By DC EcoWoman Robin Garcia
Have you ever noticed the shocking lack of minorities in science and environmental fields? While environmental issues such as climate change, air pollution, and access to clean water are of growing concern, many may not be aware that minority groups are disproportionately susceptible to such issues. A recent study in the Public Library of Science determined that nitrogen dioxide concentrations are higher in minority communities than white communities, even when the data are controlled for income. Higher air pollution is correlated with an increase in asthma and heart disease cases. One reason for the differences between communities may be that highways, landfills, and factories decrease nearby property value. Those who cannot afford to leave the area (who also tend to be minorities) stay and are subject to the environmental and health consequences.
Despite these statistics, minority groups are also underrepresented in environmental fields. A study by the Green 2.0 Initiative found that people of color continue to make up less than 16% of employees working on environmental issues in government agencies, foundations, and NGOs. This “green ceiling” has continued for decades despite the fact that minorities represent over 30% of the US population and are more likely than white citizens to support environmental causes.
As an African-American and Hispanic female with a background in marine biology, I am highly aware that I am one of few “like me” in my field. However, the resources I had growing up in DC helped me develop my passion and gave me confidence to move through a field lacking in diversity. The best part is that many of the resources I had are accessible to everyone, regardless of income. The more that minorities are given opportunities to learn about the environment, the more empowered they will be to become active in their communities, and the more that minority children will view environmental careers as a possibility.
The District – A World of Opportunities
Like many children in minority families, I grew up supported by a single mother and other family members. From a young age, I expressed an interest in science, and my family fed my curiosity. Luckily, many nature and science attractions in DC are free! I spent many weekends at the Smithsonian museums, visiting the Museum of Natural History, the Air and Space Museum, and the National Zoo. When it was feasible, we took small vacations to Ocean City and Shenandoah National Park. The beach and the mountains may not be feasible for lower-income families, but Rock Creek Park is a free and local way to explore nature. While my comfort in the great outdoors still has its limits, I am far more comfortable with nature than many minority and city children that I have encountered.
Other options for free and low-cost environmental fun in DC include the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, the US National Arboretum, the US Botanic Garden, the District Department of the Environment, and the District Department of Parks and Recreation.
Bringing the Message Home
My family also ensured that my home environment was supportive of my interests. Most of the TV shows that I watched as a small child were on public televsion, which does not require paying for cable. In fact, I still enjoy watching PBS today (and for more than my weekly fix of Downton Abbey!) My mother was also a huge fan of the DC Public Library system. As a high school student, the library became a valuable resource as I honed my reading skills and explored different topics in science. Another wonderful feature of public libraries is free access to computers and the internet, and low-cost printing options. I still use the computers at libraries since I currently don’t use printers often enough to justify buying one for my home.
The most important aspect of my upbringing is that I was never told “no”. I did not grow up with any concept that my race or gender somehow made me unqualified for a career in science. My strong foundation at home set the tone for my education. This was extremely important since, as you can imagine, my race became painfully obvious as I advanced through my education. By the time I reached graduate school, I was the only person of color in my entire program. My confidence allowed me to view myself in terms of my academic abilities instead of the color of my skin.
It is still an uphill battle to succeed as a minority in environmental fields. Yet the resources are available for young people of color in DC, regardless of their financial background. These are the people that can break the “green ceiling” and represent the entire population in the fight for environmental and human health.
Robin Garcia is an Aquatic Specialist working with Charles River Laboratories. She has a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology from the University of Miami, and a Master of Science in Marine Biology with a concentration in aquatic toxicology from the College of Charleston. She’s also on the DC EcoWomen Executive Board.