In the Fall of 2016, the University of Michigan Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Strategic Plan was created so every school, college, and unit across the University of Michigan instills the values of DEI in their missions and daily operations. That semester, the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) brought in Sonia Joshi as the DEI Program Manager to help enhance the school’s commitment to diversity in the classroom, in research, programs, and in practice solving the world’s greatest problems. I spoke with Sonia about her professional journey, the DEI program at SEAS, and how diversity, equity and inclusion is key to fostering a sustainable future.
Sonia became interested in environmental science in high school when she took river samples at the same place she hung out with friends growing up. “It seemed like an incredible nexus between the community and a place where people can study water quality and macroinvertebrates,” she said. Her interest led her to Lake Superior State where she studied water chemistry and environmental health as an undergraduate, and to Michigan State for a master’s. In her graduate program, she focused on how to bring together diverse groups to work collaboratively on environmental decision making, taking into account how race, class, gender, socioeconomics and other identity groups are impacted by decisions and how some groups may not ‘have a seat at the table.’ She then worked for nine years with Michigan Sea Grant where she helped connect scientists, diverse stakeholders and communities to help them develop mutual goals and partnerships to enhance the Great Lakes water quality and environmental protection projects.
Now Sonia runs DEI trainings to help improve intercultural competencies and awareness among students, staff, and faculty at SEAS. She is also the point person for student concerns about representativeness in the classroom and works on processes to help increase the diversity of candidates in the staff hiring pool as well as brings in environmental professionals of color through a Speaker Series to highlight DEI in practice in the environmental field. “Companies and organizations that are more productive have more diverse and equitable teams and have more inclusive practices in place where people feel valued where they can contribute as much of their skill sets as possible,” Sonia added.
With student assistance, Sonia organizes cultural events that try to encompass the diversity of identities represented in the makeup of the SEAS student, staff, and faculty body. These events, such as celebrations for Dia De Los Muertos, Diwali, the Lunar New Year, and International Food Olympics centered around global cuisine help foster intercultural dialogue and an inclusive community at SEAS. “Because we all have different lived experiences, the only way we can move towards more equitable and inclusive spaces is for people to understand and appreciate that everyone’s path is different,” said Sonia.
Sonia believes that you can’t separate DEI from sustainability because they are so interlinked. “To make sure that the strongest policies and plans are in place to ensure the environment is clean, sustainable, and people have access to the resources they need, we need to ensure that we have all voices involved, not just one certain expertise at the table.“ She adds that “Science is moving to be much more interdisciplinary. Having a different approach to your research may make it more valuable and more understandable.”
So what can we do to help promote diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus and throughout our lives? Sonia says that we should get involved with activities, speakers, and community events that showcase a variety of cultures, expertise, and opinions. “DEI is not just a couple of people or the DEI office at SEAS. DEI is everybody. Once people feel that they can contribute to or initiate programs related to DEI topics, and then other people see that, and it spreads more.” Also, if you see or hear something that you think could make someone feel excluded, say something. “Go for it, be an ally, try it and see if you can make a difference.”