Being A Fat, Black Woman in Environmental Science

Updated: Sep 30, 2021

I started my research journey during my undergraduate career. I honestly wasn’t even aware of what research was or that I could potentially pursue a graduate degree that was research-focused. I did, however, stumble upon a research symposium poster contest at the University of North Texas in Dallas one evening after a late studying session. I followed the sounds of music and the smell of food to the brightly lit event center housed beneath the roof of my quaint university. Everyone was in their Sunday's best, and I was in my shorts, t-shirt, and slides, but I was both intrigued by the posters AND the food. This was my first real experience with research outside of lengthy lectures and expensive textbooks. There were at least 20 posters and presenters throughout the event space, and I slowly made my way through each of the posters, eventually becoming entangled with the presenters and the work they were doing.

Shortly after, I began working with a professor at the University of North Texas at Dallas and the Trinity River Audubon Center. The Audubon Center sits on 120-acres of reclaimed forest in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Before it was a beautiful preserve, it was one of the largest illegal dumping grounds in the state of Texas. The Black community fought for years to have the dumping grounds removed, but local officials turned a blind eye to the destruction unfolding next door to Black homes, schools, businesses, and playgrounds. It wasn’t until the dump caught on fire and burned for weeks that some form of justice was administered. The court ordered that the illegal dump stop operating immediately and that the owner relinquishes all rights to the property so that clean-up efforts could be made. During this time, the Black community suffered from smoke inhalation. Their yards, cars, and houses were covered in soot. It was truly an environmental nightmare that received little to no national attention. However, the community continued to fight, and eventually, their voices were heard, and the 120-acre dump was converted into a nature preserve. In this nature preserve, built by Black voices, is where I found my calling and decided to pursue a career in conservation research.

I began building a catalog of the animals that occupied the preserve. Though the preserve had been operating for about a decade, they had little knowledge about the wildlife. I used camera traps to begin the process of cataloging the animals [large and small]. I identified tracks, scat, nests, and holes. I worked with conservationists and naturalists to identify plants, weed out invasive plants, and to clean the trash that littered the park during flooding season. I worked closely with the administration to develop programs that encouraged the surrounding community to not only continue to fight to preserve the wilderness that existed in this slice of paradise but to connect with it and learn from it. I invited high schoolers from the area to conduct research with me in the field. Together, we collected over 2 years’ worth of data and analyzed not only how the animals interacted with one another within the preserve, but how they interacted with the community. I began presenting my research at various conferences across the state and won 2nd place at the 2018 research symposium at the University of North Texas at Dallas. I went on to attend symposiums at Rice University and even was proclaimed to be the “best” presenter at the 21st Annual McNair Research Conference, walking away from the event with a “perfect presenter score”. My research focused on animal behavior, but also emphasized the importance and dynamics of the relationship between people and nature.

I spent a year working with the Dallas Zoo, again analyzing animal behavior in captivity. I worked with the zookeepers to find alternative activities for the big cats, as the animals often exhibited stress behaviors associated with their captive status. However, it seems that despite my extensive background and history of working in the field and doing conservation research, it wasn’t enough. When I decided to pursue my Ph.D., I applied to several environmental programs across the state. I submitted about 15 applications and was rejected from 13 programs after several interviews with professors in my attempt to find a mentor. Several professors, after reading my CV, wanted to meet with me, but it was as if seeing my Black face and my fat body overshadowed the years of conservation work outlined in my academic record. 20+ interviews and 13 rejections later, I was exhausted. I had two graduate programs left to explore, but my motivation had dwindled down to almost nothing. I began to schedule interviews with several of the professors in the environmental science department at the University of North Texas. I drove an hour there and back several times a week, just to be denied by one professor after the other. Their reasons for denying me were broad. One professor said, “I’ll be retiring soon, so I probably won’t take on more graduate students” after inviting me to campus to talk about potentially becoming ONE OF HIS GRADUATE STUDENTS. Another professor, after asking me to come to campus after reading my CV, claimed he simply did not have the “funding” to support my academic journey. A third professor claimed that our research areas of interest were “vastly different”, though he claimed to have thoroughly read my CV prior to inviting me to campus. I had informed these professors that I was flexible in what I focused on in graduate school, but none wanted to support my endeavors beyond simply reading my CV.

It wasn’t until I was interviewing with a male professor at the University of North Texas that I noticed how my Blackness and fatness played a role in the rejections I had received. Before the interview, we had talked extensively through email. He seemed genuinely interested in my previous research endeavors and explained how he was seeking a graduate student to help him continue his research. He was excited to meet with me, and I thought I was finally catching a break. However, the moment I stepped into his office, I could tell that I did not fit the dynamics of the room. He had invited his current graduate students to our meeting. They were all skinny white girls with blonde hair. They stayed for a moment to talk about their research and then left us alone to continue the conversation. Almost immediately I could tell he had lost interest in inviting me on as a graduate student. His words still resonate with me.

He said, “As you can see, this type of work requires a lot of physical exertion. Are you capable of that? Have you ever been out of the country? A lot of these terrains can be difficult to transverse, and the heat in some countries and areas makes it difficult. I don’t think the type of research I am working on will fit you.”

I dwelled on this concept of conservation that would “fit me” for some time after this interview. This professor ended up pushing me in the direction of my current mentor that focuses on science education. “You may do better in education.” He said, though I had very little experience in education, and it was listed nowhere on my CV. Despite my reluctance, I decided to interview a final time with the science education professor and after a short interview, she accepted me. I was excited, but I was also heartbroken that I would not be able to return to the field during my graduate school career. My research would have to focus on the educational aspect of environmental science and conservation and though I have found my niche [focusing on disparities in access to science education and nature by communities of Color], I am often reminded of where my fat, Black body “fits”. Creating Black in Nature was my attempt to push back. It was my attempt to create a space for my fat, Black body rather than to conform to the spaces that did not want me around. Often Black women are forced into education and Black bodies are turned away from STEM careers due to racially fueled barriers that continue to impact acceptance rates and retention rates. I have had to systemically program myself to worry less about fitting into a space and to instead create spaces for other graduate students like me on campus. I use my research to not only assess current situations and bring awareness, but to elevate Black bodies [especially children] to new heights that we have systemically been kept from reaching. My fat, Black body belongs in nature. It belongs amongst the trees. I’ve carried this fat, Black body through deserts for miles. I sit my fat body in the streams and rivers. I heave this fat, Black body to the tops of hills, over valleys, and through dense forest. My fat, Black body belongs in nature, and I will continue to advocate for other Black bodies [no matter the shape or size] because NATURE is and will always be FOR EVERYONE.

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