June 26, 2020
As we have been reflecting on the recent killings of Black people, the ongoing civil unrest, and Pride Month—a tradition that stems from a riot led by Black transgender women in 1969—we wanted to spotlight a voice from the Black and LGBTQI+ communities. Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) are underrepresented in marine fields, including at Washington Sea Grant (WSG), where less than 12 percent of staff identify as BIPOC. We believe that representation matters, and aim to have our staff demographics reflect the demographics of Washington’s communities. We know that we still have work to do. We are extremely lucky to have connected with Dominique Kone (him/him) for this interview, a Black, gay marine ecologist, whom we found through the 500 Queer Scientists database.
Dominique Kone is a systems thinker. He is dedicated to seeing the whole picture of complex environmental issues, and using the insights he gains to inform decision-making processes. He currently works as a science officer at the California Ocean Science Trust, an organization that is co-convening a working group on ocean and climate justice in which WSG participates. Kone’s identity as a Black, gay man has inevitably shaped his experience as a marine scientist and as a person in the world. Over the past month, he has been thinking a lot about his own experience as a member of the Black community and the covert nature of systemic racism in the United States. We talked with him about his career, how his identities as Black, gay and a marine scientist have intersected, and why he’s found it so hard to focus on science or celebrate Pride Month during this particular moment. Here’s what he had to say.
What was your path to becoming a marine ecologist?
I first became interested in terrestrial ecology because I wanted to work on endangered species conservation. I started my career working in D.C. for non-profits, and I became interested in boundary-spanning work: work that is focused on spanning the divide between the science and policy worlds. This includes both trying to understand how policy is used in the science arena, and how science can be used to make more effective policy. I took a job working for a grant funding program that targets marine research to be used by policymakers. That was my first taste of marine science. Almost every topic that I came across while working there was really exciting to me, and it became clear that doing boundary-spanning work in marine systems was my calling. That’s when I applied to go to grad school to do marine research.
You now work as a science officer at the California Ocean Science Trust. What do you do there?
We’re a small non-profit, a boundary-spanning organization that’s primarily made up of scientists. We look for ways that science can advance ocean priorities in the policy arena. We partner with folks at the state, as well as scientists who are trying to advance state issues. We do things like coordinating scientific working groups, bringing federal funds to state issues, and trying to form relationships between decision-makers and scientists. We allow ourselves to be flexible and for our role to change depending on what the need is.
There is growing recognition that there’s a lot of value for this type of work. I always like to put myself in the shoes of scientists, particularly professors. Look at all the things they’re responsible for: running a lab, writing grants, advising students. And now we have this increasing requirement of them to make their work applicable, which is a lot to ask of a job that already has them working at 110 percent capacity. This shows the need for that middle person who can help meet the needs of decision-makers.
What do you think is the most pressing marine issue of today?
I wouldn’t say it’s one particular issue, but more of a framing that crosscuts all marine topics: how we think of the natural environment versus human societies. Historically, we have thought about these two systems as being distinct, that people are separate from the environment. I think if we’re going to make progress on a range of issues—whether it’s more conservation-focused, like species recovery, or it’s helping coastal communities adapt to sea level rise—we need to change our thinking and say, “we are also part of the environment.” We need to increase our understanding of how people are interacting with the marine environment, including how we impact the environment, how we depend on it, and how it impacts us. This coupled-lens can improve how we manage our marine resources.
For example, in grad school I worked on a project looking at the potential reintroduction of sea otters to Oregon. Sea otter reintroduction is a really interesting topic because you have certain stakeholders that are very focused on the potential impacts of sea otters to fisheries, like Dungeness crabs or sea urchins. They are cautious about sea otters reducing how much of those prey populations are available. But, sea otters can also have a lot of ecosystem benefits, particularly the restoration of kelp, which can provide additional ecosystem services to coastal communities. When I would communicate my research, I tried to give people exposure to those two sides of the story, so that they could appreciate how what happens in the marine environment is going to impact what happens within the human system, and vice-versa. Taking this broader perspective and thinking about people as a species in the environment allow us to recognize the actions we take may impact the environment, and eventually and ultimately impact us.
As stated on your profile on 500 Queer Scientists, you identify as a Black, gay man. How have these facets of your identity shaped your experience in marine science and policy?
Given the recent civil unrest and killings of innocent Black people, I find myself thinking about this question more and more these days. For a long time, it was very hard for me to tease apart my experience as a Black person as opposed to a gay man: because they are both my identity, they were sort of one and the same for me. But now I realize that they are actually quite different experiences. As a cisgender gay man, I always had the option to not open up about my sexuality in an attempt to avoid potential discrimination. Whereas as a Black man, there is no hiding my race. I experienced racial discrimination throughout my childhood growing up in a very white community in Maine, and as I got older I saw how that discrimination evolved and became more covert, turning into microaggressions. For me, being Black has had a far greater impact on both my education and professional life because that racial discrimination has been a constant.
These recent killings really put things into perspective for me. For the first time in my life, I found myself unable to focus on the work I wanted to do, because I was so concerned about the state of the world and what sort of progress we were making on race relations in the United States. I found this clash between my identity, personal life and professional life, where the trauma I experienced from hearing and seeing these deaths prevented me from doing the things that I really wanted to do and from excelling in my day-to-day job.
How has the fact that the recent civil unrest has been going on at the same time as Pride Month shaped this experience?
Typically, I am very excited for Pride Month. But given the current climate, I’ve also found myself completely unable to celebrate this year, because I am so hyper-focused on what I need to do to help my people in the Black community. Which is unfortunate, because Pride Month should be a time of not only celebration for me, but for other people in the LGBTQI+ community and allies – for all of us to celebrate the progress that we’ve made. But these recent killings and civil unrest is a constant reminder that we have so much further to go when it comes to this country valuing Black people and people of color, that’s made it almost impossible for me to really enjoy this Pride Month.
While being Black, being gay, and being a marine scientist are all aspects of your identity, it sounds like this past month has really highlighted that there are moments when some aspects of identity come more to the forefront than others.
Absolutely. And I think it’s also really demonstrated the importance of understanding intersectionality when it comes to a person’s identity. Where the country could be making a lot of progress in accepting or valuing people for certain parts of their identity, but not others. Because I identify with all these groups, it makes it challenging to do the things that I typically like to do when it comes to my job as a marine scientist or celebrating Pride as a gay man. We, as a society, have much further to go in understanding those intersectionalities and how these identities influence a person’s overall well-being, and subsequently, ability to succeed in their job or education.
What do you think marine organizations, which are disproportionately white, can do to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. I think it really requires knowledge of this system as a whole. We need to take a much broader look at marginalized experiences, particularly when it comes to what happens to people outside of work. Black people and people of color don’t stop being people of color when they leave the workplace. There’s a lot of stuff that can go on outside the office that impacts their day-to-day life and their overall well-being. If we want to increase diversity or want to create organizations that are equitable and more inclusive, we need to take that broader perspective and understand it’s not just marine organizations that are predominately white, or where there may be microaggressions or hurdles within our profession. There are all these other experiences outside our field that could hinder our ability to succeed or even want to join the marine professional sector. These are very ugly historical systems that have evolved and are very covert these days. We need to look beyond marine organizations to really get an understanding of how we can begin chipping away and breaking down the system as a whole.
Follow Dominique Kone on Twitter: @dom_kone