Green Shouldn’t Mean Just Whites: Global Non-Profit Partners with LSU Manship to Increase Diversity in Environmental Communications

July 01, 2021

When the Louisiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a global environmental organization with more than one million members and the largest such non-profit in the U.S., realized they needed more diverse messaging—and messengers—to reach more people in local communities to build broader consensus and support around life- and livelihood-sustaining conservation programs, they turned to the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication.

Taylor Barnett

Taylor Barnett is going into her second year as a graduate student at the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication and will continue as The Nature Conservancy’s inaugural communications fellow.

– Photo courtesy of Taylor Barnett

“We’re white, and the scientists we work with are almost all white, and we just couldn’t find a broad enough pool of candidates to be able to include diverse voices and perspectives,” said Bryan Piazza, director of freshwater and marine science at TNC and head of their Conservation Fellows Program. “So, it made sense for us to turn to one of the best communication schools in the country and try something new.”

Environmental communications are notoriously challenging because they don’t easily fit into the traditional media news cycle, which focuses on well-defined, quick actions and short-term events. That’s often antithesis to changes in the environment, which tend to be complicated, slow, and long-term, with sometimes difficult-to-predict outcomes. In the newsroom, environmental reporters can be seen as bad news bears, rarely making headlines. Rising seas and global warming aren’t exactly “news,” and yet, could pose perhaps the biggest threat to all life on Earth as we know it—eventually.

Although Black people compose 13% of the U.S. population, they received only about 3% of the nation’s total environmental science degrees in 2019. Add to this the lack of diversity in newsrooms.

Add to this the lack of diversity in newsrooms. While white people who are neither Hispanic nor Latino make up about 60% of the U.S. population, they make up more than 80% of newsroom staff and an even larger share of leadership at print and online outlets. Among subject matter experts, the situation is similarly skewed. Although Black people compose 13% of the U.S. population, they received only about 3% of the nation’s total environmental science degrees in 2019, according to DATAUSA. These things combine to what Grist recently called “green science’s white people problem.” Recognizing that broad understanding of Louisiana’s environmental challenges would be required to change policy and work toward solutions to protect the well-being of all people and property in the near to distant future, TNC chose to partner with LSU and Manship to begin tackling all of the above issues at once.

Atchafalaya Center

At the Atchafalaya Conservation Center, TNC holds workshops and educates residents on the importance of life- and livelihood-saving conservation projects.

– Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

“Environmental reporting keeps the public informed about important issues that affect their daily lives,” said Karen Gautreaux, executive director of TNC. “But there are not many programs that teach the skills necessary to pursue a career in environmental communications. We see Taylor’s fellowship and our new partnership with LSU Manship as the first step in a larger effort to provide this important training to students from all backgrounds. Without it, we face an uphill battle to connect with diverse audiences to make the changes science tells us are necessary to ensure all communities are healthy and safe.”

TNC chose Taylor Barnett, a first-year Manship graduate student in strategic communications who’s originally from Texas but has family in Louisiana, as their inaugural communications fellow. They’d had science fellows before, including from LSU, but realized they were missing something. As legislation on dedicated conservation funding would be carried through the Louisiana House and Senate this year, which also would allow the state to access a large amount of federal matching funds for projects, TNC wanted to make sure their vocal support could be heard not just by their supporters and peers, but everyone.
“I think the way that I’ve been able to help the most is really bringing an outside perspective,” Barnett said. “I’m a Black woman and have a different way of seeing things, and knowing how something might appear or resonate with younger people or communities of color is critical if we want to get more and different communities involved in a dialogue about the environment and conservation, which is something we absolutely have to do since it impacts all of us and environmental problems tend to disproportionally affect Black people and minorities.”

Cypress marsh

Louisiana cypress marsh.

– Photo by Harold Malde, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

“I have huge respect for [LSU Manship student Taylor Barnett] because when we first met, we told her, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing,’ as far as her being our first communications fellow, and she said, ‘Awesome, I’m in.’”—Bryan Piazza, director of freshwater and marine science at TNC and head of their Conservation Fellows Program

“The environmental movement has been—still is—very white,” Barnett continued. “And when TNC chose me, I really didn’t know what to expect or what would be expected of me. I didn’t consider myself an environmentalist; that just wasn’t on my radar. I had no knowledge of conservation work or how it relates to me. I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d be able to fulfill this role or be as helpful as somebody with a passion for this or a science background. I’d never had any inkling to get involved in conservation or environmental communication.”

This, says Piazza, is exactly why it was important to TNC to engage Barnett, whom they see as a “seasoned communicator” and “wise beyond her years.”

“Part of our mission is educating future conservationists and encouraging students to see ecology as a meaningful career,” Piazza said. “Working with Taylor met all of our objectives. I have huge respect for her because when we first met, we told her, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing,’ as far as her being our first communications fellow, and she said, ‘Awesome, I’m in.’”

Barnett’s biggest revelation over the past year has been that her lack of knowledge in environmental science wasn’t an obstacle, but instead an asset.

“It took me a moment to realize what the job was and that I had what it was going to take,” she said. “Most people probably don’t think much about the benefits of conservation, but if I can understand it—the information we’re putting out and why it’s important—I can then relay that, and not just to some people, but most people. I can use myself as a gauge.”

Louisiana alligator

Louisiana alligator.

– Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

Her biggest a-ha moment thus far came as she was diving into the economic benefits of conservation; the role a healthy, biodiverse environment plays for the economic health of the state and many of its core industries, including agriculture, outdoor recreation, and tourism.

‘Of course, everyone on the TNC team already knew this, but that was the moment when I was like, ‘Yeah, that’ll be how we get them,’” Barnett remembered, smiling. “And not just statewide, but going in and looking at the impact for local communities since conservation helps people in their everyday lives, and when it matters most.”

Louisiana currently ranks second in the nation in flood risk (about 500,000 homes) caused by rainfall, river flooding, or hurricane storm surge. By 2050, it is expected that more than 800,000 homes will be susceptible to flooding, as seas rise and tropical storms and rain events become more severe. These environmental changes will also impact important Louisiana industries, such as agriculture (about 30,000 farms) and tourism, which employs over a quarter-million residents and generates almost $2 billion in revenue each year. While protecting and restoring wetlands can help reduce flood risk and fuel the state’s economic engines, most large-scale conservation projects require broad political support.

While terms like “climate change” can be polarizing and make it more difficult to find the type of middle ground that is necessary to unite communities around conservation projects, Barnett argues, most people can appreciate clean air and water, ability to fish and hunt, job creation, saving and making money, and having their house not flood all the time.

Caddo Lake

Caddo Lake.

– Photo by Lynn McBride, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

“I think there will be a lot more a-ha moments to come, on how conservation and equity and economy and everything all connects, and I’m really excited for those moments.”—Taylor Barnett, who never considered herself an ‘environmentalist’

As part of her work, Barnett does a lot of research to arrive at the all-important economic impact numbers TNC uses as part of their communications. (She also recently learned there are bald eagles in Louisiana—one of the largest populations in the nation, in fact.)

“My love of doing research has definitely helped me,” Barnett said. “And that’s also something my LSU professor, Dr. Jinx Broussard, harps on about—how you have to do your research; how you cannot skip over it and go straight to goals and tactics. That’s something I learned in class but thoroughly can appreciate now. I’m able to apply everything I’ve learned at Manship and see it in action at TNC. Things are just not as linear in the real world as they are in the classroom.”

This fall, TNC will engage a second Manship communications fellow as part of their effort to build diversity in environmental conservation and effective conversation with (all) Louisiana residents. Meanwhile, Barnett will stay on for a second year.

“The work directly ties into what I want to do in the future as far as strategic communications and political communication,” Barnett said. “I think there will be a lot more a-ha moments to come, on how conservation and equity and economy and everything all connects, and I’m really excited for those moments.”

Barnett’s professor Jinx Broussard was the first African American to graduate with an undergraduate degree in journalism from LSU—a dream she forged as a young child while picking beans on a plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana (and not liking it very much). Read more about her in Ten Minutes with Rainmaker Jinx Broussard

This news story was featured in LSU’s free, quarterly research publication, Working for Louisiana, where you can learn more about how work on every LSU campus impacts residents and industry in the state, and beyond.

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