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.
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.
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.