, but we didn’t create it,” he said.

Aware that conversations on environmental justice aren’t easy and can be fraught with pitfalls and challenges, Easley offered a suggestion: “We can start to ask ourselves these questions: What’s standing in the way, what’s sitting in the way, what is in the way of people being able to access resources? Or, how are people being told that they’re supposed to utilize or access these resources? And are we being inclusive in what we’re trying to get other people to do?”

Easley added that, while such conversations can elicit strong emotions and differences of opinion, disagreements and heated debates should not be avoided for the sake of keeping the peace, particularly if it means stifling different voices or impeding candid discussions.

“Conflict is another way that we interact with each other,” he said. “Instead of thinking that we can’t have conflict, yes we can. You’re listening to understand. You’re not trying to pick it apart so you can get them out of there fast; you’re just trying to understand.”

He urged those leading DEIAJ efforts to be self-aware in how they come across to others and to exercise vigilance in ensuring an open line of communications.

“It’s not rocket science, but it is chemistry,” he said. “It’s about how you flow with people. It’s about how you converse with people. It can be emotional, because it is with feelings; it’s real. It has to do with you being present.” 

These conversations, according to Easley, go much smoother when ground rules are established and agreed upon by all parties beforehand – and when everyone participates from the standpoint of sharing information and perspectives, and not attempting to sway others to their viewpoints.

“When we’re talking about issues, it’s always good to be open, to share what you think that you understand, but invite people to share what they also think that they understand, and to pose it that way,” he said. “Because the way to lose is to come in with assumptions and not leave space for the person to bring themselves to you.”

He added that it’s especially crucial for those in leadership positions to set the example in behavior and actions.

“It’s easier to bring people into the conversation by illustrating it for them or demonstrating it for them versus using the words,” he said. “If I want someone to embrace diversity, I show them.”

In the course of advancing DEIAJ, Easley said we should expect to make mistakes and missteps, despite our best efforts, but that this is OK as long as we strive not to repeat them and remain committed to working through them.

“I don’t have a problem being wrong; I have a problem staying wrong.” he said. “I don’t have a problem apologizing when I get it wrong. I don’t have a problem acknowledging when I don’t know something. This diversity work, it’s about being human.”

And while outcomes are never guaranteed, Easley emphasized the importance of staying on course in an open and inclusive manner, and not losing sight of the long-term goal:

“If we can humble ourselves and recognize that we did not get where we are alone, then when we’re engaging with people, whether they come when they’re new, whether they are different from us, whether they are there to work on diversity or not, we can leave space for them to come to us.”