CCDE Annual Conference Shines Spotlight on “Racial Ecologies”

By Eve Rickenbaker | Graduate Student, College of the Environment

On June 2, 2017 I attended the second day of the two-day Racial Ecologies conference held at the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center at the University of Washington.

The Center for Communication, Difference and Equity hosted the gathering. The conference featured authors who have contributed essays to a soon-to-be-published book of the same name, Racial Ecologies. The collection is being edited by LeiLani Nishime of the University of Washington and Kim Hester-Williams of Sonoma State University.

The conference brought together many people of color who are working within their communities to address the environmental degradation that disproportionately impacts them.

Attendees included faculty and students from various units on campus, including the UW College of the Environment and American Ethnic Studies students, as well as community environment/ecology-based organizations in Seattle.  I talked with an education coordinator from the Woodland Park Zoo about the challenges facing colonial-based nature collections. Botanic gardens, my personal interest, and zoos, have histories steeped in collecting flora and fauna for research and display, and both are striving to serve and remain relevant and responsible to a diverse audience.

We started the day on Friday morning with “A Colonialism and Ecology Panel.” Professor Dian Million of UW American Indian Studies introduced the audience to the term, Indigenous, meaning a “place” and not a “race” of people.  Ana Rosas from the University of California, Irvine, addressed the “Ecological Boundaries of Mexican Migrant Women’s Labor in Empalme, Sonora, Mexico in 1942.”  Stephen Haymes from DePaul University spoke about how enslavement affected the ecological experiences of those from Africa, and continues to affect African Americans’ current perceptions toward nature.  Yu-Fang Cho of Miami University discussed the social and cultural management of nuclear energy production and disasters.

Next we listened to an Interdisciplinary Keywords Roundtable facilitated by the UW Center for Creative Conservation. We had the opportunity to discuss the meanings attached to keywords with a variety of scholars from across the country who study human-animal connections, indigenous food and water security, migrant farm worker conditions, and the politics of race and ethnicity.

The afternoon session, “Working Lunch Scholars Meet Activists,” showcased the projects and passions of the Center for One Health Research, Duwamish River Cleanup, Idle No More WA, Got Green, Women of Color Speak Out and The Food Empowerment Project as well as scholars Sunny Chan, Catalina de Onis and Zoltan Grossman. We joined them for lunch in small groups to continue the discussions inspired by their presentations.

The final session featured three speakers speculating about a future that includes a “path toward freedom from ecological subjugation and oppression – for all species.” The speakers were Kim Hester-Williams, Min Hyoung Song and Ashley McNeil. Even though this felt like an ideal way to end the conference, it was not actually time to part just yet.

The organizers had a creative and compelling way to bring us all together outside on a sunny afternoon. Jasmmine Ramgotra, a graduating UW senior with a double degree in Environmental Studies and Dance and a minor in Environmental Science, presented a “Change from Within: Diversifying the Environmental Movement” contemporary dance performance.  I was mesmerized by Jasmmine’s choreography, which featured four dancers interpreting racial inequities within the environmental movement and institutions.  As the music played from the laptop computer’s speakers, voices were interspersed from the people of color expressing their need to be a part of the environmental conversation and action.  It was a moving piece; not only did I want to be up there dancing with them, it also inspired me to move forward with my own understanding of botanic gardens and the imperative for nature-based institutions to be more inclusive.

A special thanks to conference organizers, LeiLani Nishime and Kim Hester Williams, and  partners:  the Intersectional Animal Studies research collective, led by Maria Elena García (CHID) and Louisa Mackenzie (French and Italian Studies), and the Center for Creative Conservation. Finally, congratulations and appreciation to Gina Aaftaab, Racial Ecologies Conference Coordinator, for putting on a stimulating and thought-provoking conference.

Thank you to all who made this possible:
Get involved. Here are the organizations around Seattle who are addressing issues of racial equity and ecological concerns: