"I have found myself at many scientific conferences where, aside from the wait staff and sometimes the entertainment, I am the diversity."
Sanjayan, Conservancy lead scientist
On some days, it's convenient being a minority.
I'm waiting at the Denver airport to board my flight for Jackson Hole, and a South Asian guy strikes up a conversation with me. He's new to the country, and he’s baffled by the peculiarities of commuter flights, with their cattle-car-like boarding procedures.
He instinctively seeks my counsel. In his eyes, the color of my skin makes me a compatriot. I reassure him that he is indeed in the right place.
And being a minority (and by this term I am here only talking about people of color) can be convenient for me, too. I'm heading to a meeting — something I find myself doing every few weeks — in an attempt to meet donors, trustees or staff working in The Nature Conservancy's field offices around the country.
A day or two before my scheduled departure for these trips, I invariably will get an email from a thoughtful local staff member entrusted with meeting me at the airport. The email usually goes something like this: “I'll pick you up outside baggage claim. I have [insert color] hair and will be wearing a [insert color] jacket; I'm driving a [insert Subaru or Prius]”
My customary reply is simple: "And I am brown." Experience has taught me that response is entirely sufficient.
Conservation as a Monochromatic Affair
Conservation is now a unifying global enterprise — embracing the Earth’s entire diversity. Yet in the United States as well as in the upper echelons of many developing countries, conservation and wildlife science are very much monochromatic affairs.
A decade ago, in graduate school — in Santa Cruz, California, no less — I was the only student in my lab who wasn't white. The situation is not much better today. I have found myself at many scientific conferences where, aside from the wait staff and sometimes the entertainment, I am the diversity. Why is that?
My own experience (as an American of South Asian descent who grew up in Africa) says that people of color may shy away from non-traditional professions. There is a great deal of family pressure to conform, and standard professions for those in the sciences are subtly preferred.
Though my parents did not discourage me from my chosen field, they did struggle to understand it, worried about my ability to earn a living wage, and still find it challenging to explain to relatives what I do. I remember my grandmother explaining to one of her friends what I did by saying: “He’s a doctor who helps animals…but not people.”
But the fault is not ours alone. There are virtually no role models on television for minorities interested in conservation. Think of all your wildlife stalking heroes — from Marlin Perkins to Sir David Attenborough to the eternally popular Croc Hunter.
That invisibility matters because people — like this guy talking to me in the airport — seek people like themselves.
And that invisibility also seriously affects hiring patterns in conservation as well as the conservation movement's growth and influence. Race is still a social issue, and conservation — as ecumenical as we would like it to be — is not immune.
The Pragmatic Side of Diversity
I have to admit: It's difficult for me to say exactly how being a minority has hurt my career. At times, it's even had its advantages.
For one thing, it certainly helps me get noticed — and if you want people to hear what you have to say, getting noticed is half the battle. And I do relish demolishing stereotypes — that I'm a vegetarian, say, or would speak with an accent.
But for conservation, the issue of attracting minorities isn't just a matter of justice, checking boxes or puncturing myths. Having minority and indigenous conservationists is vital to our ability to reach and connect with new audiences, and increasingly the United States as a whole.
Minorities are not only growing as a percentage of the U.S. population — Hispanics will soon be a majority in California, for instance. But these groups also tend to support and vote pro-conservation.
Blacks in America are at least as supportive of environmental issues as middle-class whites, according to a 2006 study from the University of Michigan. Hispanics exceed both groups in their levels of support. The Congressional Black Caucus also receives strong pro-environment marks from ratings groups.
We shoot ourselves in the foot by not reaching out to such natural allies.
The Personal Side of Conservation
Recently, I was with one of the Conservancy's field staff in Alaska. He is a marine scientist and an Inupiaq — a native Alaskan culture whose way of life is gravely imperiled by the effects of climate change.
So when he speaks about climate change, his authority comes not just from his intellect, but his experience…and the risk to his very identity.
We couldn't ask for a better spokesperson to represent our conservation mission to developers in Alaska as well as that state's proudly independent people — both white and indigenous. But those kinds of spokespeople are still far too rare.
As I finally board the narrow and cramped plane to Jackson Hole, I notice that the other South Asian guy is boarding it as well. What are the odds?
Mentally I make a note to get off the plane swiftly and reach the curb first, lest my ride fails for once to recognize me correctly.
Of course, it turns out he is in the software business.
Originally posted in December 2007. At that time, Sanjayan was the Lead Scientist for the Nature Conservancy. He is now executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International.
The opinions expressed in "Wild Life" are the author's. They should not be construed as the position of The Nature Conservancy.