Engaging underrepresented communities in Ecology

To make science accessible to all people we must keep the following in mind:

In order to be truly sincere when working with underrepresented students and communities, one must reflect and ask why these communities do not sit and share the same space that some of us occupy in our universities, our labs, our graduate programs, or our communities. Underrepresented communities face marginalization based on sex, race, class, gender, legal status, etc. and must navigate through societal institutions that do not fully represent who they are, the culture they come from, or their lived experiences.

In the educational settings, underrepresented students face:

  • Barriers to accessing education
  • An institutional climate that does not understand students' cultural and historical backgrounds (and therefore certain types of students are more represented than others)
  • Limited access to information on succeeding at the university level
  • Limited access to knowledge about career/research opportunities in ecology.

These challenges do not stem from a mysterious cause, but in fact are rooted in the historical legacy of exclusion (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, xenophobia) in America's society that still persists institutionally in our universities. This phenomenon trickles down to the individual level as those that are not affected by these barriers knowingly or unknowingly reinforce them.

When we have critical, open, and frank reflections or conversations on these topics, our outreach efforts shift from being charity (i.e. handouts) to an act of empowerment for both parties. With this critical outlook, one can also approach working alongside other underrepresented communities in other parts of our society and around the world.

A major goal of working with underrepresented communities should focus on creating transformative learning experiences for everyone. This means that students participating in an outreach program leave that experience with high levels of self advocacy and self-initiation, important and relevant skills, and a strong sense of self.

The following list offers suggestions on how to engage underrepresented groups to increase diversity in the field of ecology, career-wise and stakeholder-wise. The list includes points identified by Torres and Bingham (2008).

  1. Make it relevant: What is Ecology, in the context of the community you are serving?
    • Dialogue with the community you are working with regarding the realities already faced in their surroundings (e.g. urban heat island, access to natural areas, pesticides, deforestation, land rights, healthy foods etc.)
    • How does the latter fit with learning about ecology? What are the research opportunities and career opportunities that fit with the community needs and others?
  2. Understand your own assumptions about the community you are working with and question those assumptions.
  3. Recognize that one size does not fit all; each student and community is unique
  4. "Support or develop bridge programs that facilitate the transition of underrepresented students from one level of academia to the next"...[these programs may include] summer courses, orientation programs, internships, research experiences, and cultural events." (Torres and Bingham 2008)
    • Retention of students is just as important as recruitment
  5. "Foster supportive, personal mentor-mentee relationships" (Torres and Bingham 2008)
  6. "[Always] incorporate multiculturalism, innovative teaching strategies, and professional development within curricula and departments [that represent the community you are working with]" (Torres and Bingham 2008)
  7. "Develop a critical mass of underrepresented groups" (Torres and Bingham 2008)
  8. "Evaluate and document successes to attract students from underrepresented groups and to support funding requests" (Torres and Bingham 2008)

These suggestions can be implemented in existing and new outreach programs, at the university level or in classrooms. Again, a successful outreach plan will be one that constantly incorporates the needs of the community you serve and serves as a critical reflection of the institutional program in which you are enrolled.