Can Institutions Provide Equity and Environmental Justice?

Brian Tracey is a SMEA alumnus who graduated in 2019. He is the program coordinator for Seattle MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement), an organization that provides hands-on STEM education to underrepresented or economically disadvantaged K-12 students in the city.

Brian wrote his thesis on the experience of underrepresented minorities at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs (SMEA) and was the head of the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) committees of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate and of the College of the Environment during his time at UW. He was also a member of the inaugural Husky 100.

In Part One of my interview with Brian, I spoke to him about the work he does for Seattle MESA, how his work was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the messages he tries to instill in his students. For this second and final installment, we go deeper. Brian discusses his experience at SMEA, how that set him up for the work he does now, and takes a critical look at whether or not non-profits, government agencies, and academic institutions can truly meet the needs of non-white and otherwise marginalized people. Brian’s responses have been edited for length and clarity and are presented below as a continuous story.

Tampa Bay, FL (August 22, 2017) – Brian presented his initial thesis findings at the American Fisheries Society’s annual meeting. (Photo credit: Brian Tracey)

 

I’m only at MESA because of what I started doing at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. About halfway through my first quarter, I started asking, “You know, there’s this all this policy work we’re always talking about, but I don’t hear us talking about any of it in relation to non-white communities.” My focus has always been on Black communities, but by extension I’m thinking of other non-white communities as well. So we weren’t even talking about any of the communities that were most affected by all the policy we were discussing.

I talked to Dave Fluharty about this, and at the time we had a Black faculty member, Dr. Kiki Jenkins, so I talked to Kiki and a bunch of different folks. I forget who sent me there, but someone directed me to the Graduate and Professional Student Senate. It was through the GPSS that I got connected to MESA, and that’s how I started off as a volunteer. So it was being in SMEA and having a sense of what I wanted to do that got me to MESA.

Since I’m in the education world, I’m sort of on the policy side of STEM, and I’ve realized that I gained important skills from SMEA. For example, I learned skills related to advocacy and policy from Nives Dolšak’s classes on policy analysis and the policy process. When I see a policy or see a program that’s being proposed and I understand how to dissect it and think about it critically, I think to myself, “Damn, good job Nives! I appreciate you.” So in that sense SMEA has definitely prepared me for the work that I do now.

SMEA also prepared me in terms of climate. When I say climate, I refer to the demographics of the people that I work with: like the circles I work in now, SMEA is a very policy-oriented institution that is mostly made up of white folks. I find that the nonprofit world is very similar to that. There’s a term I learned this past spring, the nonprofit industrial complex. In the nonprofit industrial complex, there are a lot of white folks and most of them mean well, but for one reason or another and despite all the policy work they do, nothing seems to change for non-white communities. These organizations stay in business and continue getting donations, but meanwhile, the folks that are supposed to be benefiting from their efforts see little to no change.

Government agencies and academic institutions like SMEA are like that, except they’re not nonprofits. When I was at SMEA, there was a student named Jeffrey. He’s a community activist, scholar, and scientist who is from one of our local Coast Salish Tribes, and man, this dude gets all my respect. One day, we had someone from a state agency come by to give us a presentation on how they lead the region’s collective effort to to restore and protect Puget Sound. Well, it was yet another white dude saying, “Hey, we do this and we do that in this community,” and he points to all his graphs and slides. At some point Jeffrey stops him and says: “Hold on, man. I’m down there, I’m in that community, and you all don’t do jack!” The initial response of the presenter was shock, and then he started pointing at more visuals to convince us that his agency was having a positive impact.

It was great to see, because if Jeffrey hadn’t been there and if his perspective wasn’t represented at SMEA, would we have gotten that side of the story at all? Speaking for myself, as a first-year graduate student I didn’t know much of anything, because my background was more on the quantitative side and not in policy or social science. So when I was hearing the presentation I was thinking, “Yeah, okay, that all sounds good.” But Jeffrey spoke up and said, “No, man, this is all bullsh-t.”

It’s because of that interaction that I looked deeper into the agency and what they were doing, and yes, they were doing good work, but every year I see the Sound getting worse, so what are they all doing? Why does there still not seem to be any meaningful change when they keep creating and utilizing all these metrics?

So SMEA was my first exposure to that, and now, being in the education world, I see the same thing happening. And when I look beyond that to the rest of society, I see all these non-profits in different sectors that are supposed to be “doing the work,” but most of them are headed by white folks whose pockets are getting fatter while the people who are supposed to be benefitting are still in the same position. So graduate school also prepared me for life in that respect, because when I encounter those same situations out in the wider world, I’m able to identify that and tell myself, “Oh, I’ve seen this before.”

“People are too busy building organizations. So who is left to do the work?” – Quote from Madonna Thunder Hawk, Indigenous civil rights activist and Tribal Liaison for the Lakota People’s Law Project, from The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (2017, Duke University Press). (Graphic by: James Lee)

 

My experiences at SMEA are what motivated me to write my thesis on the experience of underrepresented minorities in the program. That thesis is the most filtered, purest version of what I wanted to do. I scaled down my initial questions about the experience of underrepresented minorities at the UW to the College of the Environment, and then eventually to SMEA and the experience of non-white students in this one program, because SMEA is a microcosm of things we see within the college, within the university, and within society as a whole.

I was fortunate that when I was at SMEA, I wasn’t the only Black student there, nor was I the only non-white student there. But as anyone who reads my thesis will see, my sample size was super small. So that was the motivation. I wanted to explore the experience of non-white students at SMEA and figure out how we can provide a reality check for SMEA. Nothing like what I did with my thesis had been done before, at least to my knowledge. No one had ever held up a mirror to SMEA and said, “Look, this is what SMEA is doing, and this is what is going on with your non-white students.”

Based on this experience, what are my thoughts about SMEA forming a DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) committee? Well, I was the head of the diversity committee for the GPSS for one or two years and then the head of the diversity committee for the College of the Environment for three or four years. I wouldn’t say it was just our doing, but I believe the work that we did within the GPSS motivated institutions within the UW to start their own DEI committees. We were hoping to get a DEI committee for the College for a number of years, and we finally got one. So how will a SMEA committee be different from the College’s committee? I know it’s to be for SMEA alone, and that’s cool, but it’s something to think about because everyone wants to have one, and just having one isn’t what will make a difference.

At Seattle MESA, we conduct DEI training sessions twice a year for all the teachers in the districts we work with. We once had a guest speaker who asked about the racial politics in Seattle, and the most common thing that all the teachers said is that it’s very superficial. I’ll add that it’s also very performative. People want to wave the flags and go to the marches, but at the end of the day, it ends up being sort of a plaque that they can put on their wall, so that they can say, “Yeah, I did this,” when in reality they’re not really genuine about making the needed change.

To be honest, I’m turned off by all that, and I actually don’t do that work anymore, although it’s part of my job in a sense. So if SMEA students think a committee is going to be beneficial, then sure. But just creating a committee doesn’t mean that staff and faculty are going to get any more support to meaningfully serve on that committee. Will they be given the resources and the space needed to do the work? Also, if a person isn’t white, everybody will want them on their committee for representation purposes, and that raises concerns because what does it mean for mainly non-white faculty and students to be giving all of their time to DEI work? Will the burden be shared in a fair way? I think that’s a legitimate concern that the program should not dismiss.

Still, I applaud the work that students, alumni, and others in SMEA are doing. I didn’t start the diversity work at SMEA. Someone passed me the baton, or maybe I picked it up because it had dropped. And you all are picking it up and carrying it forward too, so thank you to all for keeping the work alive.

Seattle, WA (September 2019) – SMEA’s 2019-2021 student cohort poses outside the SMEA building on their orientation day. When you think of people working in fields like marine ecology, fisheries policy, coastal management, or STEM in general, what kind of faces do you imagine? (Photo credit: SMEA)

Editor’s notes:

Brian’s thesis provides three straightforward, initial recommendations that SMEA can and should take on board to foster a more equitable environment:

  1. The administration should be responsible for disseminating information about diversity-related resources and events at the UW to students, and this should be done in the form of a bi-weekly newsletter made available both digitally and in print (such as in orientation materials that new students receive), with regular verbal encouragement given from faculty to students to read the newsletter to show support and foster discussion.
  2. Faculty should seek training on how to mentor underrepresented minority graduate students and junior faculty, particularly for a student or junior faculty member who chooses a non-traditional research focus. Such training would keep faculty current with recent advances in pedagogy and may help distribute the mentoring load more equitably by reducing the tendency of students to gravitate toward a small minority of faculty members whom they perceive as being the most supportive mentors.
  3.  SMEA should create space, physical and otherwise, where underrepresented students feel comfortable expressing themselves. Brian suggests informal brown bag sessions during lunch hours for folks to discuss social issues, and he also provides a list of rules for establishing and maintaining constructive spaces of expression that can be added to course syllabi as well as to these informal discussion sessions.

 In response to Brian’s recommendations, two SMEA alumnae founded an unincorporated group called the Diversity Forum at SMEA (DivForum) last year. Initially a space for students to share and express themselves, the DivForum has become an increasingly action-oriented group as it began responding to student-identified needs. The group has been holding at least one SMEA-wide townhall every quarter and has begun curating a DEI-focused newsletter of its own, supported in part by Seed Grant funding obtained by DivForum organizers. The group has essentially moved two of Brian’s three recommendations forward on its own, and looks forward to seeing how the wider SMEA community will build on that work through a DEI committee, for which a near-term action plan has been proposed.

Brian’s fourth and final recommendation is arguably beyond the purview of SMEA, but is just as important for fostering diversity in the marine and environmental fields: We must streamline the path to marine science and other STEM-related degrees and careers for underrepresented students by increasing STEM outreach and support in K-12 education. One way to support STEM education for non-white students in the Seattle area is to contribute to the UW’s Seattle MESA Fund. 

To read Madonna Thunder Hawk’s essay in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, contact editor-in-chief James Lee at james00@uw.edu.