Does social and racial justice have a place in saving whales?
The short answer is YES. The planet needs whales and whales need us, ALL of us, not just some of us.
Whales have a very busy job as the ocean’s gardeners, bringing nutrients to a floating forest which gives us half our oxygen, sequesters carbon, and supports fish stocks. We need them.
Saving whales is about people, not whales.
Whales have taken care of themselves for millions of years. It’s primarily when they interact with humans that stress and harm can come to them. To help save whales, we need to have conversations with humans. Saving whales is more about people than whales.
Who needs to save whales?
ALL of us, not just some of us, and that’s where social and racial justice intersect with marine conservation. Intentionally or inadvertently, we have created barriers in the field of marine science and conservation. Sometimes with the best intentions but with the worst unintended consequences.
We have a responsibility to whales to acknowledge these hurdles exist and remove them.
What social and racial barriers exist to saving whales and how do we remove them?
Hiring practices: Are we hiring the best and the brightest or the most financially secure and the whitest? This is hard to digest and is not intended to offend anyone who has worked tirelessly to be in this field, including our staff.
However, the first step in removing barriers is identifying where they exist. The American Psychiatric Association’s recent letter of apology issued to Black, Indigenous and People of Color, highlighted that early practices “laid the groundwork for inequalities” in psychiatric care. Similarly, early practices in the field of marine mammal science and conservation laid the groundwork for inequity in our field. For example, most people in this field have completed an average of three unpaid internships before moving to a paid position. That means they have worked, on average, a full year without pay which presents a socio-economic barrier to this field.
Many positions also prioritize candidates with advanced degrees. However, research indicates that there is a racial bias in those who able attain graduate degrees. According to The Education Trust, more white students complete graduate degrees “which offer greater financial returns, job security, and employment options in the labor market.” The lack of racial diversity in higher learning is not new, but the marine mammal field has been slow to recognize and connect it to the lack of racial diversity in our field.
Intellect and education are not the same. How many passionate and innovative people do not have access to this field simply because they did not have access to a degree? Or had no examples to follow?
Education: Do you think of a scientist as a white guy in a lab coat? Sadly, stereotypes of professional scientists persist as white men with glasses, pocket protectors, and wearing a lab coat. As we grow, we relate to what we see and identify those images with our own potential. Representation matters. A young boy in a wheel chair seeing someone who looked like him in a retail ad changed his perspective. Science is not about men in lab coats, science is about being curious about your surroundings.
We need to introduce science and conservation to all students. It is not exclusive to a lab, or a degree. Scientific methodology is about observation. Introducing all students to the wonder and majesty of whales is critical. How many gallons does a calf drink? Counting 40 gallons of milk in the grocery store to know what a baby whale drinks should give us all something to think about. Let’s not limit scientists to stereotypes.
Internships: Free help is not necessarily helping whales. Most non-profit organizations have relied on those who donate their time to help them. Some have even charged for the privilege of studying whales. This again limits access to this field to those who have the means and passion, excluding those who have the passion but not the means. Paid internships open that access, allowing incredible talent to rise in this field and give a voice to whales.
Many well-meaning foundations pride themselves on covering equipment or supply costs but not salaries. Non profit organizations rely heavily on funds from foundations. Salaries bring talent, talent saves whales. Foundations need to realize that, without the talent, the supplies are meaningless. Funding paid positions is essential.
What is WDC doing?
WDC has taken a number of steps to recognize the barriers and remove them. It is an evolving process and we are eternally grateful to our supporters, our Advisory Council, and our staff, for each step as we create a world where whales have ALL of our support.
- Advisory Council- WDC – North America created a voluntary Advisory Council to bring a diverse group of individuals together to openly discuss issues of access to marine mammal science and conservation and find ways to remove those barriers.
- Education- WDC’s North American office is developing an inclusive curriculum unit aimed at 3-4th grade to introduce students to whale conservation and science.
- Internships- thanks to the generous funding from a private donor and from the Island Foundation, WDC- North America has, for the first time, offered 2 full time paid intern positions. In addition, we modified our unpaid field internship to part time allowing students to work outside their learning experience.
- Hiring - All WDC offices are reviewing their hiring practices to understand what biases exist in recruitment and hiring and address those issues.
- Commitment: All WDC offices globally have agreed to actions to address Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in our work.
We acknowledge that we have more to do as we work toward a world where all whales and dolphins are safe and free and ALL humans have a role in making that happen.