Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Changing Direction: A Post from Dat

Please take a few minutes to read this powerful essay by Dat Ha, one of our current Hubbard Fellows here in Nebraska. He writes about a recente incident that is representative of what too many people regularly deal with across this country, inside and outside of the field of conservation. I’m grateful that Dat was willing to share what happened, along with the emotional repercussions it triggered for him. He and I both hope that sharing his story and perspective will help amplify the ongoing national discourse on racism, diversity, and justice. 

Changing Direction

Running different routes allows me to explore new areas and see new life. Recently, I was fixated on one route for a long time because there was a kitten that would come out of hiding and cheer me on for a quarter mile stretch. The kitten eventually stopped coming out and it was finally time to return to exploring other parts of my rural neighborhood here in Nebraska.

My running on this particular day wasn’t so much running as much as it was run a few steps and stop to look at freshly blooming flowers. Within my first mile, I added two new flowers to my plant identification list – spiderwort and goatsbeard. At this point I was excited. I continued on my run to see what else I could find on the side of a gravel road.

Not after that, I noticed a sheriff’s department vehicle driving by me. I honestly didn’t think too much about it other than finding it peculiar that the cops were roaming the gravel roads of rural Nebraska. Everything made sense when I was making my way back home.

About mile away from finishing, I heard the sound of crushing rock getting gradually closer and I turned to see a car stop behind me. I recognized the vehicle – it was the same sheriff’s department vehicle from before. Was she checking in on me? Neighbors have stopped before to have friendly conversation. I was right – she was checking in on me, but for a different reason. Someone had called the cops on me. Why? What did I do wrong?

All I was doing was running. I was wearing my plain blue sweatshirt, solid black running pants, and a grey knit stocking cap. I want to give whomever called the benefit of the doubt and reason that it’s rare to see someone running on these country roads… but I’ve seen other people run this way before. The gravity of the situation didn’t really click with me at first, but I quickly realized what happened. Someone called the cops because they saw someone in front of their house that didn’t look like them.

Self portrait – Dat Ha

The interaction was quick. I explained to the officer that I was just out running. She described an unjustifiably grumpy caller and reassured me that I was doing absolutely nothing wrong. All she asked was for my name, phone number, and where I lived – then she vanished. I was free to go home, but I was petrified. I had to run past the house that belonged to the caller. I hadn’t met any of the neighbors on this road so I couldn’t narrow down which house to run past the fastest. There were only a handful of houses, hidden from the main road by a swath of trees. With a rush of unfamiliar emotion, I sprinted home. 

This incident has gotten me to think more about why diversity is so important, how my race and ethnicity has impacted my life, and what can be done. I never saw a Vietnamese scientist while growing up, and I couldn’t have named a Vietnamese scientist if you’d asked me to… I still can’t. I’m sure there are some out there, but the numbers are just so low. This has had a profound effect on me and I know the same for many other BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color).

We tell young children that they can do anything they want in life but it’s difficult to envision that when everyone they see in that field looks different from them. Seeing someone who looks like you and who has had a similar upbringing succeed in a predominately white field helps you believe that you can make it as well. I can’t stress how important it is have diversity, not only in science, but also in all fields. It shows that for anyone, no matter what race, ethnicity, gender, or background you are/have, anything is possible.

Despite the lack of diversity growing up, I still made it here. I’m a Hubbard Fellow with The Nature Conservancy, building a career in conservation. My journey was full of obstacles – I experienced prejudicial remarks, was often overlooked because of my name and appearance, and constantly felt like I didn’t belong. Additionally, as a first generation immigrant and college graduate, I felt like I had to navigate many processes and thoughts on my own – but it was the guidance, friendship, and opportunities from countless people that helped me get where I am today. I know I’m the master of my own fate, but I wouldn’t be here if people didn’t take a chance on me.

Working for an environmental non-profit, we often stress the importance of biological diversity in nature. We must also strive to increase racial and ethnic diversity in conservation and science. The studies are out there. We know the importance of diversity and the myriad benefits it provides – but we all need to honestly reflect and ask ourselves if we’re doing anything about it.

And even after everything, I know I’m privileged. I had a warm and nonviolent interaction with the officer – but many people haven’t had the same experience with the police. Immoral police have taken the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other innocent people. I was able to run home safe – but sadly, some people won’t be able to. All Ahmaud Arbery was doing – was running. #IRunWithMaud

Black, indigenous, and people of color are losing their lives from the evils of hate and racism. No one deserves to live his or her entire life in fear. We can’t run away from the issue anymore. Black Lives Matter.

I’m still trying to process what I felt that weekend. Scared to the point of shaking… but also mad. Mad that someone thought it was okay to call the police. Mad that racism and prejudices are still issues. Mad that people are losing their lives. But I’m also determined. Determined to mentor URM (underrepresented minorities). Determined to increase diversity in science and conservation. Determined to do my part to help dismantle racism and fight injustice.

For future Hubbard Fellows reading this – I want you to know that despite of everything I’ve written, I feel safe and welcomed here – thanks to everyone in The Nature Conservancy’s Nebraska chapter. Every conversation and interaction we have is open-minded, caring, and fun. There’s always someone willing to lend a hand or ear at a moment’s notice. Additionally, I’ve met kindhearted neighbors on my runs and we’ve chatted about Nebraska’s erratic weather and The Conservancy’s work in the area. There are good genuine people out here.

For the person who called the police on me – I’m still going to run by your house. You don’t and won’t intimidate me. If you ever want to talk, I’m happy to chat. For everyone reading this – please look out for one another. Do what you can to help but please don’t do nothing. Listen. Learn. Support. Act. We can’t afford to run the same way we’ve been running for many years now – it’s time for a change in direction.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

28 thoughts on “Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Changing Direction: A Post from Dat

  1. Thank you for sharing your story Dat! I’ve been thinking the same thing as you- that in conservation we constantly strive for and celebrate biological diversity, so it should be easy for us to see why it’s exceedingly important to encourage and celebrate racial and ethnic diversity. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thank you Dat for sharing that story and for your courage and dedication. I am a retired wildlife biologist living in central Illinois that has mentored around 30 young professionals starting their careers in conservation. Chris has my email address – please reach out to me if there is anything I can do to assist you from here in Illinois!
    Keep running your routes, keep learning, and keep leading!!

  3. Chris, Dat, and all of you at the NE Nature Conservancy,
    This makes me so very sad to read. My heart goes out to Dat and to all who face this ugliness. My best to all of you.

    Jennifer Pospichal
    Elkhorn, NE

  4. Thank you for sharing your story and your courage. I am hopeful that the police officer had a good conversation with the grump and, eventually, grump will come to learn to not fear someone just because of a perceived difference.

  5. Black lives matter, but so does good policing. I’m glad you met a good police officer. I hope the officer had a talk with the person who called on you.

    I know a volunteer from Vietnam. He is always correcting me. He is a very smart and I really respect it, even if I don’t like being wrong.

    I would suggest you wear a GoPro camera when you run. When I was training for cross country in Iowa, I would run on desolate black top or gravel roads through cornfields. One thing people like to do is gun their engine when passing you to try to spray gravel at you. Once a person who did this later apologized because he did not realize I was someone he knew until after he had passed me. Another rural sport is to pass you at high speed trying to get as close as they can get without hitting you.

    Another suggestion I have is that you watch the movie “Forest Gump.” I’ve never had anything quite that bad happen to me while running. However, if you watch the movie it will explain a lot. You will also understand why people yell “Run, Forest, Run!” from passing cars, if anyone still does that now.

  6. THANK YOU, Dat. Your story, and so many others like it, need to be heard and shared. Silence won’t get us where we want to go. Soon after my husband and I moved to our hobby farm, our neighbors called the police on us and a friend for walking down the gravel road with “a bag and a stick,” per the police officer. We were picking up garbage. I can still feel those feelings of helplessness, fear, and anger. I had never felt so unwelcome. But as a white person, I didn’t have to suffer through knowing that I was being targeted because of my race. Thank you so much for speaking up. We can and will do better.

  7. Thank you for sharing your story, Dat. I am sorry things like this still happen. Your honesty and integrity shine through. Good luck in your fellowship. 👍🏻

  8. Thank you so much for sharing. It is very important to here this perspective so everyone understands what some people face daily.

  9. Oh, my, this is so distressing to read, and even worse to experience.

    Thanks to Dat Ha for being willing to share, and to Chris for recognizing its importance.

    I am 89 years old and until recently have been proud to be an American. Now I’m less naive, but hope I live to be proud again.

    Phyllis Browning

    On Mon, Jun 22, 2020 at 10:19 AM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” Please take a few minutes to read this powerful > essay by Dat Ha, one of our current Hubbard Fellows here in Nebraska. He > writes about a recente incident that is representative of what too many > people regularly deal with across this country, inside a” >

  10. Thanks for your story Dat! This past 4 years has unfortunately opened my eyes to the rampant racism that I thought had subsided by my age of 75. I grew up in a small south central Arizona farm town with lots of ethnic groups as my NORMAL! Impressive group of classmates. Then our current political climate has brought back the rampant racism as OK! Didn’t realize how many of my good friends are quite racist but Amazingly Ignorant because of their lack of exposure to different groups like I grew up with! Dat, all cultures struggle with this but America continues to Fight it and Do Keep Telling Your Story, for others to begin to understand!

  11. I’m sorry to hear this, Dat. You’re now the second Hubbard Fellow to get stopped by police. During the Omaha stay of my fellowship, I went for a short birding walk in the neighborhood I was staying in. I noticed a car pass by me two or three times. Then a cop car stopped behind me. A white male cop ran out and started screaming at me. He handcuffed me. He asked if I spoke English. He held me against the car and frisked me. Always screaming.

    Another cop arrived. They interrogated me, held me there for about half an hour while they ran a background check. The car that had been following me drove by again. The driver smirked at me in my handcuffs. It was infuriating.

    During this harassment, I understood the peril people of color face from police. I knew that if I did ANYTHING besides what the cop was screaming at me, I would be shot.

    But I was calm and escaped the situation unharmed. I later filed a complaint with the sheriff, which he responded to but rejected. I learned that it’s crucial that in seeking to make our neighborhoods safe, we don’t make them dangerous.

    I hope you keep running and introducing yourself to rural Nebraskans. Help them replace fear with understanding. But do be careful.

      • I’m sorry that happened to you. I’ve seen aggressive policing and it is frightening. When a complaint is filed the officer typically wants to get retribution. It is a scary situation. I had a lot of interactions with our local forest preserve district police department trying to get vandalism in a local natural area stopped. Most of the interactions I had with the police could have been better from both perspectives. When I complained because an officer drove to the parking lot, called me from it, and then went somewhere else without ever coming to the scene the officer wanted to put me in jail for filing a frivolous police report. Luckily, his supervisor had more wisdom.

        The worst I saw was when an officer yelled at and then made threatening gestures toward two kids riding their bikes who were doing nothing wrong. The kids were just at the wrong place at the wrong time. After having another officer threaten to put me in jail for complaining, I did nothing about this incident. That is something I will have on my conscience. The forest preserve district for the county where I live has since dramatically improved the police department in ways that have really impressed me.

        I had a former neighbor who was a retired police officer. A guy who had a landscape company (white) that did, and still does work, in my neighborhood was removing a large tree from the property I now own. When the landscaper dropped part of the tree on this retired police officer’s property and started sawing it, the retired officer pulled a gun on guy. The police were called, and they told the landscaper that if he had any more trouble to call them and they will haul this retired police officer off to jail. I was always afraid of what that neighbor might do until he moved. He would call the police on people for just working in their own yards. I could see the anger in his eyes. I knew he had been through some really bad stuff while on duty, including getting stabbed. I think it really messed with his mind. If we want police to do a good job then we need to make sure they are not over worked, get descent pay, have the training they need, and get counselling and mental health services.

    • Evan, I never heard that that happened to you. I am shocked and appalled that this is happened to You and Dat.

  12. Dat,

    I’m glad that you told us of your encounter and that you are continuing your work with the Nature Conservancy. I think that change happens from individual action. Writing for all of us to learn is an incentive for me and others to think about how we should get involved by breaking our silence and inaction. thanks

  13. Dat,
    Thanks for your report This story needs to be heard–and Evan’s. Nothing like that may ever happen again or. . .it could. I like the camera idea and wonder if TNC couldn’t provide one.

    • The camera would record what happens, but would not stop it. A more pro-active approach might be better. I would introduce Dat to the local law enforcement so they knew him. I would have someone escort him on his runs.

  14. Dat and Evan, Thank you for sharing these terrible encounters. Chris, thank you for posting about this and bringing it to our attention. I am so sorry that these situations are happening. I will share these stories and work to learn how I can help to prevent these incidents.

  15. Dat and Evan, reading about your encounters brings me to tears, but also reinforces how important it is to make sure these stories are shared, so that all of us can consciously work on changing this kind of behavior from people. The Omaha World Herald appears to have picked up your story, Dat, hopefully it will help continue to open peoples’ eyes to what is still happening everywhere to BIPOC individuals. Please stay safe.

  16. This is so disappointing that my fellow Nebraskans would have acted so prejudicially and paranoid. Calling the cops on someone who’s jogging or birding because they look different? This makes me sad and angry. I apologize that you, Ha, and Evan were made to feel like criminals, when you should have been welcomed as guests. I guess, all I can say is those people are small-minded and fearful. Please don’t think we all think like they do. I have people bicycling and running or walking past my home all the time in a rural setting. Other than worrying they may get hit by speeding cars, I don’t think a thing of it. I also am very dismayed to hear how you were treated by the police! Thank you for sharing your story, Ha and helping to enlighten us on how police treat minorities.

  17. Thank you for your comments. I’m a retired high school counselor. I listened to students who had similar encounters. It was very frustrating that I couldn’t wave a magic wand to ‘fix’ the problem my students were having. I hope you have the strength to stay in the Midwest. We need you.

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