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Putting Language, History, and Perspective into Place

“[W]hen I say language, I’m really meaning languaging, right? The practice of using language, judging language, reading language, understanding language, having language be the way in which we make meaning in the world. It may not be the only way we make meaning in the world as human beings, but it is a primary way that we do it.”

-Dr. Asao Inoue

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For more than 50 years, TSS has been committed to learning from the places around us. As part of our ongoing work to improve organizational and personal practices of diversity, equity and inclusion, we are also committed to learning — and more importantly, unlearning — from within.

To be more explicit, one of the areas of focus in our unlearning efforts is identifying where implicit bias shows up in our language, and when that language has caused harm. With platforms that span the classroom, the field, and multiple digital spaces, we recognize our reach is both wide and deep. We take our role as lifelong learners seriously, which is why the TSS Marketing and Communications Department has been looking at how to ensure our words align with our values.  

An Opportunity for Reflection

Following the 2021 Place-Based Education Symposium, we shared an Instagram post to thank our keynote speaker, Dr. Carolyn Finney. In her beginning remarks, Dr. Finney challenged attendees by asking, “What does it mean to rebuild equity?” She went on to delve into what rebuilding equity implies and what it requires of each of us.

In our post-event recap, we sought to celebrate Dr. Finney’s keynote and thank her for it. Among other things, the post included a number of microaggressions, including referring to Dr. Finney as “well-spoken” — a common microaggression that upholds the assertion that people of color are generally not as intelligent as white people. This post was harmful in contributing to pervasive messages that perpetuate negative stereotypes and compelled TSS to explore how the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion can be further implemented in TSS communications practice.

As our initial caption didn’t accurately express the gratitude felt across TSS, we’d like to first thank Dr. Finney properly for her keynote speech at our Symposium, and take a moment to acknowledge and examine the topics that Dr. Finney discussed with us that day.

Carolyn Finney

Place Starts from Within

When describing the current state of our country, Dr. Finney posed the crucial question, “What does it mean to go beyond simply being ‘aware’ or ‘woke’ and actually put our learnings into practice?” This is a question that we are currently asking ourselves at TSS, in our communications efforts and across program areas: How can we be more intentional by considering the origin and impact of our words?

Dr. Finney explained that it starts with understanding one’s own story in order to understand the personal biases and perspectives shaped by each of our unique life experiences. “You have to first be real with where you are, who you are, and where you are coming from… in order to come from a true place and find common ground.”

In dissecting “the subjectivity of perspective,” Dr. Finney shared the story of where she came from and her own biases, clarifying that “bias is not the same as racism and prejudice… bias is a point of view. It’s based in how we grew up, what we learn and who we are and all of our own experiences.”

Whose Land?

Dr. Finney’s words really hit home when she discussed the ownership of public land and the power intertwined with land ownership. “Making the primary lens of land centered around environment, conservation and preservation [determines] how we should be and who gets to legislate that… what “way” counts, whose story counts, who counts, who gets to participate in that kind of conversation… We can’t talk about the environment without talking about race.” 

As place-based educators, this made us take a step back and consider from what perspective we are teaching the value of “place” and to what degree we are acknowledging the history of “place.” Dr. Finney included a quote from Donna Haraway: “What form does love of nature take in a particular historical context? For whom and at what cost?”  

While uprooting our inherent biases can seem daunting, Dr. Finney ended her talk by reminding each of us that while change is uncomfortable, it is not a singular or linear process. It takes time as it goes beyond simply “outreach” and requires thoughtful examination, a desire to change, and to take risks.

We fully own the process of our unlearning journey, including the fact that the initial post contained language that may have caused harm. For this we apologize, and invite everyone at TSS and beyond into the process of unlearning and holding each other and ourselves accountable. We continue on our path of bringing the vital work of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging into the small details and big decisions of our lives and our organization.

As Dr. Finney said, “For me, it is about how we move forward and how we continue to do that. There is nothing about this that is easy. It’s going to cost everybody something, it’s already cost some people a lot … so let’s do it.”

Thank you for taking the time, Dr. Finney, to join, share wisdom and learn alongside us — it was an honor and an absolute pleasure.


We encourage those of you who were not able to make it to check out the recording as it was packed full of powerful illustrative examples, leaving attendees hanging on to every word. The Zoom chat was filled with moments of silence and enthusiastic gratitude throughout. The overall sentiment shared was that Dr. Finney’s words and her presence were transformative, resonating with each of us to our core and inspiring us to further integrate the teachings of DEI into our own personal learnings and curriculum.

For those wanting to learn more, Dr. Carolyn Finney is the author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.

The opening quote by Dr. Asao Inoue came from this Heinemann Podcast.
For more on microaggressions, we recommend the University of California, Santa Cruz’s helpful resource.

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