Why diversity in environmental non-profit organizations matters, and what you can do with Melina Damian | Great Lakes Guide

Environment and Education

Why diversity in environmental non-profit organizations matters, and what you can do with Melina Damian

Published September 10, 2020

1. Hi Melina, can you introduce yourself, tell us where you’re from, and tell us the reasons why you moved to Canada please?

My name is Melina Damian, and I work at Ontario Nature as the communications coordinator. I am also a part-time professor at Centennial College for the International Development program. I have a Masters in Environmental Studies and a graduate diploma in Environmental Education.

I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. I moved to Canada on my own when I was 17 years old because of the political and economic crisis. I had never been to Canada before moving here and spoke broken English when I arrived. I started my undergraduate degree after completing a 3-month English course, and since then, Canada has become my second home.

2. When did you realize that you wanted to work in the environmental industry?

I always knew I loved animals. When I was little, I spent a lot of time with my grandma. Our daily ritual was to watch Animal Planet together in the evenings. Also, when I was young we had a few dogs. It was because of those two experiences that I was convinced I wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up.

When I was in high school, I volunteered at a veterinarian clinic so that I could explore whether I’d like to be a vet one day. It turned out it wasn’t for me, so I told myself I’d help animals in some other way when I grew up.

Around the same time, when I was about fifteen years old, my dad told me that he had just learned that straws take hundreds of years to break down in the ocean, and in the process of breakage they hurt a lot of animals – mainly turtles. Shortly after, we found an internet photo of a turtle being deformed by a plastic piece around its waist. The turtle probably got stuck in the plastic when it was young, and grew with the item restricting its normal development.

I was shocked by that photo. I couldn’t believe that was happening to turtles, and even though I had no previous strong connection to marine wildlife or the ocean, I knew I wanted to help. As a result, my dad and I pledged to not use plastic straws again, and it was then when I became concerned about plastic pollution, sustainability, and wildlife conservation.

When I came to Canada, I learned that “Environmental Studies” was an actual university career. It fit my interests perfectly, so I did an Honours Bachelors in Environmental Studies at York University. Afterwards, I decided to pursue a Masters in Environmental Studies and research the impacts of plastic pollution on wildlife conservation. Later on, I was fortunate enough to work with marine turtles in Costa Rica. All the dots tied together.

    When I was little, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to helping animals, and I know that in one way or another, that’s exactly what I do in my professional career.

It wasn’t easy to move to a new country on my own at 17, but I’m very fortunate to be where I am in my life.

3. You currently work at Ontario Nature. Can you tell us more about your role?

I work as a communications coordinator. Ontario Nature is a charity that has been protecting wild species and wild spaces through education, conservation, and public engagement since 1931. I truly believe we do very important work for the province’s biodiversity.

I fulfill different tasks in my role, such as coordinating digital notifications, supporting conservation and fundraising campaigns, managing social media platforms, and assisting with print communications. The best part about my job is that I get to interact with the public, as well as educate our members and followers while raising awareness about important conservation issues via social media. Also, I get to work with almost every department at Ontario Nature, so my job is dynamic and fun. Every day is different, and every day I learn something new.

4. You are also a part-time professor at Centennial College for the graduate course Energy, Environment and Sustainable Development. How diverse are the students that are taking your course?

My students at Centennial College come from various diverse racial backgrounds. A lot of them are ESL (English as a second language) students, and they’ve had similar journeys to the one I had. For instance, many of them are alone in Canada and came here just to study. I identify a lot with them. I teach a graduate course, so that means all my students have a previous university or college degree.

    Given that our classes are very diverse, the perspectives students bring to the table are always enriching. For instance, the way they approach solutions to different global issues is clearly different depending on their past experiences and regions where they grew up.

The staff and faculty members at the International Development program are also very diverse. I feel encouraged and motivated to see other people who look like me in the same role. Even speakers who present at conferences, such as the International Development Week, are always racially diverse. I’ve felt like I fit in since my first day of teaching.

5. Last June, the global pandemic coincided with an anti-racism movement. Lots of organizations decided to hold themselves accountable for the lack of diversity in their team and their lack of support for the BIPOC community. Do you think that it was overdue, and if so, why?

Yes, I think it was overdue. Although, I believe it should still be applauded.

    I really think the recent events sparked a momentum of learning and growth in a lot of organizations. Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) have been subjected to racism and discrimination for a long time, both in and outside of the environmental field. Without addressing systemic racism, we can’t succeed at protecting our planet, nor will we ever live in an equitable society.

Plus, the barriers that BIPOC face every day go beyond overt racism. These obstacles are layered and can take many forms. That’s why intersectional environmentalism is so important. Intersectional environmentalism is based on the idea that environmental justice is also racial justice. We can’t expect to address environmental issues and protect the environment without also advocating for the protection of the people that live in it.

6. How did Ontario Nature handle that anti-racism movement? How did it make you feel?

I don’t speak on behalf of Ontario Nature, but I perceived a number of positive actions that Ontario Nature took to protest against systemic racism.

One of the ways they took action was by releasing a statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. I think this was a really important step. In the statement, there are seven action items that Ontario Nature commits to fulfilling – so, in a way, it is a public action plan. Ontario Nature also created a diversity and inclusion committee to strategize how to achieve the seven action items.

The communications department also promoted the #BlackBirdersWeek on social media. The initiative started as a response to a racist incident at New York’s Central Park, but it was also a response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. Ontario Nature is working to share and amplify voices within BIPOC communities and provide a platform for these important perspectives. I’m proud to see that this work is ongoing and I enjoy being part of that journey.

I saw a number of environmental organizations on social media get criticized for stepping up to support the Black Lives Matter movement and protesting against systemic racism.

Some people commented things like, “get back to fricking nature” or “you've stepped out of line doing this”. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t believe Ontario Nature received such criticisms on social media. The response was quite the opposite. People expressed interest in learning how the organization was going to support the fight against racism.

But I was in shock reading those comments from those organizations that did get criticized. I think that says a lot about the “supporters” who follow these organizations, and it begs the question: why would they not want to see the protection of people and the planet being part of the same mandate?

    There is a quote from an unknown author that says “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” I believe there is no better way to explain why someone would feel threatened at the thought of having their communities be diverse and inclusive.

Did You Know?

When you look at environmental nonprofit organizations, on average, 80 percent of their board members and 85 percent of their staff are white (based on a study of U.S. nonprofits by Dorceta Taylor).

7. Given the increasing diversity in North America, why do you think that there is such a lack of diverse leadership and staffing at organizations that protect our health and environment?

This is a very interesting question, and I wish I knew the exact reason so I could come up with the magic solution, but I don’t. However, I believe there are several factors that may influence that reality.

There is a term called the “exclusionary approach” to conservation. This is a system in which biodiversity conservation is implemented at the expense of communities' well-being.

For instance, the exclusionary approach often happens in India with tiger conservation initiatives. Tigers are endangered worldwide, and in order to survive, they need vast territories to hunt. But it is often the poor and rural communities who are forcibly displaced from their traditional lands in order to make space for protecting tigers. This is just one specific example, but the exclusionary approach has commonly been used in many other regions across the world.

In Canada, establishing protected areas sometimes included forced relocation of Indigenous communities, although a lot of progress has been made in this area and nowadays many environmental organizations are working alongside Indigenous communities on conservation initiatives.

I believe these historical barriers, in addition to the challenges arising from systemic racism, could be part of the reason why we see few BIPOC in leadership and staff positions in environmental organizations.

    The Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against racism have spurred many conversations around diversity and inclusion. I think this presents an excellent opportunity for environmental organizations to diversify their work by making connections and building relationships with BIPOC environmentalists.

8. In your opinion, what does it take to diversify environmental nonprofits?

    In my opinion, representation is key. Environmental non-profits need to make it clear that their work environments are safe spaces for BIPOC. I think representation comes from profiling BIPOC on their advertising , websites, and social media platforms.

In a recent virtual event, Jaqueline Scott mentioned that when scrolling through social media accounts of environmental organizations, she often has to play the game of ‘find the Black person’. She also mentioned that if you don’t see Black people, it’s because they are not there – not because they are hiding somewhere in the back. The same applies to leadership and staffing. If you don’t see them, that’s because they are not part of those spaces, no matter how inclusive an organization says it is.

    The absence of BIPOC in images in marketing supports the idea that they do not belong in those spaces.

Another important point to consider is that in the words of Sergio Avila, a Mexican wildlife biologist, diversity should not be the ultimate goal. In an interview with High Country News, he said:

    “Diversity is not the goal. It’s not just having a board meeting with people from all over the place that can speak different languages. Diversity is a product of equity. Diversity is a product of a system that allows people to feel comfortable at that table. The idea that everybody’s narrative matters, that everybody’s stories take a precedent and have the same weight.”

This means that the work doesn’t end once you have BIPOC at the table. Given the barriers we’ve experienced in the field, our voices and lived experiences provide alternative perspectives of environmental issues that should be taken into consideration during the decision-making process.

9. What are the benefits of hiring BIPOC in this sector?

There is plenty of evidence that suggests diversity and inclusion lead to many beneficial outcomes, such as better decision making, especially in the non-profit sector. Also, BIPOC communities have been disproportionately affected by environmental issues such as climate change, lack of access to green spaces and clean drinking water, being situated near polluting industries, and air pollution.

How are we supposed to protect the environment and fix these issues if the people most affected by them are not included in the creation of solutions? Similarly, a study in the US found that black people and latinx people are more concerned about climate change than white people.

    Clearly, there is a lot at stake for BIPOC, thus, hiring them in this sector is essential for advancing the protection of our planet and health.

10. What would be your top three recommendations to environmental non-profits looking to make a systemic change?

    My number one recommendation is to be okay with the idea that talking about systemic racism will never be a comfortable conversation.

Recognizing the role that environmental nonprofits (or any other organization) have played in systemic racism isn’t easy, and it will definitely upset people along the way - but that should be okay.

This leads me to my second recommendation, which is not to be afraid of making mistakes. As environmentalists, we may make mistakes when talking about these issues - and that should be okay too. Making mistakes is a part of learning and evolving. We should feel uncomfortable at first, then examine our own biases, and open our minds to learning new information and growing from our mistakes. This journey might be bumpy at first, but it’s better than staying quiet because of fear of saying the wrong thing.

    As said by human rights activist Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

My third recommendation is to support, invite, amplify, and connect with BIPOC who are already doing work in the environmental movement. They are the ones that will better understand how to further reach and connect with diverse communities.