Three lessons learned from #FloridaWoman TaShana Taylor
(photos submitted by Ta-Shana Taylor)
Ta-Shana Taylor, a seasoned geologist and lecturer in the University of Miami’s Department of Geological Science, was first introduced to what non-geologists refer to as “rocks and stuff” while preparing for a trip abroad to study archaeology in Australia during her freshman year at Northeastern University.
After that trip she thought, “archaeology is not anywhere as interesting as geology.”
“It’s just not. I’ve held a marine fossil that was 500 million years old,” she said, adding that some of the oldest artifacts archaeologists study are merely thousands of years old.
She explains that geology is more than just rocks. It’s the study of the entire Earth and what it’s made of. What can be more important than that?
While in graduate school at the University of Arizona, Taylor worked as a teaching assistant and noticed that black and brown students in her classes were not as prepared for college as white students. It was this realization that made her switch her career track from research to education.
After she earned her master’s degree in geological sciences, she served a six-year stint as a lead Earth science teacher in the New York public school system. She loved the job, but felt it was hard to make any kind of sustainable impact.
“I realized that the public school system is just so big,” she said. “How do you change the direction of a moving train at top speed?”
Taylor moved to Florida and began building her resume as a science educator, working for organizations like the Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence in Florida and the Frost Science Museum’s Center for Interactive Learning.
Her main goal as an educator: to make the field she so admired more inclusive. To get people excited about geology no matter their race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.
And this is no small feat.
Just one percent of all employed Earth scientists, geologists and oceanographers are black. Four percent are Hispanic and seven percent are Asian. Few are women.
Taylor didn’t need data to realize this. In graduate school, she would see other people of color at conferences, but there weren’t any at her home institution. She couldn’t help but feel like she was an “other,” or a person who’s culture is excluded from the mainstream.
“It just felt as the years kept ticking by, what felt manageable before . . . became unmanageable,” Taylor said.
In her more than two decades of experience as a geologist, educator and science communicator, Taylor has learned some tricks of the trade — important lessons, if you will — about how to make geology and other scientific fields more accessible. But, she explains, it’s important for us to not think of inclusivity and diversity as a moral issue, but a practical one.
“You want more [research] money? You’re going to have to include people. And you’re going to have to include everyone,” Taylor said.
Here are Taylor’s three lessons for scientists, communicators, educators and environmental organizations who want to expand their audiences.
LESSON 1: DON’T EQUATE RACE OR ETHNICITY WITH A CERTAIN SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS.
For example, Taylor points out, “Do not equate black to poor.”
If you’re going to target poor people, Taylor said, then target all poor people. Do not just lump black and poor in the same category. Because if you do that, you’re also leaving out poor white people, poor Asian people and everyone else who struggles economically.
Segmenting audiences in this way is not practical. Sending people right out of college to educate people whom they do not connect with culturally or socioeconomically is often a recipe for disaster.
“We’re spending a lot of money, time and expertise, and passion, and no one’s winning,” Taylor said. “Let’s change the way we do this instead of just recreating it just because it’s a great little soundbite on a grant.
She said part of the problem is the common misguided assumption that black people and other minorities who live in urban centers have not had exposure to nature and the outdoors.
Taylor explains that many urban black and latino people are immigrants from other nations, where they have been exposed to nature. They have already learned to respect the environment.
For example, although Taylor grew up in Queens, New York, she spent her summers in Jamaica visiting her grandparents and fell in love with the landscape. Her time spent there influenced her career choices.
“Many of the environmental education programs that focus on urban black youth ignore the fact that many of these youth may have lived on farms in their home countries when they were young,” she said, adding that this is also true for non-immigrant black people. They may live in urban centers but often have family in rural areas of Mississippi or Virginia.
“Truly understanding who you’re educating is a foundational practice,” Taylor said.
In other words, don’t just assume that because someone currently lives in a city, that they have had no exposure to the outdoors.
LESSON 2: BLACK ENVIRONMENTAL LEADERS EXIST AND HAVE FOR A LONG TIME.
Black environmental leaders exist. They always have, but are often not given the same attention as white ones. We must be willing to work to change the stereotype of what it means to be an environmental leader and who gets to be one. Taylor said environmental leaders in the black community are often framed as something else.
For example: If a young white girl creates something that is good for the environment, she’s usually dubbed an environmentalist, even if her invention is more of a business opportunity than an altruistic one.
“The way we frame black environmental leaders is very similar,” she says. “We can’t be married to what we think an environmental leader should look like.”
Her advice? Become familiar with these organizations. Get to know their leaders. Collaborate with them. Make them part of your network.
She added that black sororities and fraternities also house black leaders. Let’s rethink our organizational norms and reach out to them as well. Branch out.
Here is a list to start with. (This list is by no means exhaustive.)
LESSON 3: FOCUS ON THE SCIENTIFIC DEFINITION OF THE ENVIRONMENT.
“The scientific definition of the environment is air, water and soil,” Taylor said. “That’s the environment.”
“If we go back to the true definition of the environment, we realize that Flint, Michigan, is part of the conversation,” Taylor explains. “Once we go back to monitoring the water, monitoring the soil and monitoring the air, we see that the environment impacts everyone.”
Today Taylor carries out these lessons in her classroom and in her volunteer work as a leader for Outdoor Afro, a national organization that encourages black connections and leadership in nature. She also serves on the diversity and inclusion committee for the Paleontological Society.
“One of the things we do is create policy for the society that holds our entire community accountable for diversity and inclusion,” she said.
Although we’re making progress as a nation, Taylor says there is still a lot of work to be done.
“We must be willing to change the definition of the environment,” she said. “And be willing to change the stereotype of what an environmental leader should be.”