Dean Lisa GraumlichIt is well established that innovations arise when different perspectives are brought to bear on seemingly intractable problems. Simply Google innovation, diversity, and inclusion. You will find research supporting this claim in the Harvard Business Review, calls to action in Forbes, and the sound bite from Apple that I took for the title of this Dean’s Letter.

In environmental sciences and resource management, inclusion doesn’t just inspire innovation—it changes everything.

Inclusion changes the questions we ask

Deep and thoughtful engagement can completely reorient our research. A particularly stark example comes from the work of Professor Eddie Allison in the College’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. Eddie has long worked with local communities to come up with shared strategies for sustainable fisheries management. About a decade ago, while working in small communities in Uganda, Eddie was puzzled by the fact that it was nearly impossible to engage local fisher folk in conversations about the long-term sustainability of their fisheries, even though these fisheries were key to their livelihoods. At the urging of a public health colleague, Eddie explored the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in fishing communities. To his surprise he discovered a vastly higher prevalence of HIV/AIDS among fisher folk as compared to the general public. Fishers had little motivation in setting up new co-management structures because they did not anticipate living to see the benefits of such an investment. Working with global health experts, Eddie has brought the issue of HIV/AIDS in fishing communities to the attention of those working on targeted prevention as well as to groups promoting fisheries development in the low-income countries where HIV/AIDS is prevalent.

Inclusion changes who is at the table

Stakeholder engagement underpins a range of planning processes on our public lands. If you’re like me, when you think of stakeholders, you imagine people who shop at REI, Cabela’s, or Bass Pro Shop. Think again, argues Professor Stanley Asah of the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. Several years ago, forest managers in Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest became aware that significant numbers of homeless people use the forest. Stanley and colleagues chronicle how forest managers initially viewed homeless people as problematic, reflecting the more generalized stereotype that homeless people are mentally ill and therefore threatening to other users of the forest. Stanley’s team documented that homeless people use the forest as an affordable temporary home while they transition between jobs. In fact, other users did not find homeless people threatening. This knowledge drastically changed the way managers view and act on the issue of homelessness in the Deschutes National Forest. Asah’s work demonstrates that that ecologically sound management decisions can still be contested because of exclusion of stakeholders, even if such exclusion is not explicitly articulated as justification for contesting those decisions.  Thus, inclusion does not only change who’s at the table, it changes what comes out of the table.

Inclusion changes the way we collaborate

Inclusion spurs innovation and drives implementation. We have all seen great research developed with robust stakeholder engagement that sits on a shelf. Research on the success and failure of boundary organizations offers insights. I have been particularly inspired by the work of Robin Reid, a professor from Colorado State University who is will be visiting scholar at UW this fall. Reid has reflected on the successes and failures of decades of research around sustainable rangeland management in East Africa, Reid calls out the critical role of trust. She notes that for scientists, one key characteristic—humility—was repeatedly cited by communities as one of the most important traits that helped groups develop trust so they could work effectively together. She notes that actions were exceptionally important: It mattered what type of vehicle the scientific team members arrived in (small), how long they stayed (full meetings), what they wore on their feet (shoes ready to walk or local sandals made from car tires), and whether they walked with community members (and how far). Another action that helped establish trust was scrupulously keeping commitments and supporting one another’s actions when speaking and working with other groups. She argues that the strength of this trust will determine the sustainability and magnitude of the ultimate impact of the project because this trust creates social incentives that can be more long lasting than economic ones.

My challenge for the College of the Environment: How can we be leaders in the design of more socially just and ecologically sustainable approaches to environmental issues? It will require new thinking and new ways of conducting research. Knowing that innovation is the key to dealing with the complexities of our environmental problems, the only way to turn that key and unlock our collective problem-solving prowess is through inclusion.


Lisa Graumlich
Dean, College of the Environment
Virginia and Prentice Bloedel Professor