A place where race doesn’t matter

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Sharing a moment with the bison in the Flint Hills.

In the summer of 2014, I co-coordinated the Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience (NAPIRE) Program. Funded by NSF and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, NAPIRE was designed to encouraging undergraduate Native American and Pacific Islander students to pursue careers in science. The program brought together undergraduate students from Tribal Nations and Pacific Islander Peoples to work closely with an international group of professional research mentors at Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica. While I was involved with NAPIRE, I wrote extensively about it on my blog. All in all, NAPIRE was a wonderful experience and one of the most formative undertakings of my career.

At some point during that summer four years ago, while we labored together in the misty mountain forests of Costa Rica, one of the NAPIRE students commented that for the first time ever, she had found among us a community where race did not matter.

Those of us who were part of NAPIRE – students, staff, and faculty mentors – represented multiple races, ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, and creeds. We shared and pursued knowledge as community, united by respect for each other and the natural world. For a few short weeks, we lived as an extended family and in that ephemeral space, what my student said was true: race no longer mattered. This is not to say race ceased to exist; we honored and celebrated our unique cultural and ethnic backgrounds, but diversity ceased to be a reason for division.

Recently I was reminded that such places do not appear simply because we wish them into existence.

This fall at Avila University, I am co-teaching Ecology Through the Writers Lens, an interdisciplinary field-based course. The syllabus includes a four-day visit to a tall grass prairie reserve, where students explore the ecosystem through both scientific and literary/creative modes of inquiry. This is the third time I’ve taught the course with my colleague, English professor Dr. Amy Milakovic. It has always been a wonderful experience. The field station where we stay has consistently offered a place of joy and peace where we can disconnect from the outside world, engage with the natural environment, and focus on creative and scientific interpretation of our individual and collective experience.

This year, unfortunately, that experience was marred.

Accustomed to having freedom to move about the installations as required by any field course, for the first time we found ourselves followed, confronted, and in the end harassed. Our dogged pursuer was a belligerent member of the station staff who we soon dubbed “the Angry Lady.” Angry Lady questioned our presence at every opportunity, fretted that we would make other groups “uncomfortable,” and scolded us to be silent when we weren’t making noise. Angry Lady went into panic because while on our way to a nearby trail head, we passed through a building where someone was going to set out tables with merchandise a few hours later. (Implying that we were thieves and scoping out the place, I presume.) Angry Lady could not sit still while we were there, to the point where Dr. Milakovic and I worried she would jump on our students as they wandered the trails to complete their individual assignments.

Mind you, nothing had changed in the way Dr. Milakovic and I ran our course this year. We had the same schedule as always and implemented the same set of non-invasive field and classroom activities. Our small group of students was dedicated and hardworking as ever. But there was one difference from the courses we had taken to the field station in previous years: This year’s group was the most racially diverse we’d ever had. Apparently, Angry Lady – who had received our two previous groups with not even a whisper of discontent – couldn’t handle color.

I was not to be prepared for this – something I consider it a failure on my part. It simply didn’t occur to me we’d run into this sort of attitude at a field station. In reflecting on why, I realized that in my mind every field station had become a NAPIRE field station: a place to get away from the uglier side of human nature, a remote stage where one could create small, if ephemeral, communities more in line with our highest ideals.

Indeed, I was excited about the diversity of students we had recruited for this course. I knew they would bring a great tapestry of creative energy to our collective journey, and my expectations were not disappointed. In terms of our academic experience, this year’s iteration of Ecology Through the Writers Lens was amazing. There are several students in this group I hope to inspire toward science-related careers. Unfortunately, it’s likely Angry Lady has soured their vision of what life as a field ecologist is like.

The saga of Angry Lady will not end here. Dr. Milakovic and I have had conversations with station administration, and we will follow up with a formal complaint. If we don’t see concrete steps toward addressing this situation and resolving it, we will look for a new destination for our course. There are a lot of field stations out there; we can find a more friendly place.

In the months before NAPIRE 2014 began, the program coordinator, Dr. Barbara Dugelby, and I worked tirelessly to lay the foundation upon which that unique community was built. Early in the year, Dr. Dugelby hosted a workshop that brought together representatives from Tribal Colleges, Pacific Island universities, and previous NAPIRE programs – including former students and mentors – to discuss best practices for mentoring students from underrepresented groups in the sciences. Research mentors slated to participate in the 2014 program had a separate workshop to get to know each other and prep for their summer experience. NAPIRE 2014 students received individual attention and follow up as they made arrangements to spend the summer away from their families and home communities, many of them for the first time.

Dr. Dugelby and I also planned the program itinerary with great care, paying close attention to developing activities that would allow our summer community to share, honor, and celebrate cultural differences as part of our group identity. The program was realized in the context of a field station, Las Cruces, with a dependable staff who were not only attentive to our faculty and students but also unfailing in their friendly and caring attitude. They wanted all of us to consider Las Cruces a home away from home, and they never let us doubt that.

Most importantly, the students knew what to do. They walked onto the stage we set and without hesitation, danced a dream into reality.

This is not to say the undertaking was without conflict or logistical headaches; but every person involved understood our common purpose. Together, we worked hard and made the magic happen.

Four years later, the wheel continues to turn. As part of a new community of colleagues and students embedded in a wholly different context, I continue looking for ways to construct a place where race doesn’t matter. To construct that place, deliberately and methodically, in cooperation with others, because the truth is we will never find that place on our own, or by going into the wilderness and hoping the ugliness we’ve left behind will simply disappear.

Sometimes in my darker and more fatalistic moods, I feel like all I have feeding my hope is the memory of a few short weeks during an already faraway summer when NAPIRE achieved what so often seems impossible.

But that’s a powerful memory, and it’s so much more than most of the people fighting this battle have. This memory is a gift given to me that must be used. I carry it like a light in my heart and share it whenever I can.

And I keep on fighting, because the place we’re looking for can be found. I know. I’ve been there.

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