MISSOULA – The term for a traditional Latin American men’s shirt is a guayabera. The shirt, most often worn for formal events, is distinguished by two rows of embroidered patterns on the front and back. Understanding the garment’s history might be important to know as a student in Erim Gomez’s classes at the University of Montana, because he wears them almost every day.
The UM assistant professor of wildlife biology in UM’s W.A. Franke of College of Forestry and Conservation shares that he likes to bring his “whole self” to the classroom. That includes his Mexican heritage alongside a larger goal of diversifying the next generation of land managers, conservationists and wildlife biologists. For Gomez, being a person of color in front of students at UM is a first step toward greater representation in the higher education and within STEM, he said.
“We need everyone in this field – and we want them here at the University of Montana,” Gomez said. “I’m talking about students from underrepresented backgrounds who don’t see themselves in the field – Indigenous students, LGBTQ, people of color and first-generation college students. You have a place here and the larger field of conservation needs you.”
Gomez is quick to laugh and talks as excitedly about amphibians as he does about why federal internships should pay a living wage. At UM, Gomez started a chapter for the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, or SACNAS. The group fosters the success of underrepresented students to attain advanced degrees, careers and positions of leadership in STEM. This semester, Gomez began a teaching lecture that shared the brutal history of the Swan Valley Massacre of 1908 as an introduction to the history of land management in Montana.
“Only one student in my class knew about this event,” Gomez said, “which was a wakeup call for me and the students that we need to be talking more about the troubling ways land management in this country has failed – so that we can do better.”
Gomez sat down with UM News to share his thoughts about DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) efforts at UM and why sharing stories of complicated histories when it comes to land and people, will only make the future brighter.
UM News: You’re a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee within UM’s forestry college. What kind of work does that committee engage in, and why is it important for UM?
We do several different things. Right now, we are surveying the college’s students, staff and faculty to determine what the most pressing DEI needs are, and why these issues are important to our college. We’re also holding listening sessions that are run by students, for students, so that they can share more about DEI with us in a comfortable way. It’s important to to really think about DEI issues at the college level, and I’m proud of the work that we’re doing. Of course, there’s a lot more work to be done. We’re just getting started.
UM News: You have a rich, cultural heritage of being Mexican-American, a first-generation college student and the son of immigrants. How do you fold these experiences into your teaching and scholarship?
I’ve attended three universities. Never once I have a had a faculty of color teaching one of my STEM classes or a Latino professor – not even in my Spanish classes. I bring my whole self to my class, which I think and hope all of us can do. My history and culture affect the things I teach about. In every single one of my classes, I’m concerned with the big idea about how we protect ecosystem wellbeing alongside human well-being. I am most concerned about the human well-being part of this discipline, often because in the conservation arena, we have neglected to think about Indigenous communities or communities that don’t have as much political or social power when it comes to conservation. I give a more holistic history of the conservation movement in my classes, including addressing highly problematic views by conservation heroes. These include difficult views of people of color from the “fathers of conversation” like John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. I bring these stories into my classes, because for our Indigenous students or students of color, they already know these stories. And if they recognize that we’re not telling them in the classroom, then they’re going to know we’re not giving an, accurate view of history.
What being a person of color in front of my students means, is that I hope no matter who they are, or if their parents were farm workers or immigrants or are people of color, that they, too, can become a wildlife biologist and achieve their professional and academic dreams.
Representation matters. The further you get into the academic journey, the more of a trailblazer you are (for many, this includes even the undergraduate level). The farther you go, the fewer people like you are encountered. I’m one of the few Latino wildlife biologists in the country, and I hope it empowers all of my students – even those with disabilities. I’ve been diagnosed with learning disabilities that include difficulty with reading, writing and ADHD. I share that with my students so they are comfortable knowing that yes, there will be challenges – but we will empower them. We need the next-generation of conservation and wildlife biology to look different than it has.
UM News: The land management and conservation disciplines are not immune to histories of social injustice and inequity. For UM students who will serve as next-generation land managers, how can they benefit from having a deeper cultural awareness and traditional ways of knowing when it comes to our natural environment?
I’ve witnessed national leaders in the fields of biology talking about ecological issues at a prestigious conference unknowingly and simultaneously insulting traditional ways of knowing. I don’t think this particular person realized how problematic his views are. And I share this story because we are in a moment of a major cultural awareness, and we can’t be making those same mistakes. If we think about the idea of wilderness, from the Western perspective, it’s that it has been “untouched” by man. However, there’s millions of people living in North America, and that idea of wilderness to many, most especially for Indigenous people, does’t quite make sense. They’ve been living on the land and managing it for millennia. It’s important for students to know that humans have been part of North American landscape for more than 10,000 years or more. We have evidence of this, and we need to incorporate that into our knowledge and teaching. These are also really good conversations for our next-generation land managers and conservationists to be having and to be thinking more about. To be a successful land manager, you need to have buy-in from your community. Indigenous people and people of color are stakeholders who have been historically neglected in these conversations. The field is starting to realize this.
UM News: You’ve mentioned UM as the “ultimate” program in the country in wildlife biology and teaching in this program as a dream job Why UM? Now that you’re here, what do you want to accomplish?
I’ve known about this program for 22 years. There’s a rich history here. I sit in the office of a former chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Jack W.Thomas. The reason I wanted to become at wildlife biologist was because of a video about Grizzly bears from the Craighead brothers. [John Craighead was the former director of UM’s Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit and a former UM faculty member.] To have those connections and that legacy here is inspiring. Everyone in wildlife biology knows about the University of Montana wildlife biology program. We enroll students from across the country, including all 50 states and several countries that come here to study at UM. We have great access to the outdoors, wilderness, national forests and all kinds of opportunities to do research in our own backyard.
In our immediate environment, there’s also a lot of intriguing issues and problems, including hosting the largest collection of superfunds sites in the country (from Milltown State Park to Butte). We have some of the nation’s best environmental experts (my colleagues) researching heavy metal issues along the Clark Fork River, with enormous ecological restoration going on. We are home to beautiful landscapes, none of which are untouched, and we still have beautiful ecosystems filled with opportunities to figure out how to restore some of the ecosystems that we’ve negatively impacted. It’s truly a dream to be here.
UM News: How do you find ways to connect to your culture in Missoula?
Latino dancing! Dancing is part of my soul. I have found a wonderful community here in Missoula, and I like get my students up and moving. I’ve connected with a program called Here Montana, managed by the City of Missoula, that organizes outdoor recreation adventures and education for the local BIPOC community. I’ve guided a raft, participated in skiing and backpacking events, and we’ve hosted opportunities for different groups to participate and make deeper connections across campus.
Follow Gomez on Instagram @cumbiaconservationist and on Twitter @erimgomez.
Contact: Erim Gomez, UM assistant professor of wildlife biology, W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, 406-243-2406, firstname.lastname@example.org.