Intercultural Literacy Workshop at EESA

Intercultural Literacy Workshop at EESA held in June 2016. (Photo credit: Marilyn Saarni)

Tackling the issues of diversity and inclusion can be a daunting task for any workforce. But for Marilyn Saarni and Travis O’Brien, Environmental & Earth Sciences Area (EESA)’s first-ever Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) representatives, it was a welcome challenge.

Now, as their two-year term comes to an end, Saarni and O’Brien are reflecting back on their accomplishments—and how they think D&I can move forward in the years ahead.

“The biggest thing we’ve done is to make inclusion and diversity a common part of conversations here–it commonly comes up in our division meetings, Area Leadership Council, and when we’re talking about hiring,” O’Brien said. “I believe we made that change through being publicly visible, and creating the EESA-Inclusion Working Group.”

Forming the working group—which is open to any staff members interested in discussing diversity and equity issues and opportunities—was one of the first actions taken by Saarni and O’Brien as new D&I representatives. One of the most important functions of the group, they believed, would be to build an inclusive atmosphere, since diversity could not thrive without inclusion.

By providing a trusted space for members to engage in honest discussions, Saarni said, the monthly gatherings became a central part of EESA’s D&I efforts.

“We’ve had meetings where we’ve had really good discussions about issues both inside and outside the Lab,” Saarni said, “such as what to do when you witness an incident of bias or harassment. The people who took part in these conversations—which were difficult at times—benefited hugely from them.”

Marilyn Saarni and Travis O'Brien

Marilyn Saarni and Travis O’Brien (Photo credit: Kristine Wong)

One example of how a discussion within the working group had real-world impact was when a working group member shared an experience of being subjected to a hostile and racially-charged verbal attack from a fellow attendee at a national professional society meeting.

The person reached out to the organization to tell it about the incident, and EES Area and Division Directors responded by sending a message to all EESA staff relating the incident—and emphasizing that this sort of behavior was unacceptable.

“The message asked people to stand up if they saw or experienced any of this behavior,” O’Brien said, “and stated that EESA would stand behind them.”

Since EESA has a staff comprised of people from many different countries, the EESA-Inclusion Working Group also sponsored two workshops (presented by the Robertson Center for Intercultural Leadership at UC Berkeley’s International House) aimed at raising awareness about unique communication styles—and how these differences can be bridged across cultures.

Another important element, Saarni and O’Brien said, was the diversity of perspectives they brought to their efforts, since Saarni works in Operations and O’Brien is a scientist. That balance has been invaluable, they say, and it’s a structure that should be continued.

And when it comes to the future, both feel that their efforts have provided a solid foundation for Neslihan Tas and Vivi Fissekidou, EESA’s incoming D&I representatives (starting June 1), to make even greater progress in the coming two years.

“We’d like to see continued efforts to take on the challenges of behavior and attitude changes,” Saarni said. “There’s a lot of good energy and support here for a welcoming, inclusive community, and we think we can make change here at EESA faster than on the Lab-wide level.”