People of Color Support Networks are Trampolines that Bolster J.E.D.I.
In a report that I am currently writing about assessing J.E.D.I. capacity building in environmental organizations, I asked staff of color, “what has been the most crucial effort that has helped you survive and/or thrive in the environmental movement?” The top answer was support from other people of color. Support was described in different forms: formal and informal networks, networks internal or external to an organization, organizational people of color affinity groups, supervisors, and conferences for environmentalists of color.
The data I collected from staff of color also demonstrated that a person of color working in the environmental movement may experience hope, feeling valued and supported, and excitement working on issues about which they are deeply passionate, while also experiencing microaggressions, exclusion, being devalued, and feelings of invisibility. The same person of color may experience all of this in one week (as recently evidenced by a courageous person of color I spoke to this past week).
This dividedness and oppression are shared experiences that may commonly bond staff of color together, which is why support networks are essential. A support network offers comfort and camaraderie. It’s a place where people of color can breathe, be vulnerable, and bring their true selves. It’s a space of trust, laughter, joy, hope, tears, and cathartic release. In a support network, a person doesn’t need to say anything or do anything; he, she, or they can just be. A support network is also a place of fortification, rejuvenation, empowerment, and innovation because unique ideas are supported and built upon rather than being shut down.
Support networks are like trampolines. They keep us from falling, help us bounce back, and catapult us to a higher level.
Support networks have been crucially important in my life. When I worked for a national conservation organization in the early 2000s, I was the only person of color on the conservation staff. It was incredibly isolating as I was exposed to all types of racisms (individual, systemic, and institutional). For someone who was a high achiever, overperformer, and naturally secure, I underachieved, underperformed and was suddenly unsure of myself. Even though I was fresh out of graduate school, and I knew cutting edge approaches to conserving biodiversity, my suggestions were often shunned. It wasn’t until the second in command repeated my idea that the work was adopted. I was also exposed to microaggressions, like overhearing a coworker call Asians "little Orientals" and my supervisor telling me not to build relationships with communities of color because "we don't do environmental justice." Unfortunately, I did not have a grasp of what was happening and how I was being treated. I had a feeling that something was really wrong, but I did not have a J.E.D.I. lens or the vocabulary to express what was happening. I was a J.E.D.I. baby.
After four long years, I left the organization on bad terms. I felt chewed up and spit out, and I could not find any entity to hold me up and support me. My experience was so demoralizing and debilitating that I didn’t want anything to do with the environmental movement ever again. However, I realized I could not abandon what I knew I loved—piping plovers, cougars, otters, and biodiversity as a whole—and my new found love—all my brothers and sisters having similar oppressive experiences within environmental organizations. Since the environmental movement could not be successful and sustainable until it got this J.E.D.I. thing right and I wasn’t finding what I needed, I took the initiative in creating what I thought would be helpful for me and others in similar predicaments.
I didn't have a support network, so I connected with a few others who were the only or one of the few people of color at their environmental organizations and started the Environmental Professionals of Color (EPOC) network. EPOC has made all the difference in everything that I have accomplished in the environmental movement. EPOC was a place where I could commiserate, laugh, and cry with others. EPOC re-energized me and provided me with the confidence to pursue what I felt was right. It was through EPOC where I met three extraordinary leaders—Tony DeFalco, Desiree Williams-Rajee, and Chuck Sams—and co-created an organization, the Center for Diversity and the Environment. A support network brought us together, and the resulting synergy coalesced into an organization that has forever changed the landscape and make-up of the environmental movement.
EPOC was my trampoline. EPOC kept me from falling and leaving the environmental movement. EPOC helped me bounce back to a healthy level of operating. And EPOC catapulted me into the type of work I never imagined I would be doing—operating in a space that helps both people of color and the planet survive and thrive. EPOC members fortified me and helped me find my way so I can help others find their way. EPOC was a space where I discovered my full slate of gifts and talents and how I could best use them in service to the environmental movement. I am grateful for knowing how I fit into the whole, so I can fully step into the role for which I was made.
If it weren’t for the EPOC support network, I likely would not be working in the environmental movement. And I might actually be a person that dislikes environmentalists and opposes environmental protection (not because I don’t love our planet), but out of spite because of my crushing experience. Even more telling—the overall experience was not because of bad people intentionally trying to hurt me. It was because of the very culture and systems that we in the environmental movement operate in and are complicit to daily. We all are pawns to the power of institutional and systemic racism that cause seemingly good and well-intended people to reinforce negative impacts for people of color over and over again. This cycle must be stopped, and the core of this change lies with you (which is the topic of last week’s blog post). I am so grateful for those of you who are working diligently to halt, dismantle, and replace this oppressive cycle.
I share my story as an example of how influential a support network was in one person of color’s trajectory in the environment movement. My story is not the only one. There are many spaces for people of color support networks in the environmental movement today, including Green Leadership Trust, Diverse Environmental Leaders, PGM One summit, funders of color via the INDEEP Initiative, Latino Outdoors, and Outdoor Afro. Often unfunded or underfunded, the amount of people of color support networks grows yearly, which demonstrates how crucial and needed they are.
Below are voices of staff of color sharing their high value for support networks:
Thank you… for a network of friends/colleagues that catch me when I fall, support me when I’m weak and give back 2x what I put in. It's like a reality check.
[The] conference… put me in touch with dozens of talented, intelligent, and trail-blazing people of color from around this region and allowed me to develop partnerships that can help the environmental movement strengthen its impact in this region and across the country.
It has been so important to find other people of color to bond and build support for each other.
Support networks allow people of color to survive and thrive and are fundamental to creating a sustainable and successful environmental movement. Organizations and funders that are serious about J.E.D.I. and successfully protecting our planet must invest significant resources in these formal networks. Support networks for people of color are the trampolines needed to catapult the environmental movement to the next level.
People of color, what support networks (formal or informal) do you participate in, and why? How has the network helped you survive and/or thrive?
White allies/accomplices, how have you supported (and how will you support) people of color networks and other people of color only spaces?