August 24, 2020

Actions Always Prove Why Words Mean Nothing

by Merica Whitehall, Executive Director
Fontenelle Forest — Bellevue, NE


Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of Directions, the ANCA journal. Members can access the full issue via the member portal.


On March 13, 2020, a global pandemic led to a national emergency, sheltering in place, social distancing, and an economic shutdown. Very quickly, a critical health crisis became a political football. People felt fearful, anxious, and isolated. We quickly began to communicate that, “we are all in this together.” Yet, statistics demonstrated that we aren’t really all in it together. As a result of systemic barriers to health and medical care BIPOC experience much higher levels of infection and death from COVID-19.

On May 26, city streets erupted following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer. The racism recognizable in policing today has historic links to slave patrols; a system of policing legalized to subjugate Black people trafficked for profit and bank issued credit by slavers. Floyd’s murder was one of innumerable, equally horrifying, unjustified, and unprosecuted deaths of Black people in America. And again a call for unity rang out from organizations and businesses across the nation.

Today, a growing community of leaders and activists are working across generational, racial, social and economic barriers to assure that Black Lives Matter. Leaders in every sector are reflecting on questions related to “if” and “how” this applies to their organizations. At nature centers and environmental organizations we must ask ourselves these questions too. According to Leaking Talent, a 2019 study conducted by Green 2.0, “the environmental movement has historically had a lack of racial diversity across all ranks of the largest NGOs and foundations.” While BIPOC represented 36% of the U.S. population in 2014 and comprised 29% of the science and engineering workforce, BIPOC did not exceed 16% of the staff of environmental organizations for decades even in organizations that stressed the value of diversity. Today, BIPOC represent almost 41% of the US population according to Pew Research and only 20% of environmental NGO staff and executives.

Fontenelle Forest & DEI

Merica Whitehall speaks at Fontenelle Forest.Merica Whitehall speaks at Fontenelle Forest.In this article I want to share what Fontenelle Forest has done to harness the momentum of the moment to advance racial equity within our organization. What I’ve tried to highlight thus far is that a system, policy, or procedure is almost always the companion of a consistently created outcome. Actions always prove why words mean nothing. And therefore, if nature centers want to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive we must examine and redesign our systems, our policies, and our procedures. 

At Fontenelle Forest we have established a foundation for DEI by: 

  • Establishing organizational values which include a commitment to inclusivity and the removal of barriers that prevent us from realizing this value; 
  • Developing and adopting a 20-year master plan that centers the interests and values of our surrounding community rather than imposing Fontenelle Forest’s interests and values on the community that we exist to serve; and,
  • Including recruitment and retention of top diverse talent as a strategic goal. 

Creating a racially just organization requires a focus on changing how your organization operates; removing barriers that exclude others; and, inviting broader and more representative leadership into decision-making. And, we are still challenged. Fontenelle Forest’s staff is over 90% White. The attrition rate of non-White staff is 60%. The reasons for staff attrition have included the level of compensation, lack of opportunity for growth, and feelings of cultural isolation. The work of undoing continues. 

Recruitment of diverse staff and board members must be intentional and you must be willing to invest all the time needed to engage diverse job candidates in the recruitment and hiring process. As new job descriptions are created, rather than simply using a statement about non-discriminatory practices we strive to communicate a culture that embraces DEI. To help us get our job opportunities in front of a diverse audience of high quality candidates we have compiled and use a list of job posting sites and diverse local contacts. Suggestions for your list includes ANCA, the Foundation List, local environmental justice organizations, Environmental Professionals of Color, and Outdoor Afro

Staff compensation and benefits can also be a barrier to recruiting diverse candidates. Diverse candidates may not have the option to take a job that does not provide them the ability to fully meet their financial obligations. Fontenelle Forest is making market rate compensation a priority as we develop a 3-year plan to move all of our staff positions to competitive compensation. Benefits can be expensive but we are increasing value to our staff by offering greater flexibility and support in work accommodations as well as sick leave and vacation sharing policies.

In our effort to recruit a diverse Board we post Board service opportunities publicly. We use a board service application form and review a matrix to inform our board composition needs when we vet applicants that have applied to serve on our board. Board Covenant expectations can also serve as structural barriers to diversity, specifically meeting times and giving levels. Adopting a “Give/Get” option and holding meetings at times that accommodate volunteers that may work hourly, full-time jobs and/or have household responsibilities are just two options to remove barriers that hinder diverse representation on Boards.


The front sign that welcomes visitors to Fontenelle Forest.The ornate signage that welcomes visitors to Fontenelle Forest.

Using this moment to take action

Among the public proclaimers of #BlackLivesMatter were organizations and businesses “outed” for actively practicing exclusion and discrimination. Fontenelle Forest did not issue a public statement in solidarity with BLM. Instead, we are seizing this opportunity to take real actions to support racial equity. Organizations like ANCA, The Nature Conservancy, and the Audubon Society provide excellent examples of nature and environmental organizations that have clear positions on racial equity. I have presented these exemplars to Fontenelle Forest’s Board of Directors as I advocate for the creation of a DEI Task Force at the board level that will: 

  • Create and adopt a racial equity statement that can be publicly communicated; 
  • Create and adopt policies and practices at the board and staff level that guarantee that Fontenelle Forest will be a welcoming, inclusive, and equitable organization; and, 
  • Prioritize racial diversity on Fontenelle Forest’s Board of Directors.

We have recently created a staff committee focused on racial equity to provide a safe space for open, honest dialogue as well as a role offering recommendations for actions and policies Fontenelle Forest needs to transition to operations that more effectively realize racial equity. Recommendations made to the executive director will be brought to HR when new or revised policies are needed. 

Until the murder for George Floyd, racial equity and inclusion had not been a central discussion at Fontenelle Forest even though we have consistently advanced this value in the ways that I’ve shared with you. As we take on this important and difficult work nature centers and environmental organizations must take action to institutionalize systems of change that advance racial equity and demonstrate that indeed, we are all in this together. Actions always prove why words mean nothing. 


Merica Whitehall serves as the executive director of Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue, NE. Check out Green 2.0 and the Center for Diversity & the Environment to learn more about advancing racial equity in at your nature center. Also, learn more about how allies for nature are working across disciplines to advance public and planetary health at SHIFT



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