NREM Reads project fostered appreciation for ‘home’ and diversity

“Same air, same water, same soil, same earth, same fate.”
         -- J. Drew Lanham

Story by Ann Y. Robinson

Last fall, Iowa State University’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management (NREM) brought faculty and students together to read and discuss the book, “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” by J. Drew Lanham, alumni distinguished professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University.

Adam Janke, assistant professor of natural resource ecology and management, co-chairs NREM’s diversity committee and coordinated the department’s first group-read effort. He had heard Lanham before -– already booked for the 2020 Errington Memorial Lecture -- and thought his honesty on racism, combined with his eloquent passion for nature, would make a perfect lens to focus conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion in natural resources. The resulting initiative provided books to 100 interested students (paid for by faculty), and included a one-credit seminar course, a faculty discussion and informal meetings with Lanham and students before the author’s lecture.

NREM Professor Lisa Schulte Moore participated in the faculty discussion, and her lab group read the book together, using it to spur dialogue around diversity and inclusion. “’The Home Place’ is beautifully written, eye opening and deeply moving,” she said. “I connected more deeply with the book, my colleagues and my lab as a result of our discussion.”

That discussion concluded by asking members to reflect on their own home places. Suraj Upadhaya, a post-doc in Schulte Moore’s lab, said he found Lanham’s story meaningful and resonant. Upadhaya, from Nepal, said, “Wherever we are, we are connected to our home places. For me, that is a small town on the edge of the Himalayas, where our lives seemed very close to nature.”

Upadhaya said the NREM Reads program was well-timed, as the lab was drafting its own diversity statement. “Dr. Lanham’s story helped us consider more empathetically how people of color are not always accepted. It helped me reflect on my own experiences, including a time when I was conducting a survey for research. I drove several hours to interview someone, but when they saw me, they decided they were too busy to talk and would never reschedule the interview.”

Several students from Iowa State’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology also took part in NREM Reads, including Ann Marie Gawel, studying conservation ecology for her PhD. Gawel, whose research centers on her home among the islands of Guam, also valued the discussions.

“I found his story uplifting,” she said. “He was open about trauma in his life, but that was not his focus. It was also encouraging to see so many people interested in improving science communication and diversifying science communities.”

Jan Thompson, NREM Morrill Professor, shared news of the NREM Reads project with departmental alumni who attended a reception at the Society of American Foresters virtual conference last fall. “We had a good discussion, both about the book and the department’s diversity and inclusion efforts. I think there was a little jealousy from those representing other institutions about what we are doing.”

As a leader for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ ISU ADVANCE diversity efforts from 2007-2011, Thompson can see progress, especially in efforts to hire and promote women in STEM fields. “But we continue to have a lot of opportunity for improvement. The book opened my eyes to the implicit bias that’s still around us.”

This reflects a contradiction Lanham points out: Natural resource disciplines study and celebrate the value of diversity, but the profession has not done a great job of embracing it.

“This book and discussion helped me, as a relatively privileged white person, better understand different people’s experiences and the systematic barriers they may face – including colleagues and students,” said Janke, NREM Reads coordinator. “I think efforts like this are important to help us think creatively about working together to overcome those barriers.”