The School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) has been hard at work ensuring that it is an equitable, supportive space for the entire community, both as a member of the SEFS community and physically in the hallways, field sites and labs once classrooms open back up for in-person learning. Armed with a diversity statement voted on and approved by faculty, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee focused their efforts on drafting a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Plan to carry out the diversity statement with actionable steps. The plan contains five pillars encompassing all facets of the School’s mission, from leadership to recruitment to scholarship. 

One of the pillars of the DEI plan focuses on diversifying the SEFS student body and ensuring that all students feel welcome and like they belong. Over the summer, a faculty task force met and brought recommendations on how to revamp the graduate admissions process to provide a more holistic evaluation of candidates, starting with the dropping the GRE from reviews of candidates and adding a DEI question in the application. The graduate student recruitment strategy is also shifting to provide clearer information to potential applicants and advertise grad programs via affinity group email lists and through strengthened connections to organizations such as UW’s GO-MAP. SEFS is currently refining procedural details on their website for the admission process and revising admission prompts and the letters of recommendation requirement.

Work is also being done to create a safe space for current students in SEFS. The DEI Committee is gathering DEI resources such as lab guidance, grant opportunities and events, with the goal of making them available to SEFS faculty and students. The Committee has also submitted budget requests to fund recruiting efforts at conferences that target underrepresented groups. A student-led initiative to create a student lounge is being implemented.

“In the open meetings, I’ve been really proud to see graduate and undergraduate students showing up and willing to ask the hard questions. Students have been ready to push the School to think critically about how we can be more diverse and make this space more inclusive for everyone. I think it really underlines how important these open meetings are, and how important it is to create space for these topics to be discussed. We are a long ways away from feeling like our school is a truly equitable place for everybody. We’re on the right road, but we’re still a ways away from our destination,” says graduate student and DEI Committee member Courtney Bobsin.

Reimagining the recruitment strategy isn’t just limited to students. In an effort to also diversify faculty and staff, the plan includes ideas about how to recruit and retain faculty and staff from underrepresented backgrounds. This includes but is not limited to inviting seminar speakers from underrepresented backgrounds and a new faculty-adopted faculty hiring process designed with DEI in mind. This also includes racial and gender bias trainings and including DEI language in hiring and interview documents. Faculty evaluation will include a promotion, merit and tenure process with a specific timeline, reviewed by the committee for biases present in the process. The DEI Committee and faculty committees are in talks about how to make teaching more inclusive, allowing educators to learn, share successes and share ideas for representation and inclusion in the classroom.

While conversations about how to diversify the SEFS community are happening, the DEI Committee is also working to make the physical spaces the SEFS community occupies more welcoming, safe and supportive. This includes a goal of providing gender-neutral facilities in all SEFS affiliated buildings on campus and in field stations and improving physical accessibility of SEFS buildings. A lactation room will be available in SEFS when buildings reopen. SEFS events now include a land acknowledgement.

“SEFS leadership, faculty, staff and students are focused more than ever on creating an inclusive community that better reflects the diversity of people in Washington and beyond. This is a matter of justice and it’s an ethical imperative. It’s also the smart thing for SEFS to do, because we know that greater inclusivity and diversity improves our ability to identify effective solutions to the real environmental problems we need to solve,” said Associate Professor and DEI Committee Co-Chair Sarah Converse. 

SEFS is also involved in a National Science Foundation-funded program, Unlearning Racism in Geosciences, or URGE. Other units within the College of the Environment are also participating, allowing for the opportunity to speak to people from various disciplines and backgrounds about ideas for actionable change. Members of the SEFS URGE pod attend national seminars, meet with smaller groups and submit action items with the group.

“As a person of color attending my first SEFS class as a freshman, it was definitely a culture shock. I was one of four people of color in a class of 40, and that needs to change. Hopefully by the time I graduate there are more people of color in the SEFS introductory classes,” says undergraduate DEI Committee member Essac Mazengia. 

Through eliciting feedback from members of the SEFS community in the DEI statement and plan, a sense of shared contribution ensures that they make a plan that is reflective of the community. “It has really been incredibly valuable to have so much input from the SEFS community as we developed the DEI plan,” said Assistant Professor and DEI Committee Co-Chair Brian Harvey. “As a Committee, we’ve worked really hard to incorporate input we received in written form, or through discussion in working groups at our open meetings. This plan is for all of SEFS, and gives us a tangible roadmap of action to achieve our shared vision.” In strengthening connections with tribes, training and providing resources and broadening recruitment for students and faculty, SEFS hopes to create a community that is reflective of the populations they serve.

As for words of advice for anyone who wants to make a difference in this space?

“Within the DEI Committee, there are always bigger and smaller tasks to take on. There’s always tasks to meet someone’s time or energy availability, so don’t feel like you can’t contribute if you only have a little bit of time available. It is completely up to you how much you contribute,” says Bobsin.

“Pace yourself, especially if you are an undergrad,” says Mazengia. “You’ll want to jump in, but change doesn’t happen overnight so don’t be discouraged by how slow it goes. Be energized by change. Small moments will power you through, as will finding a smaller, like-minded community within the giant UW community. Don’t be afraid to voice your ideas during DEI Committee meetings because your voice has more power in a smaller environment. It may be intimidating to speak up as an undergrad but undergrad voices aren’t often heard so it brings a welcome new perspective. You can only improve the chances of change happening if you speak up.”