Stories in Washington

Play as Antidote: New Director of DEI Approaches Systemic Change with Play and Intuition

By Leah Palmer, TNC Writer/Editor

Marie Angeles headshot.
Marie Angeles Marie is the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at TNC in Washington. © 2022 Twodrsdwn

The Nature Conservancy in Washington, established in 1959, has perpetuated its fair share of harm as a conservation organization historically rooted in colonial practices. In 2020, women and femmes of color on staff raised these concerns, and their legacy lives within the chapter’s current equity statement, which is divided into two areas of focus: First, the statement commits to Indigenous-led and equitable conservation practices going forward. Secondly, it calls out institutionalized harm against its BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) staff. The statement commits to “Institutionalize the capacity for diversity, equity and inclusion work at The Nature Conservancy in Washington.”

As TNC in Washington moves from statements to action, while coming to terms with its own place within oppressive systems, we’ve worked to strengthen partnerships that support equitable conservation. We also acknowledge the need to address latent norms that create an inequitable workplace for a diverse staff. To do so, we are focusing on our people, our culture and how we live into our values. This commitment drives strategic conversations, with dedicated staff devoted to improving how we work.

Marie Angeles headshot.
Marie Angeles Marie is the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at TNC in Washington. © 2022 Twodrsdwn

Stewarding that conversation is the one of the newest members of our executive team, Marie Angeles, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at TNC in Washington. Her position is the first of its kind in the history of our Washington chapter. This role is embedded on the executive team, ensuring Marie holds decision-making power and demonstrating our organization’s commitment to address systemic illness at the highest level.

Before her time at TNC, Marie worked in higher education at institutions like the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Washington. Working with students was rewarding, but Marie felt she would have greater impact by focusing more broadly on the systems that affected the daily lives of her students. She realized an interest in all the “moving pieces” that played a role in an organization’s well-being, “not just a portion, not just a single community, but how all of it is working together to create the kind of institutions we want to see.”

Illustrated quote from Marie Angeles that says I think the parts that make my job more valuable are when I have fun doing it.
Marie Angeles Quote © Illustration by Erica Simek Sloniker/TNC

Many who lead DEI efforts in organizations find their voices, experiences, expertise, cultural knowledge and questions are silenced and do not impact final decisions. In some cases, these voices are barred from entering the rooms where the outcomes of their feedback are determined.

Marie says this role at TNC allows her “full permission” to make decisions, to examine, to discover and to play.

Four snapshots show different mediums used for creative expression, including play dough and yarn.
Tools of Play Snapshots showing the physicality of Marie’s work, where she uses yarn, play dough, slime, visual mapping and other creative approaches to explore complex ideas. © Marie Angeles; collage by Erica Simek Sloniker/TNC

In this context, play is not a juvenile act; rather, it is an antidote.

Play mitigates an impulse to freeze when asked to examine the impacts of white supremacy, colonization, patriarchy, homophobia, ableism, tokenization and exploitation in our modern world and daily lives. Play eases awkwardness among coworkers, with whom we usually maintain a level of privacy and from whom we shield our vulnerabilities. Play can ease our fight-or-flight responses, fragility, defensiveness and denial. And appropriate play can support historically underrepresented community members, who may fear an unfair burden to represent their identity groups and expose collective pain.

Marie’s work is like the improvisation of a skilled jazz musician, trusting themselves and their band, learning new ways around an old melody, innovating on the spot. There is mastery in the simplicity.

It’s hard to imagine any other way a director of DEI should approach their work. After all, she is tasked with the daunting role of untangling decades of a harmful system, and she is expected to invent something brand new.

Marie invites TNC colleagues to join her commitment to being “practiced, not perfect.”

She says, “seeing people at play is the outcome of being in good healthy relationships together.” Environments that allow play signal an innate comfort level. Marie encourages individuals to tap into their creative capacity to address issues about organizational culture. When tackling complex challenges, “you have to be creative. You have to think on the spot. You have to be able to bounce back. And, you have to be able to know when things have shifted.”

Quote by Marie Angeles that says The goal is to be practiced, not perfect.
Marie Angeles Quote © Illustration by Erica Simek Sloniker/TNC

While play is a core feature of her vision for this role, Marie is also determined to avoid the common error that siloes DEI work from the day-to-day grind of a mission-driven organization. To do this, she calls on her experience with generative somatic practice, whose mission is to “engage the body (emotions, sensations, physiology) in order to align our actions with values and vision and heal from the impacts of trauma and oppression.”

Marie notes a significant improvement in her well-being and the quality of her work when she integrates creativity and generative somatics. She plans to lead TNC in Washington to do the same. “I [did] the head-work with coaches and mentors and programs. But I had been missing the body work, the inner-sense work of all of this. I think that's what grounds my sense of DEI. It will always be important to know good theory, good history, critical information. If you're going to explain certain concepts to people, that's necessary.” At the same time, she wants her colleagues to begin exploring questions like: “Where in your body do you hold race?”

“There is a rigor in knowing your body just as much as you know concepts and theories,” she says.

Tapping into the body’s wisdom allows Marie to direct conversations about concepts like dignity, safety and belonging. As a director of DEI, Marie knows when employees come to work, they are “often sacrificing one, if not more, to be there.” She goes on, noting, “in bodies that are racialized, we're frequently sacrificing many of those things to be in the spaces that we are.”

While she is responsible for supporting organizational excellence for approximately all 80 staff members at TNC in Washington, each staff member has unique safety needs, which can create a toxic and unnecessary competition for resources. “When we say we want safety for Black employees, folks read that as if everyone else is not entitled to safety, which is absolutely not the case.”

Safety is not a pie to be divided and distributed until it runs out. It’s more like a regenerative, abundant and authentic ecosystem. One person’s health benefits the next.

When asked if she had any lingering points she would like included in this blog, Marie paused for a long while. Then, she responded with elegant honesty and vulnerable foresight.

Quote by Marie Angeles that says An empty well cannot serve everybody.
Marie Angeles Quote © Illustration by Erica Simek Sloniker/TNC

“The expectations on me now, while maybe unsaid, feel heavy. I take deep responsibility in that weight.”

She asks her colleagues at TNC in Washington to help remove some of the weight. She is neither a fixer nor a savior. I wonder if the subtext to this request is a rightful rejection of tokenization. She should not be valued only for making the organization appear virtuous and good.

While she’s happy folks are excited for her and this new position, she acknowledges it comes with certain pressures, “and it also creates a lot of nervousness around how to do this.” She says her role is somewhat of a “double-edged sword because it will always carry far more weight and responsibility than can ever be held by a single person.”

On this note, Marie requires co-conspirators in racial equity for her vision to succeed. “It cannot be done in isolation.”

While Marie works with colleagues to strategize her approach to this role, her enthusiasm, curiosity, creativity and deeply steeped experience are bound to make a mark on the organization’s culture at every level. As she enriches our organizational culture, TNC’s work across Washington will also improve—bringing minoritized voices and frontline communities to the center of our conservation and stewardship.