“Language is the basis of trust building and so important in interactions with new partners and communities.”

The Ocean Equity Collective is a coalition of BIPOC-led organizations and people focused on holistic ocean conservation, protection, and appreciation. Their goal is to foster the next generation of ocean stewardship and create a community-centered sustainability movement where all people can access and cherish the ocean’s ecosystems. Their mission is to address historical inequities in the ocean conservation movement and include historically excluded communities in the protection and enjoyment of the ocean’s ecosystems.

To aid community support work, they have created a language guide to help individuals, organizations, and corporations better communicate with communities and decolonize their language.

This guide aims to build trust and create more fruitful conversations and partnerships across communities and sectors. The guide is a first iteration and will continue to grow with community input as they engage more BIPOC community members to collectively build a resource that all communities can utilize and learn from.

Shifting the marine conservation narrative to be more just, inclusive, and equitable first begins with awareness and reflection about how the language we use impacts the communities we seek to partner with and serve.

We look forward to engaging more BIPOC community members as we expand on this growing
document and collectively build a resource that all communities can utilize and learn from.

Read the guide below!

Disempowering Language and ‘Insteads’ (or examples)

Disempowering language should be avoided as it is dismissive of the power and autonomy BIPOC communities hold, while also centering and giving power to predominantly white institutions, which reinforces a white savior complex and prevents meaningful engagement.

Below are examples of commonly used words or phrases that we often hear and/or read but should avoid using.

Why not use this word: This word should not be used because it implies that we have no power and are “less than”. Currently, BIPOC communities do not encompass the majority of the United States population, but we do account for three-fourths of the world population. It is important to acknowledge that we have greatly shaped culture and practices in this nation. For some, minority/minorities is simply a term that denotes numbers and basic math or community census. However, this term is reserved when discussing BIPOC populations, despite the fact that there are other demographics who are not called minorities and get called less than.

Alternative word(s): BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Communities of Color). Note that BIPOC is only appropriate when discussing multiple communities of different identities–as often as possible name the population you are talking about.

Why not use this word: Using the word vulnerable implies something is wrong with the people of discussion. Most of the struggles BIPOC communities experience are not to their own fault, instead communities experience the effects of systemic racism. Therefore, language needs to take away any fault of communities.

Alternative words: Susceptible or “X people are more likely to experience…”

Why not use this word:
Environmental racism is about circumstances not individuals–structural and economic inequalities cause disadvantage, but to call someone disadvantaged places the emphasis on them, as if it is an individual’s direct failing that has caused their circumstances, not systematic inequity.

Alternative words: Ex. “X community has been at the forefront of the systemic inequity causing _ to affect them more so than other communities/ X people.

Why not use this word: This is another word that ignores the systemic inequities that many frontline and BIPOC communities have been oppressed by. While the term is supposed to refer to people who don’t “enjoy the same standard of living or rights as the majority of people in a society,” but has increasingly become a lazy shorthand to refer to any minority, regardless of economic status. This also implies that no person of color lives above the poverty line, further perpetuating the narrative that people of color are a drain on the economy and social services.

Alternative words: people living below the poverty line, people who do not have access to a quality standard of living.

Why not use this word: “The notion of empowerment presumes that the organization has the power and benevolently ladles some of it into the waiting bowls of grateful employees. That’s just a slightly more civilized form of control.”— Daniel Pink

You should not be empowering anyone, each person has their own power of voice and experience, but not necessarily the opportunity or platform to share.

Alternative words: sharing power, encouraging people in power to give this opportunity to someone with lived experience on this issue

Lifting up
Why not use this word: This word has the implication of white saviorism. Just as the term empower is just a nicety of doling out power at the convenience of the oppressor, so is the phrase ‘lifting up’. The problem here is that lifting up is a phrase of clear impermanence, when the person in a position of power no longer wants to hear a voice or ‘look good’ they can shove that ‘lifted voice’ back down and snatch their power back.

Alternative words: moving aside for X person/community member

Speaking for
Why not use these words: BIPOC communities can and do speak for themselves. It is not the role of anyone outside of that community to speak on their behalf. The goal is to not speak for communities, but instead to work alongside communities as they continue to voice their will and needs.

Alternative words: ‘ceeding my time’ so that X person with lived experience can speak to this issue, I want to ‘invite X person to speak’ as I know they have experience in this area

“These communities”
Why not use these words:
The lack of specificity when discussing poor people and BIPOC people lends itself to the notion that these communities are beyond help, unspeakable, and embarrassing. This wording, again, places the onus on a person, not a systemic inequity and purposeful oppression of specific peoples and communities.

Alternative words: __ communities’ ex. Black communities, people living under the poverty line, etc. Specify the exact community you are referencing and speak of the clear connection to said communities oppression and harm that has led to the issue at hand.

Lowercase of the Black, Brown, and Indigenous

Why not use these words: It is disrespectful and dehumanizing to not capitalize words when discussing people. It takes away a key part of a person’s identity when you describe them as a you would the coloring of an inanimate object.

Alternative words: When discussing people (individuals and communities), Black, Brown, and Indigenous, should be treated out of respect as a proper noun.

Definitions and Examples

Social Justice is Environmental Justice: Social justice for people and communities is integral to the protection of the ocean, and our planet at large. Conservation and resilience work for the environment cannot be separate from the communities that surround and care for these sites. We affirm that communities are a part of the larger ecosystem of the environment and people cannot be separated from the conversations to conserve specific areas.

Co-stewardship/co-management: Co-stewardship/co-management describes the working relationships between First Nation Peoples/Tribes and the nation state that forcibly removed them from their lands and continues to occupy them today. At its core, co-stewardship/co-management refers to the joint care and supervision of Indigenous lands by tribal authorities and current government departments. When enacted properly, co-stewardship/co-management should protect treaty, religious, subsistence and cultural rights of the indigenous entity. It should also ensure consultation, collaboration, self-governance, and acknowledgement of tribal authority over their lands. Co-stewardship/co-management work should be mutually led and should be a first step in a wider process of land rematriation/land back initiatives.

Conservation: Conservation as defined by this group is holistic, collaborative, and inclusive efforts to protect and revitalize earth’s natural resources and ecosystems while respecting and prioritizing long-standing cultural relationships to place and fostering trust with all people.

Accessibility: Accessibility as defined by this group is the quality of being able to connect to the ocean and coastal spaces and other natural spaces for mental and physical wellbeing and revitalization. This is taking into account different perspectives and connections as well as recognizing the barriers and unjust practices that have been experienced by many communities.. Some of the ways that we can provide equitable and just accessibility is to consider some of the different barriers for communities to truly connect to ocean and coastal spaces. Here are some of those examples:

  • Historical (or historical to social) segregation, kept out “legally”, turned to being kept out implicitly
  • Physical- Physically getting to the ocean and coastal spaces is one of the first things we can think about when it comes to accessibility. How open are these spaces physically and are there any physical barriers such as distance, highways, gates impeding from reaching the outdoors, the type and nature of paths leading to ocean and coastal spaces.
  • Financial- The financial ability to get into spaces or transport to places is a barrier for many low-income communities who oftentimes cannot afford to get to those spaces.
  • Language and Signage – Signage should take into consideration the various communities it is serving and require that the language in the signage is reflective of the communities that it is serving.

Lived Expert: A lived expert is someone who has spent a portion or the entirety of their life experiencing growth and wisdom in a particular geographical area or subject matter. Often these experts are looked to/trusted in their communities to be able to critically assess problems being faced.

Learned Expert: A learned expert is someone who has gone through extensive training and education to learn about a subject or geographical area. These learned experts often have degrees from institutions of higher learning and are practitioners of western science fields.

Marine Protected Area: Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are places in the ocean that receive protection to safeguard biodiversity from abatable threats. MPA’s seek long-term protection of coastal and marine ecosystems and are typically marked by restricted human activity. While MPA’s have much potential to conserve coastal areas and protect ecosystems against serious threats like overfishing, they also have the potential to limit or stop Indigenous and other community-led stewardship efforts. MPA’s tend to operate under a “look, but don’t touch” conservation model, which clashes with Indigenous approaches to stewardship that recognize humans as an integral part of nature and its ecosystems. Under a Traditional Ecological Knowledge framework, the removal of humans is not a valid long-term conservation solution. Therefore, MPA initiatives should be carefully considered and include community input.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) represents an ever-growing body of data, wisdom, practice, and knowledge acquired by Indigenous/Local Peoples through the multiple generations they have spent connected to their respective environments. Passed down and built upon across generations, TEK denotes deep connection to place, and cannot be narrowly defined. TEK is a combination of cultural identity, ancestral wisdom, ethics, cosmology, factual observation, experiential knowledge, environmental setting, and multigenerational practices. Within a TEK framework, the environment is part of a wider social, physical, and spiritual relationship that humans are an integral part of.

Contribute to the guide!

Your feedback will be used to make this guide better and more robust in the coming months and years, allowing for true language clarity and the ability to build trust across conservation.    

Please share anything that you would like to see in this guide; definitions, examples, phrases to avoid or a new section we may not have included in the current iteration.

We also want you to feel free to tell us what we may have gotten wrong; be it a definition, wording substitutions etc. Your input is important to us!

Submit your feedback here!