A Conversation with Parker McMullen Bushman on the Importance of Equity in Water

Water Education Colorado has been taking a close look at equity through the development of equity principles, adopted by the board in January 2020, and through upcoming programming, including the spring 2020 issue of Headwaters magazine which will focus on equity and environmental justice in water. To accompany the magazine, we sat down with some Colorado leaders to chat about the topic. For this first post in a series of Q&As on the topic, we sat down with C. Parker McMullen Bushman. Through her online resource forum, Ecoinclusive, and her job at the Butterfly Pavillion, Parker focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion issues. She tackles these topics by addressing them through activism and education. Here’s what she had to say:

What was the motivation for developing Ecoinclusive?

I’ve been in the environmental education and conservation community for over 22 years now. I am currently the Vice President of Community Engagement, Education and Inclusion for the Butterfly Pavilion. I love my job and I love teaching people about the environment. However, as a black woman, I am often the only person of color in these spaces.

Throughout my career, people have asked me how I got to where I was and what interested me in the field. It was like they were looking for some type of secret formula. I would look around and see that I was the only person of color in these spaces and I started asking myself the same questions. Why was I so often the only one? People asked me these things because they thought that I might have some insight being a person of color. But identity is not a credential, so before I could answer, I needed to find out myself. I started to do my own research. I completed my Master’s of Science in Natural Resources with a focus in environmental education, specifically equity in watershed education. I started looking at how we communicated environmental messages and asked, ‘How do we connect with different communities in ways that are authentic to them?’

Ecoinclusive was born out of that journey. I wanted to know more and I wanted to provide tools to others that are doing their own searching. A basic principle of ecology is that diversity in an ecosystem fosters strength and resilience. The same is true in our organizations. Ecoinclusive provides resources for leadership at non-profits and environmental organizations to aid them in building a culturally diverse and culturally competent staff that reflects and connects with the populations that they serve.

In my work at Butterfly Pavilion we think about the same things. It has been very important to us as an organization to tackle these issues. When we talk about environmental issues like the decline of pollinators or invertebrates being an integral part of our ecosystems, we know that these are issues that touch everyone. It’s our job to make sure we get these messages out to everyone in our community. I think that it is the same with water education. When you are dealing with things that are so integral to people’s everyday lives you need to help them make connections in ways that are authentic to them.

Why does this work matter, and how do you communicate that to people who don’t see it?

I think relevancy is one of the most important things. We want our work to be relevant to the lives of everyone in our community. When we think about the shifting and changing demographics in our society, we start to understand that a part of being relevant is about keeping up with those changes. In the last century, we’ve gone from the white population making up 90-80 percent of the population, to being projected in the next 30 or so years to 46 percent of the population. By 2023, our youth demographics will already look this way. People under the age of 18 will be majority people of color, so we are seeing quickly shifting and changing racial demographics. If your organization’s message is not one that connects with a wide variety of people, soon your message will no longer be relevant. Here in the Denver metro area, we are already close to hitting the 2023 demographic numbers for people under 18. We will hit the 2050 projection of people of color becoming the majority before the rest of the nation.

Historically many of our conservation organizations and institutions were built by white people. This may not seem like a big deal. But we often build organizational cultures that are familiar to us and comfortable to us. We tell stories in a way that holds meaning for us. We build narratives that reinforce the image that we see in the mirror. This is not inherently bad. But in telling the story from the perspective of the dominate culture we have neglected certain points of view from others in our communities. Being relevant is about bringing all stories together. It’s about telling stories that hold meaning for everyone we hope to bring to the table.

You’ve been working a bit with some WEco staff and board members to help us think through equity and the development of equity principles. Can you speak specifically to the need for work around diversity and inclusivity in the water community in Colorado?

Water is an essential resource. Climate change is already having a considerable effect on our water cycle, altering the amount of water we see, when we see it and the and quality of available water. Diversity and inclusivity is important in this conversation because we need to make sure everyone in our community is educated and empowered about this subject. Water education and awareness help communities think about the actions that they take individually and collectively to conserve and protect their local resources. Water knows no boundaries and we shouldn’t either. We need informed citizens and decision makers from all walks of life. Engaging all communities now will help create future generations of water stewards and innovators as our populations shift.

Water is life. And I think water is quickly becoming a highly sought-after commodity. As water continues to get commodified there are lots of under-resourced populations that are going to feel the result of that. It’s important to build in now, what does equity and justice in this space look like. We know we have equity issues now. We already see how access to clean water, access to non-poisoned water, water that does not carry lead in it, is an issue for some communities. So in the name of equity, we must ask the hard questions. Who has the right to water? Is it a human right? And if it is a human right, then how do we create equitable access.

Your zip code shouldn’t affect whether you are able to get clean water or water that doesn’t make you sick. I believe that your socioeconomic status shouldn’t determine the status of your water. I mean, water is life, and clean water is health. And if we follow that reasoning down to whether or not people have to live in certain neighborhoods to get clean water, then effectively we are saying that those who live in under-resourced areas don’t deserve the same quality of health or life as those people who are more well off.

What benefits and change have you seen as a result of your work?

People are having the conversation. I think this is so important. I wouldn’t say this is a result of only my work, but the work being done collectively is making an impact. We are more willing to talk about these issues now than we were 50 or even 20 years ago. I think people are good, especially in the environmental field. We want what is best for the planet. We want a happy and healthy ecosystem. We want people to care about their environment. Coming from that goodness I think people are starting to be willing to have more conversations, even in realms that are more uncomfortable.

Conversations about race are uncomfortable because we have no control over the race we are born. It’s uncomfortable to think that we may receive advantages or disadvantages based on something we have no control over. But we see study after study that shows that access to clean water or clean air can be race related. There was a study that came out this year about air pollution. The study tracked people who were most affected by air pollution and people who are producing the most air pollution. In these studies, we see that the biggest determinant for being exposed to these pollutants is race. You would think that it would be socioeconomic, but time and time again we see that race is much more important than socioeconomics. (Study Finds Racial Gap Between Who Causes Air Pollution And Who Breathes It)

These conversations are very uncomfortable because we don’t like to think about race being tied to those things. But people are willing to have the conversation. And some may not be fully convinced, but that they are open to having the conversation and that’s a big step. What I hope to see in the future is that we shift from conversation to action that will make a difference in some of these realms.

What are some tips or strategies that you give to the organizations and groups who are looking to become more inclusive and diverse?

It is different for everyone’s journey, but the first step is that you have equip everyone in your organization with the tools to have these conversations. There is no reason to start off creating a set of equity principles if people don’t have base knowledge about why we would need this and how this is relevant to your organization. We must ask ourselves about ideas of privilege, oppression and unconscious bias. We need to understand the impact that these have on our lives and how they show up every day in the organizations that we love.

Then we can ask the questions of what I want to see improve? Once people have that kind of basic understanding, then they can take it to the next level and say “Now that I have concepts, how does this come to play in my own organization? What are some of the things that we can be taking a closer look at and make more inclusive? How can we start to authentically engage in our community? How can we start to dismantle systems of oppression and barrier to participation?”

Once you can ask and answer those questions then you can start to put a plan into action. And all of these things take money. In order to do this work, we have to invest. Organizations invest in what is most important to them. So invest in community engagement! Invest in action! This is how we will make change for a better more inclusive future. Our hope for tomorrow is each other. So we must work together to make change happen. Look around your table and ask yourself if it’s the best representation of your community. And if the answer is no … then let’s get to work together!

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