‘What’s the point if we’re not protecting each other?’

‘What’s the point if we’re not protecting each other?’

One evening this September, I made my inaugural attempt to be among the herpetology-curious citizen-scientists who successfully spotted that week’s lizard. I scanned my laptop, squinting at an image of a desert scene filled with clay-toned rocks. Where was it? I wondered I zoomed in for a closer look — and suddenly, emerging as if it had always been there, as it always had, a northwestern fence lizard came into focus, perfectly camouflaged and perched on a flat-topped rock, gazing around with a devil-may-care air. I had done it; I’d #Foundthatlizard.

Every week, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people participate in this zoological take on Where’s Waldo? Many of them document their accomplishments with a retweet bearing the #FindThatLizard hashtag. The winners get bragging rights, and that keeps them coming back; for such a simple game, it’s captivating.

McGee, who uses the Twitter handle @Afro_Herper, aims to reach new audiences and make scientific and environmental work accessible to a more diverse range of people. Black, brown and Indigenous communities too often lack access to green space and face high barriers to entry into science, technology, engineering and mathematics, even as they bear the brunt of the negative impacts of resource exploitation and climate change. McGee told me that she was always “an outside child” and dreamt of working with animals for as long as she could remember. There was no epiphany or pivotal moment that led to her pursuing ecology as a career, it was just simply always part of her life. She remembers admiring the charismatic scientists she watched on Animal Planet during her childhood in Georgia and California and that gave her the start of a framework, but it was playing outside and her curiosity about the natural world that inspired her to study biology as an undergraduate at Howard University. Later, at the University of Arizona, her graduate work began to tilt toward accessibility and representation; her dissertation delved into not only lizard diets and impacts of climate change but also inequities in the sciences for people who look like her. “It’s all connected,” McGee told Outside earlier this year. “It’s about understanding who is going to be our next generation of natural-resources scientists, and how to make that generation more diverse.”

McGee is a recipient of grants and fellowships too numerous to name, from institutions like the National Science Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Wildlife Federation. But it hasn’t been easy for her; when we spoke on the phone recently, she told me about the obstacles she’d had to overcome. “Everything in America is built on white supremacy,” she said. Academic environments and institutions are simply not set up for Black and brown people to succeed in. McGee wants to change this. As things are now, it’s a world that “cannot be an inclusive space because it was meant to be exclusive,” she told me. “You gotta learn the rules to disrupt the game.”

Through #FindThat Lizard, and the group Black AF in STEM that she co-founded in 2020 and other projects — such as a program she created to encourage middle-school-aged Black girls to pursue careers in natural resources — McGee is showing how academics can wield new tools for effective community building. “The people who are doing the research influence the types of questions that get asked and how we go about trying to answer those questions,” she said. The program aims to diversify the group that holds the power to ask those questions, making the field more representative of the marginalized communities that are disproportionately impacted by climate shifts. A big part of that involves stewardship, both of the land and of the people. “As much as I love animals and being able to go into the wilderness,” McGee said, “what’s the point if we’re not protecting each other?”

McGee currently has more than 60,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram, a testament to her reach. “What I really did was grow community, and that has been so much more valuable to me,” she said. Ultimately, McGee wants to bring people of color into “the rooms where decisions are happening, and change who is the behind natural resources workforce, because it’s not just white men being impacted.” According to Yale environmental sociologist Dorceta Taylor, people of color are significantly underrepresented in conservation work, making up only 16% of environmental organizations despite comprising 38% of the nation’s population. “There are people of color working at environmental organizations,” Taylor said, “but they continue to be concentrated in entry-level positions.”

McGee is part of a new generation of scientists who are determined to restore the relationship between science and the general public, particularly those who have been historically excluded. For McGee, community is key; it’s the small steps that can create lasting change, she firmly believes. “As a lone individual, you can't necessarily always make the progress that that you would like to see,” she said. “But by helping a couple of people, they can go on to help a couple more people — and so on and so forth. Eventually, you'll get enough people to where you can actually do something.”

Playing #FindThatLizard online certainly opened my eyes to the variety of critters in the natural world. Recently, while hiking in Wyoming’s Red Desert, I came across a horned toad. I snapped a photo before it disappeared into the sand and rocks of the desert floor. I sent the photo to McGee, knowing she would be as excited as I was. When she asked if she could use that image for a challenge, I said yes, grateful to give back in some small way. I had seen, and I felt seen. 

Emilé Zynobia is a writer, environmentalist, snowboarder and recent graduate of the Yale School of Environment residing in Jackson, Wyoming. As a Black feminist and outdoor enthusiast, she is passionate about increasing accessibility for communities of color to experience the transformative process of moving in nature.

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