The Ocean Foundation has long been committed to the principles of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (D.E.I.J.). Our Board of Directors has acknowledged that D.E.I.J. is a journey, and we have defined the TOF journey on our website. We have worked to live up to that commitment in recruiting, in our programs and through striving for basic fairness and understanding.

Yet, it does not feel like we are doing enough—the events of 2020 were a reminder of just how much needs to be changed. Recognition of racism is barely a first step. Structural racism has many facets that make it hard to overturn in every area of our work. And, yet we must figure out how, and we are trying to do a better job all the time. We are trying to improve internally and externally. I’d like to share a few highlights of our work.

Internships: The Marine Pathways Program provides paid internships to students of color who spend the summer or a semester learning about the ocean conservation work we do and also about how a non-profit organization operates. Each intern also undertakes a research project—the most recent intern researched and prepared a presentation on the ways in which TOF can be more accessible to people with visual, physical, or other impairments. I learned a lot from her presentation, as did we all, and, as part of our website redesign adopted her recommendations for making our content more accessible to people with visual impairments.

As we look to our next Marine Pathways interns, we want to offer more opportunities. We are trying to figure out how to ensure that all of our internships are more accessible. What does this mean? In part, it means that with the lessons of the pandemic, we may be able to overcome the significant obstacle represented by the high cost of housing in the DC area by creating internships that are a combination of remote and in-person, subsidizing the housing, or coming up with other strategies.

Accessible gatherings: One lesson we can all take away from the pandemic is that gathering online is less expensive and less time consuming than traveling for every meeting. I am hopeful that all future gatherings will include a component that allows people to attend virtually—and thus increase the ability of those with fewer resources to attend.

TOF was the DEI sponsor and sponsored the keynote by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson for the 2020 North American Association for Environmental Education’s national conference, which was held virtually. Dr. Johnson just finished editing the book All We Can Save, described as “provocative and illuminating essays from women at the forefront of the climate movement who are harnessing truth, courage, and solutions to lead humanity forward.”

As I said, the areas that need change are many. We did get to capitalize on the increased awareness about these issues. In my role as chair of the board of Confluence Philanthropy, an organization working to ensure that investment portfolios reflect our most equitable societal values, I pushed for our 2020 gathering to be held in Puerto Rico, to give investors and others a firsthand look at how Puerto Rican Americans have been mistreated by financial, government, and philanthropic institutions, exacerbating the challenges posed by the aftermath of two catastrophic hurricanes and an earthquake. Shortly thereafter, we launched “A Call to Advance Racial Equity in the Investment Industry,” a partnership with the Hip Hop Caucus (now with signatories representing $1.88 trillion in assets under management).

We are also trying to make sure that solutions to ocean problems begin with equity at their source. Related to this, we are supporting a new documentary tentatively called #PlasticJustice that we hope will serve as an educational tool and motivate policymakers to take action. As one example, for a different project, we were asked to write draft national legislation to address plastic pollution. These can be great opportunities to diagnose and prevent future harm—thus we made sure to include clauses to address the environmental justice aspects of exposure for communities near plastic production facilities, among other policies to prevent additional harm to vulnerable communities.

Because The Ocean Foundation is an international organization, I have to think about D.E.I.J. in the global context as well. We have to promote international cultural understanding, including engaging indigenous peoples to see how their needs and traditional knowledge are integrated into our work. This includes using local knowledge to aid in your work. We can ask if governments providing overseas direct assistance whether they are supporting or undermining D.E.I.J. in nations where we work—human rights and DEIJ principles are fundamentally the same. And, where TOF has a presence (such as in Mexico) are we only staffed by the elite, or have we applied a D.E.I.J. lens in hiring staff or contractors? Lastly, as various politicos talk about the Green New Deal / Building Back Better / Building Back Bluer (or our own Blue Shiftlanguage) are we thinking enough about just transitions? Such transitions ensure that any jobs eliminated are replaced by comparably paid jobs, and that all communities both have a role in and benefit from efforts to address climate change, improve air and water quality, and limit toxins.

TOF’s International Ocean Acidification Initiative team managed to continue its OA monitoring and mitigation trainings virtually for attendees throughout Africa. The scientists are trained in how to monitor ocean chemistry in their countries’ waters. Policy decision-makers from those countries are also trained in how to design policies and implement programs that help address the effects of ocean acidification in their waters, ensuring that solutions begin at home.

There is a long road ahead to correct flaws, reverse wrongs and embed real equality and equity and justice.

It is part of the role of TOF’s Underwater Cultural Heritage program to highlight the interconnection between cultural and natural heritage, including the ocean’s role in international trade and historic crimes against humanity. In November 2020, TOF Senior Fellow Ole Varmer co-authored a piece entitled “Memorializing the Middle Passage on the Atlantic seabed in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction.” The article proposes that a portion of the seabed be marked on maps and charts as a virtual memorial to the estimated 1.8 million Africans who lost their lives at sea during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the 11 million who completed the voyage and were sold into slavery. Such a memorial is intended to serve as a reminder of past injustice and contribute to the continuing pursuit of justice.

My job as the President of The Ocean Foundation is to maintain communication, transparency, and accountability and work to ensure that D.E.I.J. is a truly cross-cutting effort so that we actually foster D.E.I.J. throughout our community and our work. I have tried to focus on building resilience in the face of difficult stories, and building optimism when good news comes, and to make sure all of us on staff talk about both. I am proud of our accomplishments on D.E.I.J. to date, especially our commitment to diversifying our board, our staff, and the opportunities available for young would-be ocean activists.

I am grateful for the patience of our D.E.I.J. committee members in helping to educate me, and helping me recognize that I cannot understand what it is really like to be a person of color in our country, but I can recognize that it can be a challenge every day, and I can recognize that this country has much more systemic and institutionalized prejudice than I ever had realized before. And, that this systemic racism has generated considerable social, economic and environmental harm. I can learn from those who can speak to their experiences. It is not about me, or what I can “read up” on the subject even as I am finding valuable resources that have helped me along the way.

As TOF looks toward its third decade, we’ve set forth a framework for action that both rests on and integrates a commitment to D.E.I.J. that will be demonstrated through:

  • Implementing equitable practices in all facets of our work, from funding and distribution to conservation actions.
  • Building capacity for equity and inclusion within communities where we work, focusing on projects outside of the United States with coastal areas in the greatest need.
  • Expanding the Marine Pathways Internship program and partnering with others to improve the accessibility of their internships.
  • Launching a Fiscal Sponsorship Project incubator that nurtures the ideas of emerging leaders who may have less access to resources than other projects we have hosted.
  • Regular internal training to address and deepen our understanding of D.E.I.J. issues, to build capacity to limit negative behaviors, and promote true equity and inclusion.
  • Maintaining a Board of Directors, staff, and Board of Advisors that reflects and promotes our values.
  • Integrating just and equitable grantmaking in our programs and leveraging this through philanthropic networks.
  • Fostering science diplomacy, as well as cross-cultural and international knowledge sharing, capacity-building, and the transfer of marine technology.

We are going to measure and share our progress on this journey. To tell our story we will apply our standard Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning to D.E.I.J. Some metrics will include diversity itself (Gender, BIPOC, Disabilities) as well as cultural and geographic diversity. In addition, we want to measure staff retention of diverse peoples, and measure their levels of responsibility (promotion into leadership / supervisory positions) and whether TOF is helping “lift” our staff, as well as people in our field (internally or externally).

There is a long road ahead to correct flaws, reverse wrongs and embed real equality and equity and justice.

If you have any ideas on how the TOF community can or should contribute to the positive and not reinforce the negative, please write to me or to Eddie Love as our D.E.I.J. Committee Chair.