Robert G. Stanton, former Director of the National Park Service, came to speak at the University of Colorado. Mr Stanton grew up during the civil rights era of the 60’s. He was the first African-American National Parks Service Director. He went on to do many great things for the National Park Service, the American public, and in many ways, paved the road for people of color in the environmental field. He delivered a motivational talk on the history of the park services, the importance of the preservation of our parks and the importance of a diverse group of future stewards. He is what many would call a natural born leader and he knows exactly who he is. I am also very fortunate to know who I am. That is a strange thing to say, but at the same time how many of us can answered that with full clarity. On Wednesday morning I drove down to Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver, where I attended a workshop hosted by the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education and the Denver Foundation on inclusiveness in non-profits. The workshop was to be run by an Angela Park, founder of Mission Critical (look her up when you get the chance), advisor in some sense for the white house, and someone that looked like she knew her stuff, yet I didn’t know what to expect.
2013 EFTA Intern Michelle Mendieta (Left) 2015 EFTA Intern Carlos Lerma (Right) at the CAEE and Denver Foundation workshop on non-profit inclusiveness.
The reason I share this with you is because of what I learned on that Wednesday at that workshop, that helped me shift my perspective. Angela Park opened her wonderful workshop with a very important message, consider yourself a leader in this field of inclusiveness. That’s it! I want to make sure that very single being, no matter what color, gender, age, orientation, belief or what, is in one way or another involved in conserving their beautiful earth and the creatures that live on it. Now that’s some inspiration! She added that we could not be effective leaders without “answering the why” and what she meant was, why is it important to your organization to become diverse (in all sense of the word), why is it to you. We all chuckled as she gave us some comedic renditions of previous environ groups she’s worked with struggling to answered the simple question of why; many of them not being able to conjure a reason that didn’t seem self-interested, but she said it’s okay if it’s a selfish reason as long as it’s YOUR reason. See that is what is most important; you can’t be inclusive because it is “the right thing to do,” while it is totally the right thing to do there has to be a clear, concrete reason that will guide your organization to inclusiveness. She continued on to talk about identity, as an individual, group, organization and so on. Now this is were I felt that a lot of us could learn more, because the topic of identity is so complex and convoluted, I don’t think half of us even know what to call ourselves and others. That’s the thing about people, we can’t help but just label everything, and this was my problem. I Identify as Latino, very proud of it, and that’s how every person of any background should be, proud of it. The problem is when you let your group identity become your individual identity and maybe I had let my group identity slip a little into who I am as and individual. That’s why when Angela reminded us that while in some ways we might associate with the subordinate group, in others we might be part of an oppressive dominant group, whether conscious of it or not. Yes I am Latino, but I’m also a male and heterosexual, which give me big time privilege when it comes to certain things in life.
It is crucial for us moving forward that we all understand that we have some privilege in on way or another. I can’t disproportionately say that I am at a disadvantage because I am Latino, I have advantages in so many other ways. Mr. Stanton was an African-American student at Huston-Tillston University when he first started working for the Park Service, during arguably one of the most difficult times to be a person of color. Yet we can see now 50 years later, that back then he embraced his privilege and decided to be a leader; to know who he truly is and not let himself be defined as someone who is disadvantaged, but instead someone who through hard work and perseverance is a reminder, just like a monument is or a state park, to all of us that we can all be leaders in the field of inclusiveness as long as we are willing to acknowledge and accept all the parts of who we are.