Diversity at Yale School of the Environment: A Conversation with Thomas Easley

Interview conducted by Clara Fang, March 10, 2019

Thomas Easley is the Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Prior to that, he worked for thirteen years as the Director of Community for Diversity in the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University. He holds a master’s degree in forest genetics from Iowa State University and a Doctor of Education from NCSU. Thomas spent an hour with me to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion at Yale and the challenges of diversity in the environmental movement.

What is your personal story of making the shift from forestry to diversity?

I think that ever since I started my college career, I’ve been doing diversity the whole time. When I was working in forestry in Montana, I was the only Black person in the county. When I was at Iowa State, I was the only Black person in the department. When I was at University of Georgia, I was the only Black person in the school. Just me being there was some sort of work towards diversity. So, I feel like the fact that I’m here in this role as a Black man, and I’m young, and I’m from the South, is a form of protest.

And, of course, I have my scholarship. But for me, my scholarship is not just what I write or what I read, but also what I live. You can’t read that in a book. You have to talk to me to get that. I’m not going to give it to them easy. Coming from a person of color perspective, we do what’s called tacit knowledge. We pass it down through word, we pass it down through relationship, and it’s not just on paper. When I was at Iowa State and worked for the McNair program, there were students who were first generation and people of color from African American, East Asian, Indigenous American backgrounds, and people from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The aim was to get everyone in that program into graduate school to receive a terminal degree. In most fields, a terminal degree is a doctorate. I came into that program identifying as an African American, and all my students (more than 12 in total) were land mix, which was a term we used at the time, and English was their second language. So, everyone actually spoke Spanish because in my cohort, I had all Latin American students.

At first, my question was, “Why did the administration do that to me?” But then my question to the administration was, “Why did you do that to them?” Why did the administration put all of them with someone who was not as prepared to work with them because of the language barrier? So, I took a class. The only reason that happened was because these students joined the program and at the time I got signed on, they needed a counselor and I was the only one available.

I told my students that when I meet with them, the rule was that they would speak English with me and I would speak Spanish with them, and that they would bring all of the BS to me and take all of the truth out when they left me. After the first meeting, they all knew what I was talking about. They would bring all the lies to me, like people saying they were an affirmative action case, that they didn’t belong there, that they didn’t earn their way in there, or that they’re an imposter. They would bring that and leave it with me. Then, they would go out with what I know to be true: that they’re brilliant and that they earned their way there. I told them to just show the institution what I already know to be true. They were smart, and they were going to get out of there even smarter than the rest. I was the only counselor that was able to help all my students, after graduating, go on to graduate school. That really caught my interest in what’s now my current work.

Another influential experience was the time I was involved in research dealing with GMOs and transgenic plants, our lab encountered a number of activist groups that were against that kind of science. We found bombs in different plots, and our researchers were threatened too.  We organized a town hall to better communicate what we were doing, that we were just doing what already happens in nature. That made me think about how communication is really important, getting on other people’s level. Communicate what you’re doing, articulate why you have made decisions, explain it and express it in multiple ways, and connect with people. You might be able to help people along their journey and be successful, regardless of background.

These experiences are what made me switch from forestry to diversity. Diversity is hard, because of these racist systems that make treating a human like a human so hard. We need to flip these systems and bring humanity back. That’s how I came to Yale FES. My attitude was that I did not come here to live these ideas and these policies. I was brought here to help other people understand why it needs to change.

How did you come to be the Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Yale Forestry?

I didn’t pursue this current job, but rather Yale came after me. The main reasons Yale found out about me are because I have a consulting business and because I have a lot of videos about the work that I’ve done. I’m a hip-hop artist with a label and I ‘m known for this thing called “hip hop forestry.” I’m the first person to come up with it and the only person working on it, but I’m sure that’s about to change.

It’s been great since I’ve been here. It’s been challenging. I can honestly say that working here for a year feels almost like working at NC State for ten years, just because this place is so much of its own bubble and all of the issues really hit fast here versus down south. But down south, we live with it all the time. We have to deal with it, so I’m able to engage with it without problem, but there are too many people here that don’t know how to engage with these issues around race, gender, etc. I credit this to being at a private Ivy League school which deals with donors more so than grants. It’s a different approach that faces a different kind of pressure. People don’t struggle with dealing with these issues around here because they’ve been in this nice ivory bubble called Yale University. It was interesting for them to bring somebody here from the outside, who doesn’t come from that pedigree. But, I’m just as smart, if not smarter, as far as I’m concerned. I’m confident in who I am, and I know who I am.

What is your mission and job description?

My job description states: “The Assistant Dean of Community and Inclusion leads ongoing efforts and envisions new directions for growth in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in the areas of community inclusion and diversity.” But you should strike ‘ongoing.’ It says leads ongoing efforts, but you know what I’ve been doing since I got here? Trying to create them. We didn’t have efforts going on.

“The incumbent with a demonstrated passion and commitment to the environmental field reports to the Dean of the school and is responsible for working collaboratively across the school’s administrative leadership team in addition to key partners across the university and experiment.”

“The Assistant Dean will lead efforts to increase the diversity of student, staff, and faculty recruitment and retention. They will infuse core values of diversity, inclusion, and equity into the education, research practice, and outreach activities of the school and promote a cohesive community within the school around the strategic mission and goals.” So, one of the things is to work with the Dean’s office, faculty, students, admissions, the registrar and alumni, communications, human resources to develop and implement practices that will increase recruitment and retention.

What percentage of students are POC at Yale FES?

Out of 330 Masters and PhD students, Latinx and Hispanic students make up 1.82% of the student population. 0.61% are US based and the other 1.21% are international. Asian students make up 18.84%, with 6.36% US and 12.12% international. Black and African American students make up 4.85%, with about 2% US and 2% international. For Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, we have none.

We do not have any indigenous students right now. We had two, but they graduated last year. Currently, White students make up 60%. 55% of that’s US based and 2.7% is international. The multiracial group makes up 15%, and that’s 11% US based and 4% international.

Why do you think there is a lack of diversity in environmental studies programs?

I believe those numbers look like that because of the systems of institutional and structural racism that run the industry of the environment. That’s whether you’re talking activism and/or people who are actively engaged in the work itself.  Communities have been left out of conversations around the environment, around nature, and around forests and a number of things. I feel like it has been educational gentrification, this process of pushing people out. But now, we’re trying to bring them back in.

All the institutional racism in society that impact people of color are also the reason the numbers look like that. So, that would be housing, the breakdown of wealth, and the fact that communities do not have access to health or really poor environments. We tend to say that people from those areas should come here, but they always send out the message that they’re not welcome, because you have to be elite to come here. It’s an oxymoron. We say that we really want to open up and bring people in, but there are many barriers that make it hard for people to get in.

One of the challenges lies in something that we do with regards to admissions. We want our prospective students to have worked one or two years after college. So, the average age for people here is 26 or 27 years old. The exception is if you went to Yale undergrad, then you can transition into what’s called the 4 Plus 1 Program and get your bachelor’s and Master’s in five years.

But what about the people who didn’t go to Yale? In other schools, like state schools, students are told to go ahead and get their master’s right after their BS, because the BS is the equivalent of a high school diploma these days. That’s a barrier because the people that we are trying to attract are taught to go ahead and get their Masters, while here people are telling them to go work and then come back to get their Masters. This means that undergrad Yale students have an advantage in getting in the graduate programs here.

But, I’m proud to say that this year they opened that up a little bit. Since I have been here, they have accepted more students right out of undergrad. I now have two coming from NC State, both of which have 4.0 GPAs. Just watch, they’re going to come up here and you will see a big milestone. Especially in forestry, in particular.

I think one of the ultimate barriers here at Yale is tenure. An institution like this one puts so much power in the hands of people who are brilliant, but who don’t know everything. How can a faculty member who’s not engaged in admissions talk about admissions? How can a faculty member that’s not engaged in fundraising have a conversation about fundraising or impact of policies? But when you’re on the board of permanent offices, that’s the kind of power you have you can sit at the table, you can vote, and you can talk about things. To me, that’s a poor structure. It keeps informed people out and it keeps people in that have power but do not have the experience to make wise decisions. So, they basically keep going in circles. It’s one of the reasons why they cannot get any faculty members of color here. They have the same people sitting at the table and having the same discussion.

Those are just two barriers, but I could keep going. It’s the same barriers with testing, applications, and such. I see how they do things here and it’s way different than where I came from. So many people have their hands in how people get here. They really do look at people who think like them and look like them. They look at people who have the same pedigree and come from the same schools. I was not able to be in those rooms when I was at NC State. I just read the research and heard what people said. Now, I’m here and realizing that everything I heard about is all true. The good thing about being here is that they don’t hide it. At least they’re talking about it in some ways.

What challenging experiences do POC have at FES?

When the students of color come here, they’re already predisposed to things that make them feel unequal. The school does not help because the place itself reinforces those feelings. White students, even those who really care about these issues, do not really know or understand what’s happening, the stress that students of color carry, their pain and how tough it’s to be here. Unless you understand that the pressure of this place really can contribute to PTSD and other mental health issues, then you don’t get it. It would sound as though people are just complaining because they have not had to deal with it.  As we get to know people, we find that there are inequities in every community. It may be race with one, and it could be gender with another. It could be socioeconomic status in another place. It could be religion. For inequities, the content changes, but the context is the same.

Yale has many secret societies, like the forestry club, that for some may operate like a family, and for others operate like a fraternity or sorority. That means that if you’re not in, you know you’re not in, because you see what you have access to and what you don’t have access to. That can be a barrier for students of color because we do not have any secret societies in that community. It’s such a critical part of Yale. It’s a part of their identity and a part of their routine. But those things make it challenging for people to be here because they’re not really inclusive, or at least they do not appear to be. I’m speaking generally, because I recognize that there are some students of color who are in the forestry club. But there are some that do not really coalesce with that.

So, I just think that the culture of this place makes it tough for people to be here. The way students of color understand it, this is not a culture of family. We’re all here in the School of Forestry, but it’s not a family in that if you really get in to trouble, we will get you out of that trouble.  If you’re at an HBCU, every student will know your name and know what’s going on with you. People invest in you. But here? You can be here and just be a number. Even in a place as small as this. There is a mentality of getting here, getting green, and then getting out. That’s what students are here to do. When students first get here, they roll out the red carpet for them and show them everything. When school starts, they really get to see what the priorities are.

One thing that students of color particularly have to deal with is being treated as a representative for their racial group in classes and when they have conversations with people. Even though people know, for example, that one black student can’t speak for all black people, they still ask questions about all black people.

Names are another thing that can be challenging for professors. For me, I want to learn a student’s name. If I chop it up, I apologize. If they want me to say it differently, then that’s fine, or they can even give me a nickname to use. But I caution my students who come in here with nicknames. I tell them that I people aren’t taking the time to get to know their name, they’re not taking the time to get to know them as a person. If they want to give me a nickname, then they’re contributing to me not getting to know them by cutting it off. If they want someone to be patient with them coming in, they have to be patient with that person and me, too.

Reciprocity is something that I think a lot of people really don’t get because everybody is more concerned about what they want. I get it, because we can’t be objective about ourselves. I just tell people to realize that if they want it, then they need to give it to other people too.

I feel like our students of color feel like they don’t get the same access to all of the information that other people do. We require all students to have a summer internship, and by the end of the first term, a lot of students have internships, and some are still looking. Often, those will be our students of color. They will feel like no one has told them about the experience, so they have to go figure it out on their own. A lot of times, people of color feel like they’re in that field and not in that field. It’s both a feeling and a perception, as well as a truth. It’s like there’s this extra information that they could have to add to their success, but they don’t get access to it. Sometimes, professionals may not feel comfortable talking to them. Professors may not know how to communicate it to them. Sometimes, students are going to be intimidated to go in and ask because there’s this dynamic of “they’re a professor and I’m a student.”

I think this whole hierarchy around here makes it challenging. But, what’s so interesting is why the hierarchy is tough for the students of color while white students push past it all the time. I feel like both our students of color and our white students feel the same way. They’re not sure if they can do it. I also feel like certain students let the hierarchy get in the way when it’s convenient. Regardless of color, the hierarchy is always there. I don’t feel like our students of color can’t use their voice where white students did.

I’ll give you an example. We have this environmental justice mentoring program that we just started with the New Haven Adult and Continuing Education Center office. The students came in wanting to do something in the community, wanting to address environmental justice, and wanting to be out there. We went out and set something up and then came back to the students to ask if they could come. But we were met with excuses for why they couldn’t attend, like how they couldn’t miss class, despite the fact that they had missed the same class a week before for an international trip. Now, that’s taking advantage. They don’t have a problem with seeking their own opportunities that people in New Haven would never have access to, but when it comes to doing real work, the ‘rules’ suddenly apply. When students are comfortable and doing more fun work, then exceptions can be made.

When we took 12 students out into the community two weeks ago, I wish you could’ve seen their faces. I wish you could’ve been there to see how their whole expression and posture changed and they realized that what they were hearing wasn’t what they heard in their classrooms. They had to learn to see what people were really dealing with and learn to see how their institution has been contributing to the problems they have. I don’t think we don’t have to go international to deal with stuff if we don’t want to. We can just go across the street. Students have to stop making themselves feel like their helping the world when they should just start around the corner for a change.

Another thing that we have to deal with is the pressure of finding our own community on top of the pressure from the community that we’re also trying to represent and save. What works here doesn’t work out there. That’s what I tried to get my colleagues to understand. I like being black, and I won’t be white. I say that to them every so often. What does that mean? It means that I don’t look up to my white colleagues. I like who I am, and I like what my family does. I like what my community does. I’m also indigenous, and I like what my grandfather taught me as an Indian man. I like what my other grandfather taught me as an Indian man. I bring all of that in here with me when I come to work. That means that, like I already said earlier about the policies, we do things different. For example, the way that meetings are run here are not done according to how my community does them. Even the way we have meetings is not the same.

The reason that I do that to them is because when the issues first started happening, the first thing that would say to me is “we don’t do that here.” But, that’s why they brought me here. They just don’t know what they’re saying. I tell them that they shouldn’t say that they want to do something first and then keep the same thing that they’ve been doing in place. It doesn’t work. It’s not supposed to. That’s not really diversity.

What are ways that you envision changing that? What strategies are you employing, and what have you learned?

I have to be on top of things the whole time that I’m here. I almost felt weird answering that question because each time I come up with an idea, it’s always challenged.

The environmental justice mentoring program that I mentioned is one of them. Diversity, equity, and inclusion students are involved in that as well as one of our faculty, Marian Edelman, who’s a lawyer by practice. She has litigated environmental justice around the country. So, that’s one initiative that we have where we’re working in the community, which invited us. I think that’s why it’s been successful so far because we’re responding to the community.

Another initiative that we have is continuing to work on how we communicate about diversity of community and inclusion in the school. With the students, we’ve done a meaningful conversation initiative where we talked about how to have meaningful conversations. We talked about class and how that dynamic works out in the job and within ourselves, and then how we could take that outside of here.

Another initiative that we’re doing with staff is understanding identity development, and how we can show up at work and bring that into the workplace. We helped them better understand how race plays out in the workplace, how gender plays out in the workplace, and how religion plays out in the workplace so that everyone understands that they’re responsible for the workplace. People can impact how others feel, good or bad. We just started that in January, so our next session is coming up the week after next.

We’re trying to increase our capacity to address various issues around diversity and inclusion as they come up. That’s why we’ve changed minds, and are continuing to change minds, as we do training for faculty who are teaching the modules and their TAs with the Center for Whole Communities. They’re going to be leading that. The center is going to help us rethink modules and how we do things here, and then we’re going to take what they give us and apply it to ourselves.

We’re about to hire a new Director of Admissions, and once we do that we can really get on with recruitment, which is the thing that I really want to do. The new director will be my ultimate indication of whether or not I have been successful. It will show how I have impacted recruitment and retention of the people who are here.

I don’t really like programs. To me, programs don’t get to the root of anything unless we’re going talk about the policies that uphold everything we do here. Don’t expect us to just talk about culture and make people feel uncomfortable, only to have them walk away and avoid dealing with it. I’m not a proponent of doing workshops. I’m a proponent of creating movements. Workshops have to be a part of something else.

They have to address whatever we’re doing at all levels. What the administration wants to do now is what I did in 2000 to 2013 before realizing it didn’t work. When I came here, I decided we weren’t going to keep doing these workshops, especially since this work that I didn’t believe in was being handed off to me. All that diversity workshops do around the country is help people feel better without changing anything. The structure is still left in place. Even though people have learned something, it’s unclear what will end up changing. If the relationship changes while the environment doesn’t, then eventually I am not going to be able to stay here.

That fact that I’ve gone through workshops with people and re-injured myself in the process by reliving something that I didn’t want to open up and deal with makes it even tougher. I don’t want people to feel like I feel, because I’m not angry with them. I just want them to understand that even when they do something, they’ve still got a lot more that they could be doing.

I think it is really important for us to change how we do tenure and how we hire people. We also need to change what we do to retain people. I don’t think I know it all. I really don’t. But, all of the diversity professionals around here are pretty smart people. There are only five of us. There’s one at the School of Medicine, The School of Art, The School of Drama, The School of Law, and then me. We all know these things that need to be changed and implemented in our environments, but we’re separate from each other. We have to try to come together and work together. But people don’t ask us what we think. Instead, they just ask us to do what they want us to do.

For my part, I make people listen to me at Yale FES and I don’t let them ask me to do anything that is unproductive for my work. If I’m part of the solution and part of the community that they’re trying to bring in here, then they need to listen to me as I generate ideas about what it will take for that community to get here. The only thing I need to ask is how things have been done in the past. I don’t need to ask how they’re feeling about what I’m doing. On a certain level, I really don’t care because of previous experiences that I’ve had and research that demonstrates that when people are in power, they’re not going to stop doing what works for them. They’re going to keep doing what they think is right, so I’m going to keep pushing them.

The other issue that I have is if we’re not changing policies or the overarching structure, then I feel like we’re just perpetuating white supremacy. If the administration doesn’t actually want to make the change, then there’s no need for me to stay here. If we don’t change anything and I decide to stay, that’s when I’ll start to be worn out. That’s when I’ll be beating myself up and running into a brick wall. I had health issues when I left NC State, and I won’t let any other institution get me to that point. I love myself too much to let that happen.

For me, it’s straight common sense. The administration cannot achieve what they are trying to achieve unless they change the system and change their approach. If they’re not going to change that, then why would they want me to beat myself up trying to do this work? However, we can still get something done. It’s just going to take more time because it means that I have to get them comfortable with the idea of my new work because if I do it all by myself, it’s not sustainable.

The orientation we have for new students involves spending several days in the forest with your new classmates. I’m a forester, and if you’re a forester, taking students outdoors to the forest make sense. But, if I’m not going to be outside in the forest, that does not really seem like it’s orientation. It seems more like indoctrination. It’s a way to indoctrinate students into who and what we are, so I do not feel like it is actually useful. I have been pretty vocal about that around here. I ask the administration, “What’s the purpose of this?” What’s the point of being at Great Mountain? I’m peaking as a forester who uses the skills that they’re teaching them, and I know that they’re not going to use them when they leave. They say that it’s part of our identity, but the students can’t use it. They’re not going to use it. That’s why I say it’s indoctrination, and the administration should own up to that. They should just say that’s what it is instead of trying to convince themselves that it’s some other thing.

I feel like I’m coming in with this grassroots level type thinking where I believe things should be basic. I believe that people like to sound pseudo-intelligent to make things complex, but there is no need for that. Brilliance is basic. What are people really learning here? Sometimes, you’ll hear from professionals who are coming back to visit the school and can tell you what they experienced. Since we changed modules this year by adding two days of diversity enrichment at Great Mountain, it was a different experience for the students coming in for their first year from what I heard about the past few years where that topic was only covered for 2 to 4 hours. That still doesn’t make things perfect. It just means that we dealt with things a little bit deeper on topics like race, the impacts of FES on the world, and a number of other things.

What advice would you give to environmental studies departments trying to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion?

It is important to know your system. The initiative has to come from working to make the administration comfortable. What most people want is to be able to have different initiatives for bringing in people of color, for bringing in women, and for bringing in LGBTQ students. Down South, there are plenty of schools doing that. But at Yale FES that’s not what they need. What’s happening here is that they’re bringing different people in and hurting them all over. They don’t need those kinds of initiatives here, but rather a massive cultural change.

The incoming students are still expected to apply and abide by these rules. But these rules don’t align with them. Here, faculty members don’t get tenure for being a great teacher, but rather for getting published a lot. So many of those published faculty can write well but can’t teach well. That means that the place where they have the greatest opportunity to impact this industry by sending out leaders into the world, the one place where faculty have the largest opportunity to make change, they don’t actually get any credit for. That really needs to change. By tying student success to faculty success, this will become a whole new institution.

Anything else you would like to talk about?

I do want to say that I’m doing the work that I’m doing here because there is a great group of folks here. I love the curiosity and the tenacity to want to do this work. I love the patience that they’re trying to have. It’s just going to take time. I don’t know if the change will happen while I am here, but I will lay the blueprints for it to be implemented moving forward.

I think that people of color often don’t want to be a part of the environmental movement because of many of the reasons I stated before. Organizations that are a part of it tend to keep operating in the same mindset. The people who are in power actually need to be quiet and sit aside. That’s what needs to happen for a little bit. They need to get out of the way so that they can allow diversity professionals to do what we need to do. We can make a lot of change on our own in our community.

If people of color had that mentality, that would really scare the people that are preventing this change from happening. But, people of color never do that. We’re always benevolent. I just don’t share that perspective anymore. I’m still going to be nice and gentle, but I also understand a lot about what it took to get here. I’m all about setting up environments where people can empower themselves to do things.

Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Class of 2015


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