DEI Spotlight

Each month, I invite you to nominate your colleague(s) for helping foster a kind and inclusive environment. By celebrating Nic School students, faculty and staff each month for these efforts, we can foster a culture of recognition and inspire each other to do better. With your help we can amplify brave actors and celebrate their contributions toward a more equitable, just and inclusive community.

March 2023

Dr. Joel Meyer

This month we’re spotlighting Dr. Joel Meyer! Born and raised in the Chicago area, Joel is a professor of Environmental Genomics and the chair of the Ecotoxicology concentration. At the Nicholas School, Joel uses his position to facilitate diversity-centered learning and works to cultivate community through deep understanding not only within his lab, but also for himself and in the classroom.

In conversation with Joel, we asked him what diversity and inclusion means to him. Here’s what he said:

Explicitly accepting and appreciating differences between people, to the extent that those differences do not hurt others. 

We then asked Joel, what ways can the Nic School become more diverse and inclusive? 

We have a lot of opportunities! I’ll comment on just one idea, the use of trigger warnings. I think the general take-home can be applied broadly to the very important debates currently occurring in academia that I think are often oversimplified as a dichotomy of censorship vs free speech and open debate. So–should professors use trigger warnings, and if so, when, and why? Kate Manning wrote a great article that changed my thinking on this: “Why I use trigger warnings.” What most struck me was the argument about using them or not has tended to be framed as a trade-off between protecting emotions and stifling the open exchange of information and ideas that universities strive for. Dr. Manning points out that by *both* issuing a trigger warning *and* nonetheless expecting everyone to be present and participate, she gets a win-win: Students are given time to prepare themselves for what may be an emotionally challenging exchange–and because they will have had a chance to prepare themselves, they can engage better in that exchange intellectually, because they will be less distracted by the emotional response. Maybe this is a win-win-win actually: this approach also serves to model both empathy and high expectations regarding intellectual engagement.  

Lastly, Joel gave us some great recommendations when asked about what thought leaders inspire him. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass has some very thought-provoking perspectives on diversity of ways of understanding how the natural world works, and engaging in the world. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power challenged my thinking on reparations specifically, and the long-term of effects of historic inequities in general. Jim Poling’s The Abuse of Power focused my thinking on, well, the abuse of power. Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal and Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities reminded me of the power of liberalism’s perspectives on diversity. Kate Manne’s Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women broadened my thinking on misogyny. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land provided effective mirrors to examine my own biases. Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark provided a wonderful take on hope for change.  

Thank you Joel for sharing your story with us and helping us live into our values!

January 2023

Kendall Wimberley

This month we’re highlighting Kendall Wimberley (they/she)! Kendall is originally from western Tennessee and is a second year MEM-EEP. Prior to NSOE, they participated in AmeriCorps where their interactions with coal impacted communities, whose own advocacy for improved environmental and working conditions, solidified Kendall’s own passion for environmental justice and community-centered work. This passion for championing communities led Kendall to Duke and continues to inform their work as a second-term board member of the Duke Environmental Justice Network (DEJN).

In conversation with Kendall, we asked how they strive to create an environment of acceptance, inclusion, respect and receptivity in DEJN.

“Creating environments of acceptance, inclusion, respect, and receptivity require us to be honest with ourselves and be willing to be a little vulnerable sometimes. It can be easier to get through tough decisions or moments when you remember what your peers are bringing to the table and that we’re all committed to the same goals. I think that works for environments outside of DEJN too.”

We also asked them where improvements could be made at the Nic School. Here’s what they said:

“During discussions on environmental or environmental justice issues, there can be assumptions that we’re talking about communities and people outside of Duke and not consider that some students may have had those experiences personally. I think we can all do a better job of checking these assumptions in and outside of the classroom. I also think a lot about how powerful it is to connect to people who have had different life experiences and how we build trust and empathy across various identities when we have those moments of honesty and vulnerability. We have opportunities for things like this at the Nic School, but I think there could still be a better culture of it.”

Lastly, Kendall spoke about who inspires them.

“Environmental justice leaders of all ages like the squad in congress or anytime and any one of my peers speaking truth to power. I think we can all be leaders in that, we don’t have to have huge followings or influence to help create that culture shift.”

Thank you Kendall for sharing your story with us and helping us live into our values!

April 2022

Photo: Sydney Mantell (CEM-MEM) (she/they)
Sydney Mantell

This month we’re spotlighting Sydney Mantell (she/they)! Sydney is a first-year MEM-CEM, pursuing the CBEM certificate. Syd hails from Cincinnati, Ohio and is a proud Tar Heel. As a biracial Black, queer, low-income, first-generation college student and gender non-conforming woman, Sydney shares that her entire worldview is shaped by inclusivity and intercultural awareness.

This year, Syd drew inspiration from a course offered by Duke’s Biology Department, titled Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Antiracism (IDEA) in Biology. Through IDEA, Syd explored themes like objectivity in biology, colonialism in science, power dynamics in academia, inclusive teaching practices, and white supremacy culture. Reflecting on DEI work at the Nic School, Sydney also commended Lisa Campbell and Rafaella Lobo’s Research Design for Env. Social Sciences course, which provided meaningful insights into Indigenous methodologies, values and protocols that differ from the dominant Western research paradigms. This April, Sydney had the opportunity to participate in a marine science field skills workshop led by Minorities in Shark Science (MISS) in Miami, Florida. With MISS, Sydney learned how to perform a shark workup and connected with other women of color in the field of marine science. 

Syd is passionate about advancing and integrating equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice within the next generation of environmental leaders and stewards through environmental education. Ocean literacy and diversifying marine science are also among her passions. Their past research has focussed on photogrammetry work with the Marine Robotics & Remote Sensing Lab at DUML and DNA barcoding of marine invertebrate samples from the Galapagos Marine Reserve with UNC’s Marine Ecology and Conservation lab. Outside of academia, Sydney also volunteers her time to the Survivor Diversity Campaign, an effort to make CBS’s reality competition show “Survivor” more inclusive and just.

“Throughout my life, I have had to advocate for myself and work to overcome the systemic barriers in place. When you are able to build community with both other marginalized people and people who have power, it can be easier to tackle those barriers.”

On campus, they have served in leadership positions with the Nicholas Queer Network (NQN) and Environmental Communication, Outreach, and Education (ECOE) Club. 

Thank you Sydney for sharing your story with us and helping us live into our values!

March 2022

Chechi Pertuz Molina

This month, you nominated Maria “Chechi” Pertuz Molina (she/her) for the DEI spotlight! Chechi is a first-year MEM-CEM, hailing from Cartagena, Colombia. Chechi serves as International Rep. on the Nic School Student Council, the Board of the Nic Queer Network, and has actively contributed to NSOE Accountability Committee Meetings. Currently, Chechi is working to address equity concerns by envisioning, and advocating for, language testing reform that more holistically considers international students’ abilities.

Chechi tells us that she is drawn to equity-centered work because she cares about others’ well-being, and that her upbringing in Colombia reinforced her commitment to easing the suffering of others. Recounting the 2011 heavy floods that inundated Colombia, Chechi recalls working with a local NGO (FEM) to alleviate suffering and help communities recover, rebuild and thrive again.

On her commitment to diversity, Chechi shares, “Human beings are diverse. We need to encourage and celebrate that. We need to help people from different backgrounds feel safe.”

We asked Chechi where she sees room for improvement at the Nic School. Here’s what she told us: “We need more diversity in the debates and points of view that we listen to in class. We need to hear more discussion from viewpoints beyond the United States.” Despite these shortcomings, Chechi expressed sincere gratitude for the level of support she has felt at the Nic School and through the Nic Queer Network. “Queer folks are here, and we can do great things too,” she affirmed.

“I believe that we need to use our privileges to help folks who don’t benefit from those privileges. I want to work in the public sector for this reason, to have a bigger impact.”

She derives inspiration from renowned marine biologist Dr. Sylvia Earle, Andrea Wulf (author of The Invention of Nature), and Sonia Shah (author of Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, 2016).

Chechi, thank you for sharing your story and helping us live into our values!

February 2022

Sandunie Liyanagamage

This month, you nominated Sandunie Liyanagamage for the DEI spotlight! Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Sri Lanka and Abu Dhabi, Sandunie is a 1st year MEM candidate studying Business & Environment. Sandunie is helping foster a more inclusive community through her work with DICE, where she serves as a board member, and through Oceans@Duke. Earlier this year, Sandunie and I collaborated on a D&I training with O@D that “has led to discussions and changes around the way weekly meetings are conducted and ensuring a more inclusive space for all cabinet members to provide input.” Sandunie also serves on the Student Advisory Committee to the AD of DEI.

When asked about her contributions, Sandunie emphasizes the collaborative nature of this kind of work and the need to prioritize our mental health.

“The more I began to see the conversations around racial equity the past few years, the more open I was to explore the importance of equity and inclusion in my own life. It’s a constant battle to decide when to get involved in a DEI initiative that matters to you and when to step back in the interest of protecting your own mental health. Bringing attention to behaviors that marginalize students is mentally draining and can lead to frustration and fatigue. Therefore, I think it’s necessary that the ongoing DEI work at the Nicholas School ensures that a student does not have to struggle with this notion someday.

We asked Sandunie if she might share some of the thought leaders that have inspired her most in this space. Here’s what she told us:

“The first thing that came to mind are my family and friends – from high school, college, cities I’ve lived in, and now the Nicholas School. They provide a space where we can have healthy discussions around topics that we may not feel comfortable speaking about in a larger setting. This trust results in a sense of comfort when I think of acting for change in any form, knowing that these friends will provide the support that I need. It also allows me to adopt different perspectives that I may not have had before, and I’m always left feeling inspired after conversations with friends who are doing important work in this space.”

Thank you Sandunie for sharing your story and helping us live into our values!