By Sergio Tovar

Increasing diversity in the environmental field has become essential not only in addressing the issues disproportionately affecting minority communities but also in coming up with fresh, innovative ideas necessary to tackle the ever-evolving challenges facing our planet.

“It’s important as a means to broadening people’s perspectives — getting people involved with other communities and cultures, and exposing them to ideas that may be foreign to them,” says Andrew Slaughter MEM’19, co-president of the Nicholas School Black and Latino Club (BLC).

Andrew Slaughter MEM’19
Andrew Slaughter MEM’19

“When we’re incorporating ideas from a range of personalities and backgrounds, the ideas are better and they’re more effective.”

Sumin Wang MEM’19, a student from China, agrees.

“We can learn so much from each other,” she says. “We have different perspectives, different skills, different backgrounds, but if we can work closely together, I think that adds up to making something different and special.”

Recognizing that importance, the school has focused on enacting diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives as part of its strategic plan, which calls for diversifying all segments of the school while fostering an inclusive, schoolwide community.

“We are making progress, but could do much better,” says Stanback Dean Toddi Steelman PhD’96, who became the school’s first female dean in July.

“Environmental professions have seen gains predominantly by white women. I believe that we are seeing some increase in racial minorities in the field, but this does not match the growth we are seeing in minority populations in the United States.

The trends in the Nicholas School are reflective of these national trends at large.”

She adds that the school needs to work on addressing DE&I issues in its teaching, outreach and research missions to remedy that.

Sumin Wang MEM’19
Sumin Wang MEM’19

“We shouldn’t value inclusiveness, equity and diversity for their own sake,” she says. “We should value them because they make us better at what we do. A more inclusive, equitable and diverse environmental field will result in better science and more effective practice and management.”

Dieynabou Barry MEM’19, who serves as president of the Diverse & Inclusive Community for the Environment(DICE) student group and copresident of BLC, appreciates the Nicholas School’s push to increase diversity, especially among faculty.

“It’s an important first step to making sure discussions that are important to marginalized groups are happening in the classroom,” she says. “When we talk about environmental issues — whether that’s energy access in rural communities or water quality — if you don’t bring in different perspectives, especially from those most affected in these communities, you miss out on the deeper issues and other important conversations.”

Despite what seems like an ever-growing list of diversity issues, Bhargavi Karumuri MEM’19 says the school is actively trying to meet the needs of everyone at the school.

“There’s always going to be new things you need to be aware of,” she says. “But the Nicholas School is doing a good job of adjusting and addressing those issues. I only see it getting better from here on.”

To make sure of that, the school has entrusted a faculty-staff committee — the D&I Actionators — to review, initiate and implement events, activities and policies that promote these efforts. Actionator Nancy Kelly, director of Nicholas community engagement & events, says relying on a team instead of just one person is a unique, integrated approach.

You're valued here as a person. Our differences in background, culture, language, beliefs, and values are really appreciated here. --Temis Coral Castellanos

“The group represents different people within our staff, whose jobs are to execute our decisions, so that when issues come up, decisions are made and they’re carried out much more quickly,” she says.

“There can also be a richer discussion when you have a group of people with different perspectives looking at a single issue.”

The committee, launched in 2016 by former dean Alan Townsend, focuses on ensuring that every member of the Nic School community feels welcomed and valued. To do so, the Actionators organize events, ranging from community coffee chats to implicit bias training, while also advising leadership on long-term strategies to achieve the school’s goals.

Morgan Browning MEM’19
Morgan Browning MEM’19

“They help keep DE&I issues on the front burner for the school,” says Steelman.

Morgan Browning MEM’19 thinks the effort to get the entire community more involved in DE&I while also empowering minorities is a smart idea.

“It’s all about providing a platform for diversity, equity and inclusion issues to be promoted and worked on to make them visible to everyone, not just anyone who identifies themselves as part of a minority group,” she said.

“I don’t think that my sexual identity has much to do with what I’m doing at the Nic School, but just knowing that there’s representation — and support — of the gay community, of people of color, gender diversity is good so everyone actively feels included.”

Temis Coral Castellanos MEM’19, a student from Colombia, says that the explicit focus on DE&I is one of the reasons she and her husband, third-year PhD student Edgar Virguez Rodriguez, decided to come to Duke. She adds that they also immediately felt a sense of belonging at the Nicholas School.

“You can find many places where they value you as a student, but we really appreciate that you’re also valued here as a person,” says Coral Castellanos. “Our differences in background, culture, language, beliefs and values are really appreciated here.”

Food also is valued at the Nicholas School as a way of bringing people together. It’s not uncommon to come across lo mein, naan or tres leches cake at Grainger Hall.

“Breaking bread is one of the best ways to build community and get to know people from different places,” says Barry, whose DICE group hosts an international potluck every year. Fittingly, the Global Connections Initiative — which aims to set the stage for international and domestic students to come together and share their traditions — launched last year with a smorgasbord dinner during fall orientation.

Temis Coral Castellanos MEM’19
Temis Coral Castellanos MEM’19

“That set the tone that this is a community that’s welcoming of international students,” says Wang, who went on to get involved with the group and helped organized Global Connection’s Lunar New Year celebration.

In addition to social events, the initiative also promotes cross-cultural understanding through academic and professional development so students can learn about environmental issues around the world.

“With globalization, we’re pretty much global citizens,” says Coral Castellanos. “We can’t live in a little bubble. Being able to understand intercultural differences and how to deal with that is really important.”

At the end of the day, Global Connections aims to make sure international students feel like they’re truly part of the community.

“When international students come to the United States they’re often separate — or less integrated,” says Kelly, who was part of a team of students, faculty and staff that launched the group.

“We’re trying to find better ways to create relationships between international and domestic communities, so we can all take advantage of the rich resources everyone brings to our school.”

Wang says that inclusiveness goes beyond school-sanctioned events. One of the highlights of her first year at the Nicholas school was attending a Thanksgiving dinner for students who couldn’t go back home for the holiday at Kelly’s home. Each of the 32 attendants also got a chance to show off part of their culture by bringing their favorite dish and writing down why it was important to them.

“That was very meaningful,” says Wang.

Browning says she has also experienced how friendly this community can be.

She admits that she was nervous about coming to school in North Carolina after the state enacted the now-defunct HB2, a bill which she says showed active willingness to discriminate towards people in the LGBT community.

Despite missing Admitted Students Visitation Weekend, Browning says she easily found volunteers on a student Facebook group — including some who were openly gay — to show her around Duke and answer all her questions on their own time. That generosity and their reassurances made her realize that she would be safe here.

Bhargavi Karumuri MEM’19
Bhargavi Karumuri MEM’19

“I think the Nicholas School community as a whole is incredibly warm and welcoming and helpful,” says Browning. “That’s why I love the Nic School.”

Slaughter, who’s from upstate New York, says he also had some reservations about coming to the Nicholas School because he was unsure about what living in the South as a black man would be like. But he’s been pleasantly surprised by the diversity and Southern hospitality he’s encountered in the Triangle.

“One of the things I say now when I go back home is that I don’t even think of the Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill area as a southern city anymore,” he says. “It’s just so diverse in culture, perspectives, food, recreational opportunities…”

Coral Castellano says the school and university administration are also proactive about responding to and comforting the community. She cites their response to anti-immigrant rhetoric and the Trump administration’s travel bans as examples.

“We’ve really felt supported,” she says. “They’ve made it clear that they don’t care what’s going on outside, they’re here to protect you as a student and will be there in case you need them.”

There are also several resources and student groups with a diversity focus at the Nicholas School and across Duke.

DICE, the biggest at the Nicholas School, holds year-round events while often advocating to the administration on behalf of students.

“It means a lot that it’s a student organization led by students, most of whom have first-hand experience with these issues,” said Karumuri, who serves as the group’s secretary.

Dieynabou Barry MEM’19

DICE also tackles timely and difficult issues. Last semester, DICE hosted a panel on the Me Too movement to discuss sexual assault and the power dynamics behind it. The group also held an event to discuss implicit bias following the unwarranted arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks. This school year, DICE will look to focus on educating the Nicholas School community on what it means to be an ally and how one can help those suffering from systematic injustices.

BLC also holds multicultural events throughout the year, from salsa nights and Dia de los Muertos celebrations to black history trivia and career discussions.

The group hopes to expand its reach across Duke and build itself as a resource for local youth and the overall Durham community.

“We want people outside of Duke, outside the Nic School, to be exposed to environmentalism and conservation as a potential career trajectory,” says Slaughter.

“It’s not a field young people think about, so just opening up that possibility to them and showing them how it could be effective for them is very important.”

That’s exactly what the school’s outreach programs are aiming to do.

Led by lecturer Nicolette Cagle PhD’08, who runs the two-week Environmental Science Summer Program for local high-schoolers each summer, these programs aim to attract children from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds to the environmental field.

"We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike." Maya Angelou

The school also sponsors programs like Duke GALS (Girls on Outdoor Adventure for Leadership & Science) and FEMMES (Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering and Science) to encourage girls to consider STEM careers.

“We have a terrific STEM pipeline program,” says Steelman.

“I intend to maintain focus on these issues during my tenure as dean as we figure out how to increase diversity in our pipelines and candidate pools for students, staff and faculty.”

Barry says continuing to listen to members of the community about their individual experiences is key.

“You have to find out what it means to be a student of color, a black woman or a queer black woman to figure out how all those identities come together and figure out those needs so that students feel comfortable to be their authentic selves, whether in the classroom or at a social gathering,” she says. “Diversity, equity and inclusion are all three different things, but when they come together it gives students a space to feel empowered.”

Barry knows there’s a lot of work left to do to counteract the legacies of decades of institutional discrimination in the South and in higher education, but she’s thankful to have found her home in an inclusive community.

“People at the Nic School, being environmentalists, are open-minded, progressive and very welcoming of different people,” she says. “I’ve never felt that I have to be a different person or that my race has even got in the way of anything.”

Sergio Tovar is the Nicholas School’s Social Media Specialist, Photography by Les Todd

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