"There's not many times where people ask you for your story": Toward a More Complete Narrative Reflecting Experiences of Environmental Professionals of Color
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Whiteness is central to power in the United States. Racial hegemony was fundamental to the country’s nation-building and the backbone for the nation’s nature-building. White upper-class urban men nurtured concepts of nature and race to create a dominant storyline steeped in racial stereotypes that permeated the American conservation movement and modern environmentalism. The narrative helped White people justify their social hierarchies, expulsions, enslavements, internments, segregations, and exclusions of people of color from nature. The narrative catalyzed notions of people of color’s intrinsic lack of interest —and therefore lack of belonging— in nature, ignoring people of color’s histories of participation and unique relationships to nature and the environment. The dominant narrative reinforced and was reinforced by racialized institutional structures to exclude people of color from environmental decision-making, even defining the meaning of environmental jobs. White spaces, institutions, and narratives have had enduring repercussions for people of color’s sense of place in the outdoors manifested through traditional environmental workforce recruitment and retention practices and workforce demographics.
Using a critical race theory lens, this qualitative research study cultivates a deeper understanding of the personal and professional experiences of 32 people of color who work or have worked in the environmental field. Through counterstorytelling, this study also uncovers the impacts of structural barriers on people of color professionally in an arc from early career, mid-career, upper management, to leadership positions. The understandings gained from the counterstories told from the perspective of the people most affected by racism challenge dominant narratives about how and how much people of color value nature or the environment. The counterstories reveal that systemic barriers to equity, inclusion, and belonging in the environmental field were often the result of institutionalized racism or racism amplified by sexism. The findings highlight participants’ strength, courage, and resilience in the face of the systemic barriers they directly experienced or witnessed, revealing how environmental professionals of color fight against racialized institutional barriers, subvert institutional forces working against them, persevere, and find relative success and peace working in the environmental field. The findings also reveal why environmental professionals of color leave environmental jobs or the environmental field altogether.