For Black History Month, the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories. This post is from Yoseph Araya a lecturer at the Open University.
I am currently a lecturer in ecology and environmental sciences at The Open University. My research interests focus on the relationship between plants and environmental resources such as water and nutrients. I often have related those with how we use resources to meet biodiversity and human needs. In the background of this all, I have a deep interest in international development and public environmental education.
Although I have occasionally discussed my personal story with students, mentees and diaspora compatriots, I have never contemplated noting it down. Now, honouring the British Ecological Society’s invitation, I am sharing my story, with the hope that it will encourage not only BAME friends, but all friends from all backgrounds, as we strive to build an inclusive and harmonious society.
The BES has been a professional anchor of integration as I proceeded from an African BAME postgraduate student to an academic in the UK. Since then within the BES, I have been increasingly engaged in its public engagement, education and equality and diversity missions.
In this blog, I would like to provide my views, in a personal way, on where we all could contribute to a more successful and inclusive community of ecologists. I highlight: (1) the importance of empathy to the often complex experience of minorities (BAME or any other minority backgrounds); (2) the value of encouragement and practical mentorship towards supporting them, be it individually or at a professional level; (3) the importance of representation and visibility; (4) the role of solidarity among professionals in acting for broader development and social issues.
To start with, I was born and grew up in Ethiopia and Eritrea respectively, a region with a rich tapestry of cultural, biodiversity and historical influence, but also a region of constant political and environmental instability. Thinking back, I feel my slow but significant interest in life sciences was kindled watching Jacques Cousteau’s marine documentaries (at primary school) and especially at university, watching David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants (more on this later).
In all this, I should start by crediting a lot of support from many friends from all parts of the world and from all backgrounds, who have been supporting me in academic and non-academic matters.
Empathy towards the feelings of under-represented groups
There are many things that shape us, whether it is race, economic background, social class, gender etc… and there are times when one can feel out of place in a setting. But studying in a multicultural setting in Europe, I have managed to temper that feeling by considering that there is more that unites us in humanity than what makes us different.
I was fortunate in a way because I had scholarships to support myself, but I realise that there were many other things that have not been easy. I had a long journey to get the right paperwork to facilitate my studies and professional progress. Being an involuntary exile and not knowing where my next destination would be has brought added complexity and has been a heavy burden to bear. However, I felt that the patience and understanding shown to me, sometimes at the cost of the work/career of my mentors and employers has been outstanding. The value of empathy for me has been significant and it is my hope to show it to others whom I come across.
Mentoring to deal with imposter syndrome
Growing up and doing my basic studies within resource-limited institutions has meant there is always a feeling of inadequacy (in its simplest form a lack of shared experience).
In dealing with this, at a personal level, I have benefited from constant encouragement and support from my mentors. Often my mentors were considerate enough to realise my needs and gently support me to help myself (whether that be on how to build volunteer experience or patiently explaining cultural connotations).
At an institutional level, it is crucial to have a structural set-up to support all under-represented groups. I am heartened to say this is constantly progressing. It is good to ask what is available to support the wellbeing (both academic and personal) of our under-represented groups. And also to provide a forum, where they can get their voice(s) heard. This can be enriching and cathartic for both the storyteller and listener. Lastly, it is not only important to provide support but also to make it visible and transparent to under-represented groups. There are many well-meaning friends of under-represented groups who are willing to engage and contribute.
Visibility of inclusion
In ecology and STEM overall there are obviously low numbers and lower progression success of BAME scientists and other under-represented groups. I believe there are many factors that contribute to this and it is a concern worthy of investigation and taking steps to address. From my personal experience, I believe having good examples (not necessarily big star examples) of people whom one identifies with, in high profile and visible places is motivational. I have always felt generally inspired with TV documentary presenters for example, which in recent years has seen even more presenters from diverse backgrounds. I think is a step in the right direction but more could be promoted of environmental heroes from elsewhere too, e.g. the late Wangari Maathai was an inspiring example to me.
Going full circle, with regard to BBC documentaries, I have finally found an academic consultancy role in the follow up to The Private Life of Plants – BBC’s Green Planet. So dreams can come true.
Solidarity in professional and justice issues
I believe scientific progress should not be hampered by borders or a person’s background. There are many instances where we can act together for the greater good of our communities and our planet. I would love to see scientists make a stand for injustice locally and globally, whether it is exclusion or misuse of science to advance political/unworthy agendas. Not all of us have to demonstrate active resistance, but even calling it out and refusing to endorse it is also a stand by itself. In my experience, I am heartened to say, seeing strong stances on justice, among my mentors has made me strive to be braver.