In recognition of Black History Month, we are honored to introduce you to Dr. Mamie Parker, a trailblazing scientist who broke barriers for women of color in conservation, and a member of the Center’s board of directors.
Mamie Parker didn’t set out to be a groundbreaker in her field. She simply had a fascination with nature. As a young girl growing up in Wilmot, Arkansas, she had a love of fishing and was drawn to the outdoors, inspired largely by her mother—an avid angler and outdoorswoman. Her curiosity eventually expanded to biology when a high-school teacher sparked her interest in environmental degradation.
Her growing passion eventually led her to earn a BS in biology, an MS in fish and wildlife management, and a PhD in limnology—the scientific study of inland waters. Upon completing her education, despite very few women of color working in conservation at that time, Dr. Parker sought a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
During her highly successful, 30-year tenure leading conservation efforts at the USFWS, Parker achieved many firsts in the field; she was the first Black woman to serve as the Assistant Director of Fisheries and Habitat Conservation and the first African American to lead a USFWS regional office. In 2006, in recognition of her career accomplishments, she received the US government’s highest honor for federal employees: the Presidential Rank Meritorious Service Award. The prior year, she was the first African American inducted into the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame.
These successes were hard-earned victories marked by many career challenges. Being a woman of color in an overwhelmingly white- and male-dominated field and agency at many times left her feeling isolated and misunderstood.
“What a person of color goes through, and what our thinking is, is rarely talked about. We need to have critical and crucial conversations about race and gender, just like we study ecology and landscapes to improve our understanding,” says Parker.
“If you are going to restore habitat, you have to know what to plant, what birds to attract. It is the same with understanding race; we must study and read. Why are we just starting to understand this in 2021?”
Determined to help others break into the field, mentorship was central to Parker’s work in conservation, especially helping people of color explore careers options. While at the USFWS, she helped establish the “Invest in People” mentoring and professional leadership development program, which included opportunities for administrative personnel to get outdoors and participate in field work.
Throughout her life, Parker has worked to advance opportunities for underserved students and encourage them to pursue careers in conservation and fisheries. She started STEM career awareness institutes at Tennessee Tech University and within USFWS and continues to conduct Wild STEM workshops throughout the world.
In 2016 she was awarded the Emmeline Moore Prize from the American Fisheries Society for her efforts to ensure equal opportunity access to higher education and professional development in fisheries science disciplines.
Parker is now expanding her mission to include helping people working in conservation understand the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion principles. Since retiring from USFWS in 2007, she has worked as an executive leadership coach, inspirational speaker, and environmental consultant with Ma Parker and Associates and EcoLogix Group, Inc. She serves on several conservation non-profit boards, including at the Center for Large Landscape Conservation.
Parker speaks openly about the racism and sexism she experienced in her career, partly for her own healing and also to help others confront past and present discrimination. “I had put it in the corner, but now I am removing the scab and the sore has not healed. A lot of people are healing now,” she says.
“Accountability is something we should all take seriously, and this comes with discomfort. I can talk about it now. It can feel overwhelming with everything else…climate change, conservation, intersectionality of equity, infrastructure problems. Sometimes I wonder, how do we deal with it all?”
Perhaps part of the answer lies in Parker’s current favorite quote, from Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem:
“There is always light if we are only brave enough to see it, if only we are brave enough to be it.”
Photos: Top right – courtesy of Dr. Mamie Parker; Bottom left – Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Public License