(Left to right) India Dennis with Hood College, Maya Alexander with the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, and Tyneshia Griffin with New Virginia Majority talk during a Young Professionals of Color event on March 29, 2023, in Chevy Chase, MD. (Drew Robinson/Choose Clean Water Coalition)
Organizations that work on the health of the Chesapeake Bay and other environmental issues in the region have known for years that most of them have a diversity problem.
Reports over the past decade have demonstrated what many knew anecdotally: The amount of diversity in staffs of environmental nonprofits and government agencies often does not reflect the populations and places they aim to serve.
That’s beginning to change. And advocates say it’s partly due to initiatives like the Young Professionals of Color Mentorship Program. Under the umbrella of the Choose Clean Water Coalition, the program is in its seventh year of providing training and mentorship to environmentally minded people in BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) communities.
In the process, the program also helps close the racial diversity gap that is common among environmental groups in the Bay region. It does so by creating connections, inroads and encouragement that may not have existed otherwise.
“One of the things that kept me from exploring this work initially was, I felt like, maybe there wasn’t a place for me,” said Joe Toolan, now a manager of Chesapeake programs for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Born in Guatemala and adopted in the 1990s, Toolan identifies as queer, Latinx and indigenous. After working with a mentor and then mentoring others through the program, he said he feels more comfortable having a seat at the table and bringing his experiences to bear on grantmaking work.
Being in the environmental field “is still hard,” he said. But “this program was a natural point of connection for me.”
Chanté Coleman, now the senior vice president of Equity and Justice at the National Wildlife Federation, started Young Professionals of Color in 2015 when she was with the Choose Clean Water Coalition. The year before, a national study by Green 2.0, an inequality watchdog organization focused on environmental professionals and leaders, pointed out that the percentage of ethnic minorities represented on the boards and staff of environmental organizations fell far short of representing the broader population.
In 2016, the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program quantified its own diversity shortcomings for the first time: While people of color represented 35% of the region’s population, they accounted for just 14% of the people working for the Bay Program. And just 9% of the program’s leaders were people of color.
“There weren’t as many people of color in the Bay restoration movement at the time,” said Mariah Davis, recalling her experience as a mentee in 2016, which was— the first year for Young Professionals of Color. She is now the Choose Clean Water Coalition’s acting director and runs the mentoring program. “I do think, because of our collective efforts, we’ve been able to recruit and retain more people of color in the Bay community. It’s filling a gap.”
The 2022–23 program participants included 42 mentees and mentors filling a variety of roles in the environmental workforce. In the early days of the effort, it was hard to find mentors that were also people of color, but it’s no longer as difficult, said Davis, who has developed her own reputation as a masterful matchmaker.
Mentors and mentees are encouraged to meet up regularly throughout the program, which also offers training sessions during the year. The sessions — unique to the needs of each cohort — focus on topics like overcoming imposter syndrome, having difficult conversations at work and persevering for the long-haul in an arduous field.
This spring, after a few years of Zoom-based sessions, the program hosted an in-person event at Nature Forward’s Woodend Nature Sanctuary in Chevy Chase, MD, inviting both current and past participants. Some attendees said the event felt like a “tipping point” for the program: an opportunity to both celebrate the bonds that had been formed and make new connections in the local environmental movement.
“I was so nervous to be here,” one of the participants told Davis at the event, “but now I feel like I have community.”
Toolan noted that high-ranking officials from the Bay Program and other regional organizations attended a reception portion of the event that “was able to show people the reach that [the program] has.”
Young Professionals of Color is supported by the Chesapeake Bay Trust and other grants. Davis said she hopes that, with additional funds, they can widen their scope to include more outdoor experiences throughout the Bay watershed.
Before participating in the program as a mentee, La’ Portia J. Perkins thought her degrees in wildlife biology and forestry would keep her doing fieldwork her entire career. But the program “gave me an orientation to not only the [environmental nonprofits] but also this whole entire palette of conservation and natural resource work,” said Perkins.
“My grandfather was a zookeeper and my great-great grandparents were sharecroppers, so my relationship to the land is basically in my DNA,” she added. “But the drive to turn it into a career was fueled by being around the right people and situations.”
Perkins’ mentor helped her rework her resume, practice interviews and ultimately make a leap into a new branch of work, as a project manager for the Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute based in Washington, DC.
“It allowed me the opportunity to step back and say, ‘What is it that I really want?’ and to see myself there. It worked out,” said Perkins, who works remotely for the DC institute from her home in Michigan. “I [used to be] very 1-2-3 about my career path. Now, it’s more like an amoeba. I can become anything.”