Deeohn Ferris, vice president for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at National Audubon Society, presented Tuesday at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability on initiatives to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in the environmental conservation field. The lecture was organized through the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program as a part of the “DEI December Presentation: Environmental Justice, Equity and Law.”
The National Audubon Society is a nonprofit conservation organization with a mission to protect bird and wildlife habitats. Audubon policy, education and science experts provide guidance to lawmakers to shape conservation actions and policies.
In Ferris’s first job as a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency, she and her colleagues looked into patterns of the locations of companies who did not comply with regulations. Everywhere they had a case, Ferris and her colleagues determined people of color and low-income backgrounds were struggling with the hazardous environmental exposures. Ferris said these findings inspired her to dedicate her work to equity and inclusion.
In her role at the National Audubon Society, Ferris’s focuses on equity and inclusion of racially diverse groups that are currently underrepresented in the environmental conservation field. Ferris’s initiatives are directed toward diversifying the workers at Audubon as well as shifting the work of the organization itself.
In order to advance DEI initiatives, Ferris said Audubon is currently curating their first comprehensive report which gives a historical record of investments and initiatives that are advancing equity and diversity at Audubon.
Ferris drew attention to the Audubon's Statement on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which reads, “Just as biodiversity strengthens natural systems, the diversity of human experience strengthens our conservation efforts for the benefit of nature and all human beings.”
“I think it’s important to draw parallels to what is going on in the conservation world and our aspirations,” Ferris said. “Just as we recognize, herald and acknowledge biodiversity of species we also need to be heralding and supporting social diversity in the work that we do.”
The organization is 114 years old, and diversity, Ferris said, was necessary for its survival.
“Our aim is to be more representative of groups that are currently underrepresented so that we can be around for another 114 years,” Ferris said. “The United States has been racially and culturally diverse for a really long time … What we have now is a game of employer catch up.”
Sonia Joshi, the SEAS DEI program manager, explained how the DEI speaker series coincides with a new DEI seminar course that is offered in SEAS. In the past, the DEI speaker series usually consisted of one to two speakers per semester. This year, there have been one to two speakers per month.
“The premise (of the speakers) was to bring in environmental professionals of color that are doing impactful environment and conservation work, to really put the lens to people that might not realize that there are people of color that are working in the environmental space and are in leadership positions,” Joshi said.
Joshi also said the DEI course is supposed to highlight that diversity, equity and inclusion is a growing field, and many environmental organizations are now creating positions and departments solely dedicated to this type of work.
Environment and Sustainability graduate student Zoe Fullem is enrolled in the DEI seminar class and said this speaker was more informative than previous ones.
“We’ve had a lot of speakers but this was cool because she actually touched on what she’s done at a huge organization,” Fullem said. “We haven't had someone from such a big environmental organization.”
Environment and Sustainability graduate student Joy Yakie said the seminars that coincide with the DEI course are helpful in comprehending the material.
“Taking the class with the seminar, that’s when you feel the impact more,” Yakie said. “If I had taken the class without this seminar, it would be purely just theoretical reading journals.”
Fullem believes the one-credit class is not enough to fully delve into the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We wish we could get deeper into things,” Fullem said. “I feel like it’s not enough. But it's a great pairing to come to these speaker series.”