Reflections on Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2021 and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice in the Ocean and Great Lakes Policy Sphere
By: So-Jung Youn,
Policy and Constituent Affairs Division,
NOAA National Ocean Service
Even after half a year of remote work, I still get nervous when logging onto a virtual meeting. Somehow, my internet always seems to cut out right before an important meeting or deadline. So, with a quick plea that my internet connection would remain stable, I clicked on the link for the Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2021 breakout session (Leading JEDI from Within) that I had spent weeks planning as part of my Knauss Fellowship. And…the internet held out! For a few minutes anyway. Then I lost all video input, but at least I could still hear the panelists. Such are the joys of attending a virtual conference.
Capitol Hill Ocean Week (CHOW), annually convened by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation (NMSF), gathers people from around the U.S. and across sectors to engage in dialogue about how to sustain the health of our ocean and the Great Lakes. Since 2001, scientists, policymakers, scholars, businesses and conservation leaders have attended CHOW to learn about current ocean and Great Lakes policy issues. For the past 2 years, CHOW has been a completely virtual event.
The theme of CHOW 2021 was Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Sustaining our Ocean and Great Lakes. Over 3 days (June 8-10), attendees heard from diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) advocates and leaders throughout the United States, U.S. territories and Indigenous nations. While most speakers were optimistic about current efforts and future progress, the panels highlighted how, in a lot of ways, we are still at the beginnings of DEIJ in ocean and Great Lakes spaces. Many panelists highlighted the meaningful change that could occur if each attendee decided to intentionally do one thing differently as a result of the talks they heard at CHOW. Speakers also emphasized that DEIJ is ongoing, continual work that never ends; but we shouldn’t let perfection or the fear of falling short get in the way of making progress, however small.
Another key theme was the importance of relationships in creating change and making a difference. Many speakers discussed the importance of mentorship and support in their own journeys. They urged attendees to find someone they could mentor and influence, and most importantly, stay with those people throughout their career (Thanks to Senator Cantwell for mentioning Sea Grant’s fellowships and the need to continue growing these opportunities!).
One of the responsibilities of my Knauss Fellowship position was to help coordinate the National Ocean Service’s (NOS) participation during Capitol Hill Ocean Week. We decided to host a panel discussion on the progress NOAA has made toward DEIJ efforts and the work that still needs to be done. The panel was moderated by Nicole LeBoeuf, the Acting Assistant Administrator for NOS, and featured DEIJ advocates and leaders throughout NOAA. The panelists noted that while DEIJ is an organizational value of NOAA that is championed at all levels, there is still work to be done in keeping individuals engaged and making sure DEIJ efforts are visible and opportunities are available to all employees.
I’ve struggled my entire life with whether, and how, to engage with DEIJ efforts. On one side, I know firsthand the importance of being a DEIJ advocate at the individual and institutional levels. I’ve been fortunate in my opportunities because of the people who took a chance on me and the people, past and present, who worked to realize their vision of a more inclusive and equitable society than the one they live in. On the other hand, as one CHOW speaker noted, “The biggest challenge is always fighting.” DEIJ work is exhausting. I’ve gone through periods where I’ve been very involved (Asian American and Korean American groups in college, DEI committees and initiatives during grad school), and then burned out, refusing to have any involvement whatsoever. The reality, however, is that as someone whose name and appearance are obviously non-white, I always have to be a DEIJ advocate, no matter how tired I am, regardless of whether I want to be an advocate or not. And, as exhausting as that work can be, listening to the speakers at CHOW renewed my energy for engaging in DEIJ work.
There’s something to be said for the strength and comfort you find in being surrounded by a community that’s passionate and dedicated to the same issues you care about. Listening to these speakers, I was inspired by their stories, dedication and perseverance. These talks reminded me of why I wanted to go to graduate school and participate in the Knauss Fellowship: my interest in human connections to our natural resources and to each other. As so many speakers emphasized, relationships should be transformational, not transactional. In looking to increase DEIJ in our own spheres, it’s important to remember that we are all where we are now because of key people in our own pasts. So that’s the message I’m taking forward from CHOW 2021: DEIJ is always a work in progress, but there’s a wide community of support out there and each person, no matter where they are in their career, can make a difference in their own spheres of influence.