Chanté Coleman has always loved the water, although growing up in San Diego, California, it was the ocean, not the Bay, that was near and dear to her heart. Making frequent trips to the coast, she got scuba certified at a young age, “just because I was very curious about what was under the surface of the water,” she recalls.
Her first immersive encounter with environmental science came when she was in college. She took a freshman seminar in Bermuda on ocean systems and coral reefs. “Everything from there moved me closer and closer to entering the environmental movement.”
After graduation, she headed on to law school and eventually landed a job at San Diego Coastkeeper. There, she worked on issues such as the protection of marine areas and the overfishing and poaching of lobster, until late 2014 when her manager recruited her for a position at the National Wildlife Federation as a field manager for the Choose Clean Water Coalition.
Fostering diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in the Chesapeake
Also in 2014, Green 2.0 released a study finding that, despite increasing diversity in the United States, the racial composition in environmental organizations and agencies had not broken the 12 to 16 percent “green ceiling.” This study also found that unconscious bias, discrimination and insular recruiting contribute to the failure of environmental organizations and agencies to increase recruitment and retention of people of color, as well as a general lackluster effort and disinterest in addressing diversity.
Coleman began working at Choose Clean Water Coalition in early 2015, as the air was buzzing with the findings of the Green 2.0 report. “The lack of diversity in the environmental movement was front and center,” she remembers, “the report illuminated how white the environmental field is and how diversity was not improving over time.”
Having just started her job and being new to the field, she wasn’t sure how she felt about the study. “But then I started going to conferences and meetings and thought, ‘Whoa. They’re right!’”
“At times, I was the only person of color,” recalls Coleman. “It can be uncomfortable to go into a room and see no one like you. It can be uncomfortable to be a part of a movement and know that they have left out so many people like you.”
Despite this, she loved the work she was doing as a field manager. “It’s a really unique job because it requires advocacy skills and policy chops, but also focuses on partnership building and cultivating trust, and it helps to be a people person.”
As she settled into her new job and got comfortable with her responsibilities, she began looking for more she could do, and asked her director to take on more tasks. She began writing grant reports, attending meetings with funding partners and speaking at more events. It wasn’t long before she started and led the coalition’s work on diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ).
“That was something that was really important to me and to our partners,” says Coleman. “The way that I look at it is DEIJ provides balance to things that have been out of balance because of power, privilege and racism, and it’s especially important in the white, male-dominated conservation movement. In order to combat this, we need to intentionally apply a justice lens to everything we do.”
She said that you can’t address an issue unless you engage everyone and that you need involvement from a boarder cross-section of the public. To help with this, Coleman created a diversity toolkit and provided other DEIJ resources to coalition members.
“DEIJ started becoming more important to our work and our mission, and people saw me leading on this and I started to become a leader in our community.”
Coleman served as interim director while the director at the time was on maternity leave. There, she learned the importance of “faking it till you make it,” but also owning up to your mistakes. “As a director, you will make mistakes, but if you just own it, you can move on.”
When the director eventually moved on from the coalition, Coleman naturally stepped into her shoes. She attributes this step to the institutional knowledge she gained while reaching out for more work to do, along with her skills at building bridges, solving conflicts and problems, and her empathy.
Now as director, Coleman continues to work on increasing DEIJ in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and she’s seeing progress. “I think we’ve become more intentional in the Chesapeake environmental movement about DEIJ. We are focusing on increasing our diversity, making sure we are instituting equitable policies, being cognizant of where we are posing jobs, having conversations with boards and staff about DEIJ, and developing shared language for DEIJ.”
At the 2019 Choose Clean Water Coalition Conference in May, they will be releasing a new diversity, equity, inclusion and justice guide for the watershed, based on a survey of funders and non-governmental organizations. This guide will include recommendations for what organizations can do to increase diversity, foster a culture of inclusion, retain diverse staff and incorporate DEIJ into program areas.
What keeps Chanté going?
While Coleman is excited about the increase in attention on DEIJ, she also worries about the burden that could be placed on employees of color. “As a person of color, we’re often times expected to be the ones in our organizations to work on DEIJ,” she says.
“I do it because I am passionate and excited about it,” Coleman states, but it’s about giving people a choice, and not expecting people of color to be an expert or work on DEIJ issues just because of their life experience.
She offers advice to folks who may be in this situation, even if it is an issue they are passionate about. “It’s ok to take a step back. This work is very personal. It can be very hurtful, emotional and taxing.”
“Self-care has helped me be successful,” she states. “I get up every day and work on DEIJ because it is essential to our success, but it can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. I would impart that, to anyone working on DEIJ, prioritize self-care.”
She has similar advice for those working in the environmental field. “Environmental protection is really important. Building an inclusive movement is very important. But if we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of the environment.”
Her team also keeps her going. “The people here are incredible. I love getting up and working with them every day. Who doesn’t want to work protecting the environment? At least that’s how I see it.”
Overall, Coleman is excited that the Chesapeake Bay watershed is moving from conversation to action—“I’m walking into more rooms and seeing more people like me.”