By Alannah Grant
(In honour of Black History Month, we are happy to present Alannah Grant, MSc student at the Newman Ecophysiology Lab at the University of Guelph, and recipient of the Ages Foundation Fellowship, conducting research at rare)
The main goal of Ecology and Conservation is to understand, promote and preserve ecosystem diversity, but what about the diversity of the people conducting this work? It’s no secret that racial minorities remain underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), despite the benefits of having more diversity in these fields. Recent studies have found that overall, the quality and impact of research is directly correlated with the amount of racial diversity of its scientists, through the integration of varied perspectives, cultural and skill backgrounds. For example, the application of non-westernized conservation strategies has led to more sustainable land-use practices and the earlier detection of wildlife population declines in North America. So, if increased diversity is good for the fields of ecological and conservation, why are we still seeing a lack of racial representation?
When we think about ecology and conservation, we tend to envision people in khaki shorts chasing exotic animals in faraway mountain ranges and savannahs. This image makes the idea of approaching ecology especially daunting to folks with limited access to green spaces and the knowledge needed to navigate these landscapes. Growing up as a black woman in a large city, I believed this misconception, thinking that the closest I could get to conservation was the national geographic documentaries my sibling and I loved. Instead, we fed our curiosity in ways that were a little closer to home. We would catch frogs in the creek beneath the underpass, collect spiders from our basement, and watched the birds that came to my mother’s beloved feeder. It was not until I started my own career in urban ecology that I realized all this time we were participating in ecology without even knowing. Although I was able to find a path for myself in the field, the misconceptions around ecology and conservation remain a deterrent in addition to the other barriers racialized folks still face when entering this field such as financial costs and accessibility to the materials. More importantly, many of the opportunities to learn the skills needed in ecology serve as a privilege, and fail to take such barriers into consideration. These together make starting a career in ecology and conservation inaccessible to many, and further perpetuates current racial discrepancies. So once again, we are faced with the issue of a lack of diversity, leaving one-sided perspectives to dominate the field. This in turn is a disservice to the main goals of conservation; since we can only look at problems from a limited perspective, we are then limiting our solutions.
In ecology we understand that every individual in a habitat, from towering tree to tiny insect has an important role to play that contributes to the overall ecosystem. Yet, we fail to apply this holistic view to the perspectives and voices that make up our own field. And so, in the same way we work to identify and mitigate challenges to ecosystem diversity, we should do the same by addressing the barriers faced by early career ecologists. By diversifying perspectives through the inclusion of different cultural and skill backgrounds and by welcoming “non-conventional” methods, we are able to benefit not only our quality of research, but the world around us.