Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Mission
A key element of our mission at the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning is to provide an inclusive space for all to learn about and care for our environment. We work to foster supportive relationships throughout our community, honoring and valuing the heritage and diverse perspectives of the students, teachers, and families we serve.
Cooper Center Inclusion Statement
In accordance with our mission, The Cooper Center for Environmental Learning fosters the growth of individuals of all abilities. We will create a respectful learning environment, accommodating all individuals’ needs to expand their knowledge and connection to nature.
Our aspiration as an inclusive environmental learning center is to provide opportunities for learners of all ages and abilities to have safe, comfortable, and enjoyable experiences in the natural world. We will ensure that all learners who come to the Cooper Center will have the agency to participate fully and as independently as possible in our programs alongside their peers. We believe that everyone has the right to access nature and deserves to engage with both natural and human communities while having their needs met.
We recognize that myriad barriers exist which limit some learners from accessing natural spaces and environmental learning opportunities. In order to serve learners of all backgrounds and abilities, the Cooper Center is taking the initiative to remove these barriers, be they physical, institutional, programmatic, or otherwise. We acknowledge that we are always learning and growing, and we are committed to continuous change as we hear from new and different voices about their needs. In order to achieve our vision of becoming an inclusive environmental learning center, we will set both short-term and long-term goals, and follow through on them by taking specific actions.
We want the Cooper Center to be a place where our diversity is celebrated, everyone feels considered, heard, and respected, and where every learner is capable of having a meaningful natural experience.
We encourage you to reach out to us with questions, comments, or concerns about our statement, goals, and actions. We acknowledge that there is more to do in order to become inclusive than we have spelled out here or that we may realize at this time.
Goals & Actions
Our Goals and Actions are ever-evolving, as such more details will be provided over time.
Staff training and professional development: To develop, expand, and maintain staff knowledge about working with diverse populations, Cooper staff will continue to search out and attend, as able, professional development opportunities focused on instructional strategies and inclusive practices. We will remainup to date on the most recent research and literature available to us to ensure our programs and instructional approaches are appropriate and accessible.
All Cooper Center instructional staff participated in an inclusivity training, “Inclusive Practices in Environmental Learning” in February of 2020, which taught staff to use Person First language and encouraged staff to challenge any negative, previously held attitudes or beliefs about individuals with disabilities and individuals from different cultural-linguistic backgrounds than their own. This training prepared our staff to make the necessary changes to programs and/or materials to suit the needs of diverse learners.
Improvements to facilities: To the best of our ability, we will advocate and fundraise for improvements to our facilities which do not currently satisfy the 2010 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards so that people of all abilities may fully participate in Cooper Center activities. We will ensure that all people feel considered, welcomed, and able to have a memorable experience alongside their peers, families, and community members.
We've been fortunate to receive funding for facilities improvements, beginning with our restroom. This and all projects going forward will incorporate elements of design which allow individuals of any ability to have a comfortable and safe experience at our center.
We are creating a trail system map for ease of access to our activities.
We met with TUSD maintenance and facility personnel in September 2020 in order to bring our ADA compliance concerns to their attention. We are working with them to create an action plan for facility improvements.
Phase one of our Nature Play Space project will begin in 2020, creating an accessible play area for students of all ages to enjoy. A wheelchair accessible pathway is included in these plans.
Cooper staff have created work orders for door handle improvements for our buildings, a wheelchair accessible water fountain, and a safety railing for our staircase leading into the main trail system.
Improvements to programming and materials: The Cooper Center currently offers educational programming for students aged preschool through 8th grade, and is developing a program for 9th-12th grade. As we modify current programs and develop new programs, we acknowledge that individuals with disabilities are often left out of outdoor and scientific activities. In an ongoing effort, we will ensure that program materials, old and new, are inclusive of and accomodate all learners.
Our existing programs and their accompanying materials are being reviewed by our staff during the2020-21 school year, while in-person programs are halted by COVID-19, so that accommodations and modifications for learners with disabilities can and will be made prior to the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.
We are working with consultants to develop new programs that incorporate accommodations and modifications for individuals with disabilities.
We are working to accommodate varying levels of technology access. In the creation of new virtual programming we will include accurate closed captioning and narration of documents.
Representation of the communities we serve: All members of our community need representation, a means to express themselves, and a way to engage at the Cooper Center. We will establish a collaborative space for discussion with people with disabilities and from different cultural-linguistic backgrounds, which will enable us to make positive changes that better serve all of the students who visit our Center.
We strive to have instructional staff who are representative of the communities we serve.
We will use hiring practices that make our job opportunities more accessible to people of diverse abilities and backgrounds.
The Cooper Center will work to be more present within the communities of our students and families and in this way create enduring relationships.
Increased demographic information and understanding: We feel it’s important to work with teachers to obtain more detailed demographic information about students’ needs and abilities. This demographic data will allow us to expand our programming and make it more accessible for all students.
The Cooper Center is piloting a Classroom Demographics form with teachers. The data collected on these forms allow our staff to better understand who we are serving, and what we can do to enhance their experience at the Cooper Center.
Cooper Center Nature Names Position Statement
Nature Names: A Camp Cooper Tradition Coming to an End
We, the staff of the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning, apologize to those we’ve hurt with our practice of using nature names over the past fourteen years. We now understand the negative impact this practice has had for many Indigenous students, family members, teachers, and members of our community.
As of the fall of 2021, we have discontinued the practice as a step towards creating a welcoming and safe environment for everyone who visits the Cooper Center. Our duty as an educational site, located on the traditional lands of the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui peoples, is to actively show respect for their cultures, as they have stewarded these lands far before our center existed and continue to do so today. Having received a number of questions about this decision, we’ve decided to author and share the following statement.
In 2008, the staff at the Cooper center adopted the practice of using nature names, encouraging staff and students to identify with elements in the natural world and bridge the gap between humans and the environment. While the staff intended for this to be a lighthearted way to connect field trip groups and guests with the desert, they unknowingly diluted the sacred practice of many Indigenous peoples’ naming ceremonies. The staff members who’ve worked at Cooper since that time, including some of us who are still at Cooper today, all perpetuated this form of cultural appropriation until very recently.
While one source doesn’t speak for everyone, we learned from the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation that for many Indigenous groups, traditional names are not given at birth, but at a naming ceremony. While this practice differs between communities, most often when an individual comes of age, the recipient is gifted or may select their name, typically related to elements in the natural world (Native American Naming Ceremonies).
In September 2021, we hired Alexianne Ramirez, a Chicana with Indigenous ancestry, as an educator. Within her first days working at the Cooper Center, she shared that our use of nature names diminished the value of Indigenous people’s naming ceremonies, despite our intention behind the practice. We felt moved by her personal strength and willingness to bring up this concern, and decided as a team that we needed to have deeper discussions on eliminating the practice. We also met with and learned from members of The Nahui Ollin Wellness Program at Chicanos Por La Causa (CPLC), who agreed that our use of nature names was cultural appropriation. Through continued learning and dialogue, our team chose to trust Indigenous community members as knowledge holders and authorities in their own healing. We empathize with their experiences of gross mistreatment and chose to end the use of nature names at the Cooper Center.
More than a Cooper Center Problem
Nature names, sometimes referred to as “camp names,” are a common tradition in American summer camp culture. Although the process of selecting one’s “nature name” or “camp name” varies, all versions of this practice harm Indigenous people by making light of serious, traditional ceremonies. Nature names are not unique to the Cooper Center - this is a nationwide problem. Summer camps and similar organizations are built on stolen Indigenous land, knowledge, and practices, reducing them to caricatured fantasies for non-Native, mostly white, middle and upper class adults to impose on youth. Many of these organizations continue to make a mockery of Indigenous peoples’ ancestry, history, emotions, and lives. While our appropriation of a stolen native tradition wasn’t intended to cause harm, it did cause harm - we caused harm. Stopping the use of nature names at Cooper is just one step among many on the path to addressing systemic racism and cultural appropriation within our own organization and environmental education as a whole.
The practice of using nature names, although seemingly harmless to some, is just one of myriad ways in which Indigenous people continue to have their culture stripped away. Along with finding one’s “spirit animal” from an online quiz and referring to meetings as “powwows,” these behaviors demonstrate how the dominant, settler colonial culture only cares to preserve Indigenous names, practices, and other cultural assets when they can exploit them to serve their own self-interests.
Call to Action
While this statement specifically addresses appropriation of Indigenous culture in the Americas, we recognize that other historically marginalized cultures are subject to appropriation as well. We condemn all forms of cultural appropriation. We encourage you to join us and support all communities affected by cultural appropriation by educating yourself, and by recognizing ignorances and wrongdoings throughout our world.
While we acknowledge that not everyone is aware of the harm they cause through appropriation, we implore everyone to join us in actively accepting responsibility by committing to growth and understanding. From our experience in this process, we can say with certainty that we are often fraught with difficult emotions when learning about injustices, particularly when we learn that we have been the perpetrators. These feelings, while unpleasant, are crucial in helping us soften, allowing us to sincerely empathize with and apologize to those who we’ve hurt. Consider this your reminder to be patient, as there’s no timeline for change or healing. We all benefit when we move from a place of love and grace.
In closing, we want to apologize once again to everyone who we hurt by our use of nature names. We now realize the negative impact that we had on many Indigenous students, family members, teachers, and members of our community. We acknowledge and understand our past, and moving forward, we are committed to continual change. We can connect with the children and adults we engage with in our community in myriad ways, none of which need to cause harm to any person or group that we serve. No matter the names that we are known by, we are passionate educators who inspire learners through our words and actions.
To learn more about the Indigenous people of this region and changes the Cooper Center is making please visit the sites listed below.
This statement was written in collaboration with Colin Waite, Alexianne Ramirez, Paige Humphrey, and Jennifer Galan; on behalf of the entire Cooper Center Staff: Mariah Kuehl, Brittne MacCleary, Isaac Silva, and Kyle Mirzaian.
- Learn more about our JEDI work here: https://coopercenter.arizona.edu/about-us/diversity-equity-inclusion
- View our Land Acknowledgement here: https://coopercenter.arizona.edu/about-us/history
Start learning more about traditional naming ceremonies and the original people of the Sonoran Desert, the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui below:
- Information on naming ceremonies: Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation,“Native American Naming Ceremonies” https://nlltribe.com/native-american-naming-ceremonies/
- “Ceremonies and Socials” https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/indigstudies/chapter/ceremonies-and-socials/
- Tohono O’odham website: http://www.tonation-nsn.gov/
- Pascua Yaqui website: https://www.pascuayaqui-nsn.gov/
- Tohono O’odham Young Voices Podcast on Spotify
Resources at the University of Arizona:
- Indige-FEWSS - This NSF Research Traineeship at the University of Arizona aims to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers to work with and within Indigenous communities to address food-energy-water challenges. https://environment.arizona.edu/indigefewss
- Indigenous Resilience Center - Providing support for Indigenous students, staff and faculty while modeling and teaching respectful tribal engagement, the Center will be a hub for tribal resilience solutions, scholarships, tribal outreach and teaching. The goal is to build and support a collaborative team of STEM faculty who will work within the Center to create a robust community of Native and Indigenous STEM scholars and students that respectfully honor Traditional Knowledge and tribal sovereignty in all their endeavors. https://environment.arizona.edu/irc
- Native SOAR - The University of Arizona (UArizona) College of Education's Native Student Outreach Access, and Resiliency (SOAR) is a nationally recognized, high impact multigenerational mentoring program culturally grounded in Indigenous teachings and Ways of Knowing. We center the needs of Indigenous students and provide highly engaging and effective programming for Indigenous students, families, and educators at no cost. https://coe.arizona.edu/native-soar
- Native American Student Affairs - https://nasa.arizona.edu/
- Indigenous Teachers Education Program (ITEP) - https://itep.coe.arizona.edu/