WSG News Blog

Marine Affairs Work is More Than Counting Fish

How the WSG Diversity, Equity and Inclusion workgroup strives to change marine fields

From the spring 2020 Sea Star print newsletter

By Sallie Lau, Guest Student Writer

The DEI Workgroup is comprised of more than half of WSG staff, including those pictured here. Clockwise: Melissa Watkinson, Russell Callender, Maile Sullivan, Melissa Poe, Karen Morrill-McClure, Meg Chadsey, Deborah Purce, Kate Litle

“So, are you saying, I can’t just count fish anymore?”

My colleague voiced this question while I was speaking about how racial inequality and its theoretical underpinnings are intricately tied to how I navigate my personal and professional life. It hurt to hear him ask the question because I have found that if you’re not part of the dominant culture, you can’t just count fish—there are many other burdens to carry. As an international student of color, I think about whether my Master of Marine Affairs program is meant for people like me every day. My colleague, a white man, has the privilege to not have to do this kind of thinking. He cares about diversity, equity and inclusion. He just doesn’t want to think about these things while on the job.

This is a common perspective in the world of marine science and policy. But, if you don’t think about and act on racial equity, or indeed, any kind of equity in the workplace, it becomes difficult for people of color and other minorities to be active participants in that work. Many groups, such as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) workgroup at Washington Sea Grant (WSG), recognize this and are taking steps to incorporate DEI principles and best practices into marine work.

People of color and other minority groups are often underserved and underrepresented in the environmental field. In 2017, people of color earned just 29.8 percent of bachelor’s degrees in environmental science. According to a report by an environmental diversity initiative called Green 2.0, people of color only make up 12–16 percent of employees in mainstream environmental NGOs, foundations and government agencies.

These statistics have real impacts. When people of color and other minority groups are equitably represented and included in our field, we are better able to find solutions that are appropriate for local communities. We create a space where everyone can feel welcome. We empower youth to explore more career options. It is critical that we are here.

At WSG, Melissa Watkinson, Kate Litle and Karen Morrill-McClure, along with other staff members, started a DEI workgroup 1.5 years ago. The workgroup, founded on the principle of being able to bring one’s whole self to work, started off as an informal invitation of “Hey, let’s talk about inclusivity!” Since then, the workgroup has created a vision of what a DEI-centered WSG would look like in ten years, and they have created a roadmap to achieve that vision. Additionally, four subgroups were created to support the implementation of WSG’s DEI values: tribal relations, roadmap navigation, resources and training, and employee and advisory development.

The workgroup has gone from talking about broad visions that address topics, such as hiring and recruitment, accountability, transparency, and acknowledging multiple ways of knowing, to focusing on more specific issues, such as sexual harassment in the workplace and the field, inclusion of trans and non-binary folks, and how to act as an ally when a microaggression occurs. Another issue of importance is bringing people into the conversation about diversity. To do so, WSG has monthly rotating workgroup members who serve as a “DEI Discussion Partner,” the go-to person when people have questions about DEI.

“People do feel uncomfortable when we have these conversations,” says Morrill-McClure. “And anything that encourages people to step up and have these discussions is good. Most of our discussion partners start with ‘I don’t know much. But I’m willing to have this conversation with you.’ We want this to be a space to make mistakes and learn from these mistakes.’”

When people feel more confident in addressing DEI issues within their own workplace, they’re going to become more confident in having these conversations with other organizations and partners. “These individuals are encouraging other decision makers to implement aspects of DEI,” says Watkinson. “I think that’s where we’ve made a big impact so far.”

This internal work is important for WSG, which does outreach to coastal communities and seeks to recruit a more diverse marine workforce. “Sometimes you want to go out and suddenly reach diverse communities, but I think you have to do some work within the organization because there’s a reason that the organization looks like it does and is working with the people it has been working with,” says Morrill-McClure.

Across the street from WSG at the University of Washington School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, a need for allyship and for amplifying minority student voices catalyzed a student-led effort—including myself—to create the Diversity Forum. We wanted to bring students together to discuss, learn and act upon issues of equity and the structures of oppression some of us face every day. Quickly, we found that the Diversity Forum allows our message of “we value you and what you bring to this community” to be visible. “If you’re coming in, and you’re the only person who has a certain perspective, the Diversity Forum’s existence tells you that even if we do not have people who have the same viewpoint as you do, there are people who know what it’s like to have other viewpoints and who will support and help you,” says Forum member Ian Stanfield.

A groundswell of other organizations is joining in this work as well. The National Sea Grant College Program has created a DEI community of practice; the Washington Environmental Council has a program that invites all staff members to think about different aspects of racial equity; and The Nature Conservancy in Washington just posted a new equity statement that, in part, acknowledges the past harms the organization has caused communities.

Some of these organizations are planning to come together to share best practices in advancing DEI. It’s exciting, because while there has long been a lot of talk, people have seen many cycles where not much has changed. Now, those in the environmental field are saying: we need to do something about the lack of diversity and inclusion in our field, and we are taking tangible steps to get there.