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VA natural resource professionals ponder increasing minority participation in natural resource field

A VNRLI workshop suggests place-based stories are key

  • By Leslie Middleton on August 13, 2014
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The eastern screech owl, Megascops asio, is  found in wooded environments -- often close to manmade development. (Photo credit: Animal Towns)

In the middle of last night, my husband woke me so that I could hear the sounds of screech owl in the woods behind our house. The owl’s trilling call was answered, I thought, by another – farther away.

It was worth waking up for.

After 17 years in another home in Charlottesville, we’ve recently moved to a new neighborhood –- where everything still feels a bit foreign and unknown. Getting to know our neighbors – human and otherwise – is helping me settle in this new place.

Last week, I was with a group of fellow graduates of the Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute for a daylong gathering focused on how to increase the participation of minorities in the natural resources profession.

The day started with a presentation by Jayne Docherty, program director for the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, who has been immersed in conflict resolution around the world for more than 25 years. Docherty’s message was simple. When trying to bring discordant, warring or conflicted groups to peace, it is essential to hear and understand the stories – the history – of each group or faction or tribe.

Almost always, these stories involve displacement from what has been home – perhaps only for a generation, but often for many generations. This dis-placement causes trauma to humans – and this trauma, like any other, impacts the individuals' psychologically and physiologically. Recognizing these wounds, she said, is a critical part of the healing – and thus necessary for the resolution of conflict.

As graduates of VNRLI, we’d all been through the yearlong program – building our skills in conflict resolution, facilitation and collaboration – while learning about natural resource issues around the state of Virginia. So we spent the afternoon using some of these tools to solve this question of minority participation in the natural resource management professions.

Many of the discussions started with one of us saying that if we hadn’t as children been able to run free in the woods, or play in the creek at the end of the road, or wander the farm fields and forests nearby – we weren’t sure if we would have chosen our careers – careers that include stormwater management, environmental education, natural resource policy, and field work, such as delineating wetlands for a state agency. Even in this setting, telling our own place-based stories was an essential prelude to problem solving.

Clearly, we thought, one of the keys to increasing minorities in natural resources is to work toward ensuring that all children have access to natural spaces – early and often in their lives.  Research and seminal books, like Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, point to unstructured, exploratory time outdoors in “nature” -- starting early in life -- as an essential component of human health and development.

What would it take, we wondered, if we could increase these kinds of opportunities for everyone, especially those who are displaced from – or removed from access to – natural settings because of race, economic class or other circumstances?

But maybe there’s another path.

What if the solutions include encouraging and teaching the skills that help children – and people -- understand the natural world, wherever they are.

Maybe learning the steadfastness of the solitary oak at the edge of a dusty playground is just as important as getting on a bus to visit a natural area once a season for a walk in the woods.

Maybe learning to see how the robins return every year or to wonder at the starlings swarming overhead can help build that sense of place grounded in nature, even when most of the neighborhood is paved over, or built upon.

These ideas are likely not new or original.

But the screech owls calling in the middle of the night in my new neighborhood have reminded me of how simple – and profound – coming to know a place by its natural features can be.

And, I am just as grateful to know the screech owl by its call, as I am to have heard it my neighborhood.

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About Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Read more articles by Leslie Middleton


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Angela Harper on August 20, 2014:

Leslie, thank you for sharing your story and providing an update to your fellow VNRLI colleagues about the diversity session. While I am retired now, I appreciate staying informed. Your picture surprised me because, I remember you with linger hair! Hope to see you in October!

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