From Fishing With Mom To Becoming A Top Fisheries Official

Jul 14, 2015
Originally published on July 17, 2015 9:47 am

Mamie Parker, a former assistant director of fisheries and habitat conservation at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was the first African-American to head a regional office for that agency. But when she started out in the field, she says, she "did not see anyone that looked like me doing this type of work."

When she was in ninth grade, Parker says, "I heard the song by Marvin Gaye, 'Mercy, mercy me. Things are not like they used to be.' He talked about the pollution in the air, and the wind that was blowing poison and radiation and all of that." She decided she wanted to do something about it.

She met a recruiter for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who was looking for interns. "He wanted me to leave Arkansas and head off to Wisconsin," she says. "That was quite frightening for a Southern girl like myself that had hardly been north of Little Rock." But he told her something that made sense, and kicked off a decades-long career: "You can get paid to do what you like to do best," she says, laughing.

On a somber note, Parker also points out that "pioneers are very lonesome people." She has spent her career feeling a responsibility to do well. "As you know," she told me, "to whom much is given, much is expected."


Interview Highlights

On working to honor her mother

My mother was an avid angler, a sharecropper, had 11 children. I'm number 11. The rest of the boys and girls did not want to be outdoors, but she wanted a companion, and taught me life lessons out there. She passed away when I was fairly young, and I decided to do this in her honor.

On being the only African-American female expert in the building

I remember my first job here in the D.C. area, and the janitors in the building, they just kept coming and peeking in, and I thought "What are they looking at?" And finally I saw one in the bathroom, and she said, "I've been here for almost 40 years," and she said, "No African-American woman has been in here except to clean this office." And for her it was a proud moment.

On whether having a distinct profile has been a help or a hindrance

If I had to really think hard about it, it's been a help to me, because of being unique and different in the field. On the other hand, I think the standards for women and minorities are still very high, and therefore, I feel like I had to work really, really harder than most to be successful in this field.

On the challenges of increasing diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields

I think people from communities of color really suffer a lot from isolation, from feeling the need to prove themselves. And over time it becomes very difficult to continue to work at a pace like that, and you have to really believe that the benefits outweigh the cost. And then also, mentors are so important — having the right individual there for you when you think about quitting or you want to cry. A lot of times, I had to cry on the shoulders of those janitors in that building. You know, they were the ones that were there for me, telling me to get up and get back in the race again.

This week, you can share your stories and follow the digital footprint of Native Americans, Latinos, Asians and African-Americans on the cutting edge of innovation on Twitter using the hashtag #RaceOnTech.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

According to a recent study by U.S. News and World Report, students are showing more interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Black students in particular are making big gains earning advanced degrees. Women are also keeping pace, although large ethnic and gender gaps remain.

MONTAGNE: We wanted to know more about the diverse men and women who are already working in American tech and science - the pioneers. And this past spring, for our series #RaceOnTech, we issued a social media callout to link up with them. Nearly 200 people came our way, and we picked 14 of them to feature. NPR's Michel Martin learns more about one.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Today we meet biologist Mamie Parker, a fish and wildlife specialist sent our way from member station WEAA in Baltimore. Welcome, Dr. Parker, thanks so much for joining us.

MAMIE PARKER: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you know I want to know how you got into this field. Did you grow up in a rural area? Were you always fascinated by wildlife?

PARKER: I have to say that I was. My mother was an avid angler, sharecropper, had 11 children - I'm number 11. The rest of the boys and girls did not want to be outdoors, but she wanted a companion and taught me life lessons out there. She passed away when I was fairly young, and I decided to do this in her honor.

MARTIN: Well, how did you figure out how to make a career out of this interest of yours?

PARKER: Well, that is really interesting because I did not see anyone that looked like me doing this type of work. But when I was in ninth grade, I heard the song by Marvin Gaye "Mercy, Mercy Me" things are like they used to be, and he talked about the pollution in the air and the wind that was blowing poison and the radiation and all of that. And so it was at that point when I decided, you know, I want to see what I can do about this. So I found out about U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from a recruiter. Hannibal Bolton was his name and he was looking for interns. But he wanted me to leave Arkansas and head off to Wisconsin. And that was quite frightening for a Southern girl like myself that had hardly been north of Little Rock. But what he said made a lot of sense - you can get paid to do what you like to do best (laughter). Before I knew it, I had 20 years of service doing a lot in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

MARTIN: What's your specific expertise? I understand that you have a doctorate in ecology. What do you do?

PARKER: Well, what do I do (laughter)? Well, I am a generalist. I work mostly on environmental impacts. So if they're building a bridge or a highway in an area where they're going to cross a river or a stream then I have a job to say, well, it'd be better if you placed it here, there or it would be better if you didn't do this at all, but if you were going to do it, here are some of the things that you can do to mitigate the impacts to the resources.

MARTIN: I just wanted to go back to something you said earlier that it was unusual to see somebody like you in that field. Do you mean as a woman or do you mean as an African-American or most especially as an African-American woman?

PARKER: Quite frankly, it was both. I remember my first job here in the D.C. area and the janitors in the building, they just kept coming and peeking in and I thought, what are they looking at (laughter)? And finally I saw one in the bathroom and she said I've been here for almost 40 years and she said no African-American woman has been in here except to clean this office. And for her, it was a proud moment.

MARTIN: Can I ask how that made you feel?

PARKER: Well, I think that it made me feel somewhat motivated to make sure that doesn't happen again where they will be able to see others. So I was inspired, but it is also a sad feeling because you mention pioneers. Michel, pioneers are very lonesome people. As you know, and you've heard people say, to whom much is given much is expected. So I saw it, too, as a responsibility to try to do well and be well in that role.

MARTIN: Well, you've also been recognized for your leadership in protecting our waters from invasive species. Has your distinctive profile within this field been a help or a hindrance to you when you're really honest with yourself?

PARKER: If I had to really think hard about it, it's been a help to me because of being unique and different in the field. On the other hand, I think the standards for women and minorities are still very high. And therefore, I feel like I have to work really, really harder than most to be successful in this field. And not just me, but most women in...

MARTIN: Well, why is that though? Because people thought you couldn't take the rigors of fieldwork, or what was the hurdle you were fighting to get over?

PARKER: I had many of them. First of all, you're right. Men didn't assume that we could get out there and work the boats and get out in the water. They didn't think we could work by ourselves out in the woods. They thought we'd be afraid of things like that. Not all men, I want to make it clear, but many did. I also was a Southerner going to the north, had a strong accent in their minds, so dealing with the actual stereotypes of different people from different parts of the country was even a challenge for me. And then the biggest challenge is not having family or friends in many of those places because I was pretty isolated.

MARTIN: So bringing it to the present moment, there's been a lot of new attention to the whole question of diversity within the STEM workforce - and once again, that's science, technology, engineering and math. Given your long history in this field, what are your thoughts about that?

PARKER: I think people from community of color really suffer a lot, again, from isolation, from feeling the need to prove themselves. And over time, it becomes very difficult to continue to work at a pace like that, and you have to really believe that the benefits outweigh the costs. And then also mentors are so important - having the right individual there for you when you think about quitting or you want to cry. And a lot of times I had to cry on the shoulders of those janitors in that building. You know, they were the ones that were there for me, telling me to get up and get back in the race again, you know? So there are people out there that can help children and adults now in the field.

MARTIN: Mamie Parker holds a doctorate in ecology. She is now retired. She's a former assistant director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and she joined us here in Washington, D.C. Dr. Parker, thanks so much for speaking with us.

PARKER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You can also share your stories and follow the digital footprint of Native American, Latino, Asian and African-Americans on the cutting edge of innovation using the hashtag #RaceOnTech. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.