November 20, 2020
Melissa Watkinson reflects on her Indigenous heritage and her new role at Washington Sea Grant
By Melissa Watkinson, Equity, Access and Community Engagement Lead
Heartbeats thump to the rhythm of the collective drum that echoes throughout downtown Seattle. Voices call, respond, and sing in unison. Tired feet lift up, taking long strides that are motivated by the need to move to the erupting sounds that rise along the winding concrete. Words roaring from our bellies, harmonizing with the soul of the ancestors.
November is National Native American Heritage Month. When I reflect on what this month means to me, I find joy in my memories of singing with the urban Native community in celebration of our collective, yet diverse heritages. I honor my Chickasaw and Choctaw ancestors by continuing to learn our culture, history, language and stories. I gain strength from the values that my ancestors passed on to me: to work for a more equitable world that also recognizes the stewards and first peoples of the lands and waters that we live, work, and play among.
During my first three years at Washington Sea Grant (WSG), I primarily supported the social science efforts of the Olympic Coast Vulnerability Assessment to Ocean Acidification. My role as an Indigenous member of the research team working in partnership with Washington’s coastal tribes meant that I held a responsibility to ensure the work reflected and respected traditional knowledges within a western science system. This work was meaningful to me because of the opportunity I had to partner with local Native American tribal communities, as well as to ensure that their voices, knowledge, values, and concerns were central to understanding the impacts of changes in the ocean.
At the same time, I led the growing efforts at WSG to make it a place that values and incorporates diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The work of DEI began as a selfish endeavor; I was an early career professional with an Indigenous background whose identity was not otherwise reflected among the predominantly white demographic of WSG. Getting others on board of DEI work, and ultimately learning about the interests and unspoken commitments of WSG staff at the time, was an uncertain, uncomfortable, and yet necessary and exciting process. Since our first meeting to discuss DEI at WSG, over two years ago, we have committed to DEI through a new values statement, published an organizational-wide DEI 10-year strategic plan, and are in the process of learning (and some unlearning) toward the aim of becoming an anti-racist organization. These efforts led to the desire for recognized and supported leadership of our DEI efforts.
In October, I transitioned my position within WSG from social scientist to a new role as the equity, access and community engagement lead. It has been an honor to lead WSG in our beginning phases of recognizing our responsibility in advancing DEI. I am excited to shift into a position that is formally recognized and responsible for leading the organization toward becoming a place where diversity is valued, people feel welcome and included, and our efforts and programming are equitable. I believe that I am guided by the vision of resilience that my ancestors created for future generations. In this way, I get to celebrate my Native American heritage every day.