It’s Tough to Be Inclusive
By Alma Galván, Lisa LaRocque, and Gus Medina
Environmental educators are pragmatic. Want to learn a new topic? It’s simple -- get trained, look for a new curriculum, and tap into our traditional tools.
So why can’t we take the same approach in the areas of diversity, cultural competency, and inclusiveness? For the basic reason that it is not a topic; it is a transformation in the way we understand and approach a diverse world. Our wish to relate to the diversity around us needs to be about changing ourselves, not others. This change comes from examining what shapes our and others’ values and behaviors and finding respectful win-win approaches and solutions to shared concerns.
After a decade of discussions with, trainings for, and coaching of individuals and organizations on cultural competency and inclusiveness, we wanted to share what we have observed, reflected on, and continue to question. What is it about our motivation, knowledge, and skills as environmental educators in the U.S. that make being inclusive so daunting?
Are we motivated to become inclusive?
We change what we are doing when we are dissatisfied with the status quo. Except for some rumblings about shifting demographics, environmental educators remain busy and content with how we have conducted our work for the last four decades. Many of us are attracted to the EE field because we enjoy nature or ecology, so much so, we want to share it with everyone. Our work is tranquil and scientifically objective; (not embroiled in advocating controversial issues of politics and inequities.) When we have spread our wings into the social arena our profession has been criticized by the conservative right about proselytizing environmental messages while the liberal social justice left feels we haven’t been active enough. The dissonance created by both messages causes environmental educators to be too intimidated to move; better to stay with the way things are than consider the relevance of a shift.
Our profession, funders, and the American culture don’t encourage us to do things differently either. Progress is measured in short-term outcomes, like numbers and quick solutions, and, unfortunately, trumps any mastery of processes that promote a deep analysis of efficacy or real sustainability. The status quo is reinforced.
Do we have the knowledge to become inclusive?
Environmental educators want to be inclusive, but because most of us are members of the dominant culture, much of what we think and do is virtually invisible to us. Our values and behaviors become the norm and we gain comfort in associating with like-minded people. However, this homogeneity of our field fuels our group-think and limits our ability to take the first step in reflecting about our own values and practices.
We have become the transmitters of natural and ecological content knowledge; social sciences, pedagogy, and community issues are of secondary importance to us. Our focus on science validates our one size fits all messages, but negates the social context that brings relevance to others. This insular position limits our ability to reflect on our own practices, our exposure to alternative views, and ultimately, the perspectives, strategies, methods, and models we can draw from as environmental educators. Without a deep and long-term effort to other ways of thinking and doing, we lack the rich cross fertilization to adapt to a changing world.
Do we have the skills to become inclusive?
Our skills in teaching ecological concepts and getting children outdoors is driven by the belief that the knowledge and exposure to the outdoors will result in individuals that care about and are motivated to protect the environment. We promote this knowledge with selected audiences (often children) using pre-packaged programs and resources. However, this is an overly simplistic picture about what motivates individuals to take action and the types of skills needed to succeed in making change. Seldom do we take the time to learn about the communities in which we work or assist program participants with identifying issues of interest to them. As local and global issues become more complicated and interconnected, our limited, one-directional communication about nature and ecology do not always resonate with others and more importantly, fall short of tackling the serious multi-dimensional problems we face.
What do we need to do to become more inclusive?
Today’s complex problems demand that we question whether our motivation, knowledge, and skills allow us to respond to this challenge. If we are truly committed to improving the environment, we need to take a serious look at ourselves or else risk becoming peripheral to the work that needs to be done. This requires self reflection and a deep and candid analysis of the way we do business. There is value in understanding our individual and organizational cultures and the limits they impose on our options and decisions. The criticisms of those with different perspectives can provide us with new and priceless possibilities and opportunities for change. Our motivation will come from a renewed understanding of our roles, responsibilities, practices, and processes.
With this renewed understanding, we will recognize our job is not to teach concepts but facilitate problem solving. Although written about the educational reform movement, in Learning Teams and the Future of Teaching in Edweek.org, Tom Carroll and Hanna Doerr aptly describes environmental educators’ potential new direction:
…[We] must learn to be knowledge navigators, seeking and finding information from multiple sources, evaluating it, making sense of it, and understanding how to collaborate with [our] peers to turn information into knowledge, and knowledge into action.
Our knowledge will come from seeking and embracing diverse points of view, collective reflection, and creatively developing and acting on solutions. In a diverse world, understanding ourselves and each other, respect, and genuine listening will be the imperative tools to promote the cross fertilization needed to solve today’s problems. As trust and relationships form, collaboration is possible in crafting sustainable solutions.
Environmental educators need to learn from others, critically examine and adjust how we address today’s problems, and collaborate on mutually-defined goals. This shift in practice will increase the vigor of our profession and the value of our niche, but more significantly, defines inclusiveness practices. The very act of learning from and working with others strengthens everything. It is not tough to be inclusive, it is necessary.
About the Authors
Gus Medina serves as Project Manager of the Environmental Education and Training Partnership (www.eetap.org). Alma Galván and Lisa LaRocque are co-directors of Intercambios
(www.intercambios-usmex.org) and have served as contractors for one of EETAP’s initiatives. For more information about this collaborative work related to diversity and inclusiveness visit EETAP’s website.
This work was funded by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) under agreement number NT-83272501-4 between the USEPA and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The contents of this article do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the USEPA or The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.