Demographic trends suggest that minorities may soon make-up a majority of the U.S. population. In 2014, white children made up less than 50% of the population in public schools. However these demographic trends are not represented in some academic fields, which remain overwhelmingly white.
If I asked you to imagine a forester, a wildlife biologist, or some other natural resources scientist, what comes to mind?
“Oh yeah, I used to grow up and we would go out and hike, fish, hunt -- do something outdoors -- swimming in water holes, you know, and catching too many bluegill… we fished and did that kind of thing, and I was like ‘Oh, I didn’t realize there was a profession in it...’ And, you know, your audience can’t see me. I’m an African American.”
Dr. Ken Wilson’s experiences growing up outside and engaging with the natural environment are shared by a great number of people in the natural resource sciences. The color of his skin is not. For instance, at Utah State University and Colorado State University, both schools with fairly prominent natural resources departments, only about half a percent of enrolled undergraduates in those departments identify as African American, compared to 1-2% of the overall undergraduate population. That same disparity is evident in most minority populations.
“The majority doesn’t understand what we do, and now you go ask a underrepresented student -- an Asian, an African American, a Hispanic, a Hawaiian Islander - are you going to go into this field? And they’re like, “well no, this isn’t even a field that’s discussed,” said Wilson.
As the head of the Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology department at Colorado State University, Wilson tries to recruit underrepresented minorities into his field. That includes actions such as looking to nearby communities with more diverse populations than Fort Collins, CO or Logan, UT, so that minority students experiencing culture shock at very white universities can return home on the weekends. But overall, Wilson believes that grade school kids, regardless of their race need more exposure to natural resources.
“We still have to somehow find the resources or time to go to K through 12 and build the pipeline, and that means the majority population to the underrepresented, because not enough in the population understand what we do. Period.”