11 Lessons We’ve Learned as Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Consultants in the Outdoor, Conservation, and Environmental Sector

    July 18, 2017
    by Ava Holliday and Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin

    Diversity, equity, and inclusion (or DEI) work seems to be happening throughout the conservation space, but leaders are at times hard pressed to explain why this work is mission-critical beyond “it’s the right thing to do.” And though we agree DEI is the right thing to do, it behooves Blue Sky Funders Forum members to be more specific about why and how DEI work is imperative to the mission of making environmental learning opportunities accessible in all communities. Some reasons that may resonate include the following:

    • Equity—which is an approach to ensuring all people have equal access to a resource—is mission-critical because all communities (and particularly marginalized communities) do not have equal access to nature and face socioeconomic, physical, transportation, and other barriers.
    • Inclusion—which we define as amplifying, valuing, and celebrating those identities, voices, values, and styles that have been marginalized—is also mission-critical because learning from nature cannot happen without a positive and inclusive learning environment.
    • Cultural relevancy—which in the context of nature-based programs means ensuring that lessons connect to learners’ lives and present multiple perspectives—is also essential to creating meaningful opportunities to learn from nature.

    Even if our partners are able to articulate why DEI is essential to fulfilling their missions, they can feel paralyzed about how to actually implement DEI work. At the Avarna Group, we hesitate to call ourselves experts. Instead we think of ourselves as experienced, as we have had the opportunity to see how nearly 50 organizations and agencies approach DEI work from a 30,000 foot level to the really tactical level. Along our journey, we have learned in immeasurable ways, and want to share 11 lessons we have learned so you don’t have to learn the hard way.

    1. Don’t conflate diversity with race. People tend to use “diversity” as code for “race” and “diverse” as code for “people of color,” perhaps because the word “diversity” is more comfortable. But diversity represents all facets of our identity—not only race—based on which we experience barriers to resources and opportunities. 

    2. Approach DEI work intersectionally. Organizations also silo race-related efforts off from other efforts such as gender equity and anti-harassment efforts, the creation of safe spaces for LGBTQ constituents, indigenous rights advocacy, or physically accessibility initiatives. The reality is that our identities are not siloed because we walk through the world at the intersection of multiple identities, including race, ethnicity, indigeneity, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, ability, class, and more. More importantly, intersectionality cultivates a mindset of abundance rather than scarcity (where initiatives compete with each other for the same budget dollars).

    3. Go beyond numbers in measuring success. Organizations usually rely on race and gender diversity metrics to measure success. But focusing only on racial composition and creating a visually colorful workforce is not sustainable unless organizations are also paying attention to retention and fostering inclusive work cultures. And it turns out that inclusion is measurable too.

    4. Focus on equity rather than inclusion or diversity. Leading with equity—an approach to ensuring everyone has equal access to opportunities and resources—is the best way to create lasting change. Solely focusing on diversity and inclusion efforts does not necessarily require an interrogation of history and power dynamics, and therefore often falls flat. And because the homogeneity of the outdoor, conservation and environmental sector is rooted in historical and current systems of oppression, we must address history and power dynamics. 

    5. DEI work should be external and internal. DEI work isn’t just about outreach to grassroots organizations or recruiting at, for example, historically black colleges. These are just two externally facing efforts that belong to a much longer list. To create truly sustainable DEI efforts, internal strategies such as implicit bias training, inclusive benefits, mitigation of bias in evaluations and promotions, and more, should be equally prioritized. 

    6. External work should be mutualistic. Many organizations invite grassroots organizations that work with (for example) communities of color to tell them how to become inclusive and culturally relevant. But often these relationships are parasitic rather than mutualistic. Borrowing the analogy of an understandably frustrated colleague, grassroots groups are not “insulin pumps” prepared to inject people of color into the environmental movement. To truly engage with (not merely “serve”) communities, simply ask prospective partners how you can support them. 

    7. Invite all stakeholders to the table. Often, leaders sit around a table and try to figure out how to be more culturally relevant to people who aren’t at the table, which doesn’t really work. You can’t say you’re working with specific communities if you’re doing so within a structure that does not invite their input or collaboration. Try to identify everyone who will be impacted by your project and invite them to engage in a meaningful way. For environmental literacy programming, this might mean co-creating programming with local communities to ensure the programming content accurately reflects the community as well as creating a culturally relevant experience for program participants. 

    8. Expand beyond the traditional framework of environmentalism. Environmentalism was born out of a particular time by a particular group of people (i.e. the usual suspects, such as John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, and Aldo Leopold). The dominant narrative about environmental history has silenced the voices, buried the stories, and denied the experiences of many communities, including indigenous people, women, and people of color. Moreover, concepts of conservation and environmentalism have been justification for dispossessing communities of their basic rights. If we continue to tell the dominant single story about what types of landscapes should be protected, for whom they should be protected, and for what activities they should be protected, our DEI efforts will fail. The reality is that people have myriad connections to nature and ways of protecting land, all of which should be folded into the environmental movement if we are to be relevant to more people.

    9. Examine your implicit biases. Organizations cannot effectively tackle the biases that manifest in their practices, policies, protocols, and procedures without leaders and staff first looking in the mirror and examining their own individual biases. One way to do this is by taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which has become a common way to measure the biases we have with different identities. To grapple with implicit bias, we urge our partners to expose themselves to different perspectives and voices, attend workshops on implicit bias, and continue to engage in difficult conversations. Remember that examining and mitigating bias is an ongoing process; we’ll never truly be rid of our biases (it’s how our brains work!) even after participating in a day-long training. Yet, we know that uncovering our own implicit biases is the first step in taking meaningful action. 

    10. Articulate your “why” and build a plan. DEI work can be lackluster and subject to fits and starts unless organizations are able to clearly articulate why DEI is important to their mission and build holistic plans addressing all of the ways they will add a DEI lens to their ongoing work. The lack of a clear plan can create pitfalls when, for example, a low budget year comes around and DEI goes on the chopping block because it’s not in a formalized initiative, or when you engage in dialogue with resistant constituents who insist DEI is “mission creep.”

    11. Meet people where they are.  There are and will always be people who are either resistant or relatively new to the concepts surrounding DEI. And there are and will always be people who are wondering why we are still having the same conversation about sexism and racism 20-odd years later. Meeting people where they are helps navigate both resistance and DEI fatigue. This means using accessible language (such as implicit bias), celebrating small wins to help people feel successful, consistently soliciting feedback, and providing concrete checklists to help the work feel tangible.

    Ava Holliday, M.A. and Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, J.D. cofounded the Avarna Group because they believe in a more socially and environmentally just world. They support this vision by providing insights and resources on equity, inclusion, and diversity (DEI) to organizations that have some touch point with the outdoors, whether through conservation, environmental advocacy, land and water management, youth development, or environmental and experiential education. Their engagements run the gamut from webinars and workshops to program and culture audits to building holistic DEI implementation plans. For more information, visit 


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