White-led Leadership in Complex Environmental Systems

Prepared remarks for the Bay Delta Science Conference, April 6th 2021, #BDSC2021

Dr. Sarah E. Myhre

I begin my talk today in recognition of the Suquamish, Muckleshoot, Duwamish, Stillaguamish, and Coast Salish people, I recognize the sovereignty of these indigenous nations to this land that I call home. I also want to recognize the indigenous peoples of the land that we now call the Bay-Delta, including Miwok, Yokuts, Patwin, Nisenan, Konkow, Nomlaki, and Monache peoples.

Thank you so much to the Delta Stewardship Council for the invitation to join this special session today focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. And thank you to the other presenters, including Elaine Labson, Sarah Inskeep, Nicholas Arosemena, Evan Fern, and Ashley Pana, Melissa Jones, and Alex Etheridge.

My name is Dr. Sarah Myhre and I am climate scientist and environmental justice expert, and I hold a PhD from the University of California at Davis in the field of paleoceanography. My talk today is entitled “White-led Leadership in Complex Environmental Systems.” For the purpose of accessibility, I have additionally published the text of the talk, which I will drop into our chat box, for folks to read and review at their leisure.

I want to acknowledge the ongoing trauma, loss, and grief from the COVID19 pandemic and racial violence to Black and Asian American communities within the United States.

I also want to acknowledge that conversations about whiteness can be traumatic and dehumanizing for people of color to listen to or experience. Often, efforts towards diversity and inclusion continue to hurt, extort labor and ideas, and erase the same people who have already been systematically excluded and harmed. It is my intention to not transact in such a way here.

And, from a trauma-informed lens here, engagement with these ideas and conversations absolutely need to be consensual or not at all, and I support audience members engagement to the level that is sufficient for their needs. Your presence is a gift and I want everyone to please take care of themselves and be well.

I am, obviously, not a Bay-Delta scientist. But, I was lucky enough to take a class from Jay Lund at UC Davis when I was a graduate student, through my IGERT, or NSF’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship. I went on field trips through the bay Delta, and saw water infrastructure, sea level rise indicators, geological subsidence, energy and highway corridors, and extensive agriculture. A land and waterscape of overlapping, complex, rapidly changing, and imperiled functions.

The Bay Delta is the linchpin of the entire state of California’s water, energy, agriculture, and transportation systems, all both contributing to California’s carbon emissions, requiring decarbonization, and all vulnerable to the ongoing and amplifying impacts of climate change.

And management of this system also includes the legal compliance and complexity of the federal environmental, water, and energy regulatory landscape, including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

It is hard to imagine a working environment that is more complex than the Delta system, although I am sure that folks from the Mississippi, Everglade, or Chesapeake Bay would have good counter arguments.

Moreover, the institutions that hold sway and power in the Bay Delta are the institutions that determine much of the decision-making for the state of California as a whole, including the UC system, California nonprofit and advocacy organizations, state environmental agencies, and state leadership of the Senate, congressional, and governors offices. These institutions are made up of individuals, individuals which may be on this call today.

And while we are talking about institutions that manage the aquatic delta environment and vast working environments across the center of California, there’s really no difference between us and the environment. We as people, we are the environment, and as we treat one another so we treat the rest of the world. Individuals, institutions, and the land, all intricately coupled to one another, through time:

Externalities, exploitation, and unequal impacts: these are things that happen to both people and places. Sacrifice zones and sacrifice people: all products from the same systems of oppression that have historically privileged and protected certain people and certain places.

These institutions of governance, knowledge, and social control, such as those that govern and steward the Bay Delta, are being called to account for the harms of exclusionary and extortive practices, as well as wholesale theft and violence. These movements, including the BlackLivesMatter movement, the Water Protectors and indigenous land sovereignty movement, and other labor or feminist movements of solidarity, all press upon the institutions that oversee the Bay Delta, demanding reformation and repatriation, as well as integrative, accountable leadership that stewards the present, repairs the past, and protects the future. Demanding leadership by the people and of the people — not a caste system of race, economic, and gender.

These collective social movements toward liberation and a culture of care and repair, call the institutions of power to account. White supremacy, anti-indigeneity, neo-liberal extractive capitalism, petrol-patriarchy: all laid out as untenable and interconnected systems of oppressions that must be dismantled.

So. We have a great deal of work to do indeed, some of us more than others.

Historically white-led institutions, organizations, and agencies may have found themselves staring directly, for the first time in the history of the existence of the institution, at the unequal and unrepresentative nature of leadership ranks across lines of race, ethnicity, and gender, at internal cultures of harassment and hostility, or at the inequitable impacts of public policies, investments, and community outcomes.

In many cases “diversity and inclusion” committees are formed to be administrative containers for these concerns, appointed to “fix” a problem yet without the necessary tools, of decision-making and institutional power, to do so. What often goes unsaid, because of the gatekeeping of white upper middle class civility, is that these DEI efforts are not designed to succeed. They are often designed to fail.

As feminist scholar Dr. Sara Ahmed, who is an expert on complaint, feminist pedagogy, and institutions, recently wrote “Organisations often appear to do better on equality to the extent that they suppress evidence of inequalities. Organisations often appear more inclusive to the extent they do not include the views of those who do not find them to be inclusive.” Often DEI initiatives are used for institutional branding. They are a multi-level marketing plan. They shellac and cover the institution in a “diverse and inclusive” veneer, that is used, cynically, to prevent deeper and systemic change.

Success, for DEI initiatives at State and county agencies, at academic institutions, and NGO organizations, could look not only like changing the racial and gender compositions of institutional leadership, or changing exclusionary processes and practices, it would also look like changing the very core American story that we use to narrate our authority and connection to the land. A different American story that would not look away from genocide and theft, slavery, apartheid, a racial cast system, and state-sanctioned violence. These systems of harm, unacknowledged, unaddressed and systemically perpetuated, continue to be erased in an American narrative of self-styled “greatness.” An American narrative of technocratic ease, where rockets shoot cars into the spaghetti western of space exploration, and we exist in a never-ending frontiership of resources, time, and space.

Indeed, DEI work is a facet of the deep work of individuals and institutions turning towards all that has been erased from our stories, our histories; turning towards all the violence and loss and working to address, with integrity and accountability, the wounding of the past. To people and to place. This is what a culture of care and repair looks like: repatriation, reparation, and restoration.

So often, the narrowness of the interpretation of DEI work is itself a barrier to institutional change. As well, the leadership of those committed to DEI work is a barrier, as this work presses into ensconced power dynamics of historically white-led environmental, academic, or public infrastructure institutions.

And so, the behavior of white folks in these spaces becomes a sort of wild card, a known unknow. Helpful or harmful? Individually, folks within the construct of whiteness, and especially cishet male whiteness, are much more likely to be safer within the institution, to have power and sway within the institution, and to be engaging with DEI work from a “pro-social” intention, meaning that they believe DEI work is the normative thing that the institution “ought” to be engaged in.

Prosocial narratives — of helping, ameliorating, giving , protecting — are ubiquitous in historically white-led environmental organizations and institutions. Yet, a small push against these narratives and the less attractive underbelly of them is revealed, wherein we find narrative of self-styled heroism, narratives of savior-ship, of great men or great men giving solutions to people who “need” help. For white folks, these deeply held beliefs — about your own goodness, or being “one of the good ones” — may be animating your engagement with environmental justice and DEI work.

These narratives of centrality, of heroism and saviorship, these are narratives of white supremacy itself. And, when they are questioned, they become weaponized emotional defenses. Think of the man we all know who, when accused of sexism, retorts, “I’m not a misogynist, I have five daughters.” His defences is in his proximity to women that he cares for, and the unsaid part is that is that his care for other women not in his family system falls under different terms. He chooses how he treats women differently: and that is textbook patriarchy.

Similarly, white folks who are DEI advocates or organizers can weaponize their proximity to DEI work as a shield or defence. “I am one of the good ones,” she tells herself, “because of my engagement with DEI work in my department.” She chooses the terms of her engagement with systemic inequality, and then self-deputizes as an ally, allowing the cookies and clout chasing to begin: this is the privilege and fragility of whiteness.

Often, white academics and experts and institutional leadership simply opt out of DEI engagement, turning toward the “hard numbers” of their research, and the “more concrete aspects” of their work. There is an assumption that “real work” must continue elsewhere. The academic worldview particularly becomes engaged here, where every empirical nuance and sub-hypothesis is examined and given credibility. This thoroughness, employed as a critical thinking and problem solving tool is deeply engaged in their disciplinary work, and yet is not engaged when considering their own relationship to whiteness, power, and their own positionality within institutions.

Within the complex system of the Bay-Delta, wherein dedicated experts must understand, prioritize, and weight efforts, against a ticking clock of subsidence, sea level rise, and state funding, is very likely that immediacy, decisiveness, and heuristic simplification become seductive lures away from the truly complex work at hand, as people and as institutions.

Rather, I would suggest that this seductive lure is a lie. That there is no other work worth doing if we are not changing the status quo toward a Yes, more inclusive, Yes, more equitable and diverse situation. But it is not a process relegated to a committee. To change the white American amnesia, we as white people need to listen, to see, and to remember. And we must hear the internal voice of white supremacy, which whispers to us that we are good, that we mean well, as the voice of an enemy.

In such a complex and imperiled moment as the one we find ourselves in, it is perhaps not that important whether we are relatively good or relatively bad. Perhaps this stick is not the one that you use to measure yourself with, and maybe it is not even yours to know? Deconstructing whiteness, as white people, isn’t about helping other people. It’s about engaging with right action and seeing things clearly, and along the way we are the ones who are helped. I would suggest a more humble approach, predicated on our commitment to one another, is a better fit here, rather than individualist narratives of the self, or self-worth, or of saving, and helping. As was written in the Jewish Talmud, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Thanks everyone, be well and take care.

Communication and leadership to change the world. Climate, justice, equity, and decision making. hello@rowaninstitute.org #weneedtochangetheworld