Leadership Corner

Safeguarding a welcoming environment for all

July 24th, 2019 at 1:36PM
Portrait photo of Alex Friend
Alex Friend, Deputy Chief, Research & Development

The month of July has been designated as American Diversity Month by USDA. Diversity is a Forest Service core value, and supporting this value requires constant vigilance for major and minor behaviors and attitudes that are contrary to it. I am deeply invested in our agency’s commitment to make the work environment welcoming and inclusive for everyone, and that commitment is rooted in my own personal experience.

From 2012 to 2013, I was part of a Forest Service team that crafted the agency’s Diversity and Inclusion Intention Statement. This experience really opened my eyes about what can happen with diversity and inclusion within the agency, both good and bad, and motivated me to do as much as I could to help. It occurred to me that most of us have felt socially excluded at some point in our lives. As social animals, this puts us in an adrenaline mode. We have a visceral fear when we feel outcast from an important social group.   
When I was in grade school, my family moved several times. I lived in five different states during that period, so I was “the new kid” several times. It’s a situation that makes you feel vulnerable, and it has heightened my own sensitivity to any sense of exclusion. 

In my working life, I have found that people can be excluded for many reasons: gender, appearance, sexual identity, ethnicity, race, poverty, disability or even ideas that cause someone to face added scrutiny and exclusion, even violence. We don’t always agree with each other, or even feel comfortable with each other at first, but it’s not acceptable to exclude people based on differences. 

The greatest barriers may be the more subtle and least obvious ones. It’s easy to notice flagrant offenses like inappropriate pictures or jokes. However, subtle and insidious behaviors may be harder to correct, especially habituation to the “old familiar.” If we can address problems at the early stages, when they take the form of microaggressions, unconscious bias and subtle body language, we can often prevent them from growing into bigger problems that result in formal complaints and grievances.

As Deputy Chief for Research and Development, I have a responsibility to promote diversity and equity in this deputy area. We have relatively good gender diversity within R&D, but we need to take a careful look at all forms of diversity, not only total numbers but also representation in leadership positions and grade distribution. We need to be more open to self-examination and ask ourselves: “It’s the established practice, but is it the best way?” Inquiry-mode should not be uncomfortable for us. After all, we are a science-based agency.

All of us at the Forest Service need to be in tune with modern society. Sometimes we tend to think that everyone grew up thinking about conservation and hiking or fishing, but that simply isn’t true. About 85 percent of Americans live in urban environments, and vast numbers of people are decoupled from the land and know very little about land conservation, let alone sustainable resources management. To be effective stewards of the nation’s forests and grasslands, we need to meet people where they are and how they live. We can’t assume people everywhere share our values. We must always seek a way to connect with them that opens the door to the bigger picture of what we do and why it’s important.