Inside Dish: Mary E. Mendoza on Thinking Outside the Box

Editor’s Note: We’re celebrating EHN’s one-year anniversary this week! And that means we’ll be posting a piece every day to mark the occasion. This is the second post in a interview series here on EHN. In it, scholars in environmental history share their powerful, honest #insidedish on representation, engagement, and community in academia in general and the field in particular.

On a mid-winter morning, Elizabeth Hameeteman and Aly Kreikemeier sat down to coffee with Dr. Mary E. Mendoza while it drizzled lightly outside. She candidly shared her take on diversity and intersectionality in academia, a particularly relevant topic in light of her comments at the ASEH Conference last April.[1]

Right off the bat, we ask why these prominent debates on diversity and inclusion in academia arose last year. “Well,” Mendoza starts off, “women have been sitting on the side lines for a long time, and if we don’t get up and do something—be a little louder—this could be a moment in which we might lose a lot of gains.” Mendoza feels this began as part of a broad backlash to Donald Trump’s election: “I am sure there are women speaking out more in the corporate world, maybe less so than in the academy for a whole host of structural reasons.” Yet frankly, “women of color have been having these conversations for a long time; it’s interesting to me that this is getting more attention now that white women are talking more about it.”

Curious, we ask about this longer history. First of all, “I am grateful,” she explains, “that people like Nancy Langston and others have taken the lead coordinating efforts within environmental history, because it’s a lot of work and it’s been needed.” At the same time, a lot remains to be done. “I think this is the fourth or fifth year in a row when I am on a panel on diversity at the ASEH Conference,” Mendoza says, “and I don’t have that much more to say.”

“I feel like I am a broken record.”

Mendoza feels like she’s running out of things to say, plain and simple, “because the things I am saying aren’t sticking.” “But maybe this year they will, because we’ve got some traction. And I say we as women, not necessarily women of color.” Even though the awareness and urgency to diversify academia continues to grow, “women of color have had these conversations for a long time and it has only now gained more momentum.” That said, an increasing number of both women and men in powerful positions, in particular, should take more action as allies.

“We have to do it together and I’m glad we finally are.”

We probe on what’s happening structurally that enables greater visibility only with the alliance of white women. “Structurally, it’s just really hard for people of color, women of color in particular, to rise to full professors. Just look at the hierarchy in the academy. It’s oppressive for people of color, it absolutely is.” Mendoza explains. Moreover, “for anyone who is a first-generation college graduate, it’s very foreign. Just look at myself,” she says, “I am here about to do this talk at Harvard—that’s crazy.” Despite working in and achieving success within the academic world, Mendoza tells us, “I am not used to this… at all.” So yes, “it’s cool, but I also don’t want to give it too much power at the same time.”

Structurally, most people in power have been white men. In thinking about those trying to get an academic appointment, Mendoza feels that “people tend to hire others who look like them—some of that’s on purpose, some of that is implicit bias.” She continues, “you are comfortable with what you know, what you tend to lean towards.” In this way, there are a number of factors at play when thinking about hierarchies and the structural components that challenge diversity in academia. “In a lot of ways, it’s about comfort—structurally and socially. It’s all sort of built in.”

Therefore, it’s hard for people—junior scholars, women of color—to feel comfortable saying this isn’t okay. “I don’t necessarily want to ruffle feathers,” Mendoza shares, but there’s “an expectation that I do, but don’t always want to.” “I find that I fight a lot more than I want to, still. A lot more,” she laughs. Switching to a more stern tone, Mendoza asserts “there’s a power dynamic in everything that we do. And people are not always aware of that.” More specifically, “people not in power are aware of it, but people who are in power do not always treat people as if they understand or even recognize that. And you simply have to.” Therefore, her biggest advice for anyone going into the academy is to “remember that power dynamics matter and that these dynamics are always present.”

Moving on to talk about the state of environmental history, Aly wonders about the role of materiality in the field—“for me, the Tuck and Yang article has been so essential”—but wrestles with what environmental history can learn from critical theory.[2] Mendoza responds that she has also struggled with these questions. One reason why environmental history has failed to address the power dynamics between different groups of people in the ways Tuck and Yang identify is that it has “flattened the human-nature relationship.” She asks, “if you look at almost any classic text in environmental history that introduces the field, what will it say?”

Elizabeth recites that it would say something about environmental history being the study of the changing relationship between people and nature over time. But, as Mendoza point out, such a standard definition actually undermines “the dynamism of the field.” Moreover, “it actually flattens the ways in which land and resources lie at the center of shaping power relations between groups of people and among groups of people.” As a result, “if we look at environmental history that way, then it suddenly does account for Tuck and Yang’s critique. It does not only stick with the material nature of land resources, or the ‘dirt’ as Ellen Stroud would say, but it also addresses aspects of power, race, gender, and social difference.”

In that sense, “environmental history can no longer just be the changing relations between humans and nature, because humans are not a monolith, and there are lots of power differences that dictate how those relationships unfold on land and in space… I think the closest complication I have seen is Louis Warren’s explanation of this in his environmental history reader, in which he says something along the lines that environmental history is the changing relationship between people and nature in pursuit of the good life.”[3] Still, this definition does not fully encapsulate what environmental history should be doing. “’Pursuit of the good life’ gives you a tiny bit of wiggle room, but it still isn’t good enough,” Mendoza asserts. “I mean, it’s good enough for what the field has been, but I don’t think it’s good enough for what the field should be doing or could be doing.”

With this in mind, Mendoza specifically asked to review books for Environmental History in an attempt “to start pushing people to think about the environment in another way.”[4] For example, Kelly Lytle Hernández’ City of Inmates, is not conventionally categorized as an environmental history.[5] “But is a jail cell an environment? You bet it is!” And that’s exactly the point. There are many ways to think about environments. “You can look at a jail cell as a crowded space where all kinds of germs start to take over and make people ill.” Moreover, “it’s a racialized environment that disproportionally houses African Americans and Latinos.”

The first step is just to start looking. “Start looking at what you’re reading, read more work by people of color, and find new ways to think about it.” Mendoza also just reviewed Lori Flores’ Grounds for Dreaming, which focuses on the relationship between Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans in the fields of Salinas, California.[6] Even though Flores did not write it as an environmental history book, “it’s beautifully written and environmental historians need to read it.” Wanting environmental historians to expand their thinking she suggests, “you can just about do it with every book as most things take place in a space, an environment.”

“It’s time to take that next step.”

We’re on board. Mendoza has explained the conceptual shift but we want to know more about how to move the field in that direction. “Four years ago at the ASEH Conference, I said we needed to decolonize our minds.” Recognizing that decolonize was probably “not the best choice of words,” Mendoza explains that she actually meant “we are trained and tied to Frederick Jackson Turner in this field. We are trained to think about nature in this very particular way and the human relationship with the environment in that way.” Western history “divorced itself from Turner in some ways. It can’t fully do so though, because hello we can’t,” she laughs. “But it has reckoned with Turner in ways that environmental history has yet to do. Western history has embraced the messiness inherent in the American West. Environmental history simply has not.”

“So think outside the box. Think outside of the white wilderness box.”

We wonder how much these categories for environment are tied to the strength of knowledge hierarchies in environmental history, which Western history has more distance from. Could this also be holding the field back? Mendoza agrees this constraint is operating, yet “it doesn’t have to. You can say, climate change is real and there’s all these things we can do… like needing to recycle, needing to be green, and even identify specific ways to do so.” She is interested in how conventional definitions of environmentalism uphold a limited idea of environment. “I totally think that if you are in a prestigious position that you can recycle, buy organic food, and not shop at the places that are bad for the planet, then you should do that.”

However, we should also recognize such definition of who constitutes an environmentalist “is exclusionary, it upholds white supremacy, and it doesn’t account for other ways of being in nature, other ways of respecting the planet.” Such a view “also doesn’t account for the burdens that poor people and people of color have to carry in the weight of this massive disaster that is climate change.” In that sense, Mendoza identifies the complex ways in which racial injustice and climate injustice are inextricably intertwined.

Mendoza shares a relevant example from social media of how these knowledge hierarchies operate: “there was this post on an environmental history page in which ecologists had learned something from indigenous people about plants. The tone of the entire headline was shocking, as if some animal has taught something to a scientist. Yet, we refer to that scientists as an ecologist, and not the indigenous person who happened to know more about the plant than the ecologist?” Mendoza felt that this “encompassed of all the things we value, and the things that we don’t. [The implication is] then a shock that an indigenous person can teach something.” So again, “it’s about value systems, power, and what not… it gets us back to the structural issues that keeps someone like me from even daring to say things most of the time because everything that we see tells us that our voices don’t matter.”

If the structural challenges feel disparate, a throughline might be found in the way capitalism operates today. Aly suggests these definitions of environmentalism and scientific knowledge enable the very system that produces the injustices we’re discussing to continue unabated, and that “green living” enables those empowered to feel good about playing their role in fixing the planet. “Exactly,” Mendoza replies, “we can define being a good steward over the planet as someone who recycles, who buys organic locally-sourced foods, minimizes transport, and pays the carbon fee at the ASEH Conference so they offset the whatever.” That said, a different way to think about being a steward is those on the fringes of global capitalism who make do with the limited resources available to them, unable to participate in retail and the disposable economy accessible to the more wealthy. Simply put, “If I have a butter knife, use it as a screw driver. I’m not going to go out and buy a screw driver, the butter knife will do it.”

In closing, we ask Mendoza for professional advice. “First off, older scholars should always understand that there is a power dynamic, even if you don’t feel that way and you see your junior colleagues as peers. Just realize,” she says, “that the person sitting in the seat next to you is hyper aware of it, particularly when it’s a woman or woman of color.” With that mind, “Don’t behave in a way that would make them feel vulnerable. It’s irresponsible, and it’s just mean.” Keeping that in mind, younger scholars “should speak up when they feel it’s important.” Mendoza’s advice is to “ask for counsel from senior allies… absolutely fight the battles worth fighting.”

“Push, because if we don’t push we are going to remain in this stasis.”

Mendoza feels that remaining in that status quo is “unacceptable… we cannot do this anymore.” Especially in this field. “It has got so much potential to grow and do many important things. But now we’re just stuck in a moment.” She laughs as she refers to the U2 song. Also, “I think paying it forward is important when one moves up the ranks, that goes across the board.” Mendoza herself reaches out to junior women and women of color in particular, and asks if they need anything as they, for example, approach the job market. “It’s really reminding women and junior people of color that they should negotiate, that they should throw their name in the hat for just about anything. Junior scholars should not be making decisions about whether or not they are qualified to get a fellowship before they apply for it. Just let the committee decide.” In a lot of ways, “we are socialized to understand that it’s not going to happen for us, because there’s just no money or there’s just no this or that. But who says?”

“You just got to go for it.”

“Just do it,” Mendoza maintains. “If it doesn’t work, you are no worse off. Maybe you lose a few hours from your application. But that application that you wrote, it helped you to refine what you are trying to say about your own work so it wasn’t a total waste.” On the other side of that spectrum though, “the biggest mistake you can make is thinking you are entitled to anything.” So for someone going into a job interview, “you do not get to say this job is mine… because you don’t know, and there are lots of qualified people out there. Smart qualified people, just as good as you.” The simple fact is that “nothing’s yours to take. Nothing in this life is guaranteed.” And finally, because of that, “don’t take anything for granted and appreciate what you have.”

[1] For anyone who missed the #ASEH2019 panel on The Syllabus Project and diversifying the environmental history field, check out Christopher Slaby’s recap thread.

[2] Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1 (2002): 1-40.

[3] Louis S. Warren (ed), American Environmental History (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003).

[4] See e.g. Mendoza’s review of City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965, by Kelly Lytle Hernández, Environmental History 24 (April 2019): 397-399.

[5] Kelly Lytle Hernández, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[6] Lori A. Flores, Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).