Proving there isn’t just one way to drive positive impact

Dr. Thomas Rashad Easley is a Forester, Professor, and Rapper. He has spent most of his career as a diversity professional with a focus on the recruitment, retention and diverse talent in the natural resource disciplines. He is currently the Assistant Dean for Community and Inclusion at Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Forester, Professor, & Rapper – you’re kind of a big deal!? What initially inspired you to make a difference and what career path did you follow to get where you’re at today?

As far as my path goes, nothing was laid out. I’ll tell you that much. I think I have to answer what I’ve been through, though.

I think a lot of us have plans before our life. So for me, I think that I stopped planning my life when I got in bad trouble in high school. I was 15 and got kicked out of school. I made a poor decision and I took the blame for the entire problem, but I wasn’t the only one involved. After that, I stopped trusting people.

Because of that situation, I didn’t know where I could go to college because I was now down and out. I felt bad because this is the worst trouble I had been in and also no one was really helping apply for school. Furthermore, I was overweight, depressed, and ready to die. I’m not saying that as a joke. I just thought that nothing mattered.

Right after I graduated, I saw this summer program. It was a handout from Alabama’s A&M University, which is a historically black college. The summer program was sponsored by the USDA and they offered to pay $2500. I had always been a smart kid. When I got into trouble, it really shook my family because how could I make such a bad decision. I was the smartest male in the class and yet I did the dumbest thing. This program changed everything for me.

I filled out the paperwork and got accepted. My parents and I weren’t getting along at the time, so it was good for me to get away. That was a significant moment in my life because it took years for me to trust people.

It was at that program where forestry started for me. I had never heard of forestry, despite being an Eagle Scout. My research was focused on tissue culture, which is how I got into genetics. I was very enthused around breaking an organism down to a molecular level. That was fascinating to me.

I was at a historically black school in a field that’s not filled with many black people.  While at A&M, things weren’t going all that well. While I attended classes every day, I had issues with money, financial aid was always a problem. They don’t have as great of computers. Further, culturally sometimes it can be a tough exchange talking to people about your problems and they are dealing with their own issues and bringing it to work.

I got the opportunity to go to University of Georgia (UGA) as an exchange student and that changed my life. I was at Alabama A&M for the first 2 years of college. It was a majority black school. I didn’t subscribe to joining a fraternity, so I felt like an outcast at A&M. Remember, I don’t trust people and I no longer have a desire to be in groups. Independence became my path. When I had the opportunity to leave, I wanted out.

However, when I got to Georgia, my mind was blown. All of my life, I had been going to Atlanta, but I had never been to Athens, GA.

Leaving Alabama A&M where there were less than 4,000 people to UGA where there were 31,000 students was insane. I was use to taking the bus to school and then to home as a kid. At UGA you take buses to go to class the campus was so massive.

That year I was the only black person in the school of Forestry. I was 19 or 20 years old. I was a smart guy and I loved to learn and work and yet my first semester I performed the worst I had in my whole career. It wasn’t because I was partying or missing class. A good friend of mine, he’s black, and he was graduating asked me ‘What is your problem, T?’ He became my psychologist. It turns out that the reason I struggled was because my head was in the wrong place. At UGA, I couldn’t stop focusing on the fact that I was the only black kid in the class.

He said to me, “The next time they look at you funny, go introduce yourself. Thomas, they don’t know you. You’re a new guy and a black guy. They are probably nervous of you too. You’re going to have to be the bigger person. Stay and show them what I know. That you’re a smart guy. You were tutoring us in calculus. You’re teaching people calculus and statistics.”

Even though it was hard to do it, I took his advice. I took 13 credits and got below a 2.0. The next year, I took 16 credits and I got a 3.75 and had the highest GPA in the class. That’s when I realized that I might be smart. I also reached out and got help. I started talking to my classmates. I became more friendly, I began to trust white people. I opened my mind and my heart. Some of my lifelong friends are the people I met at UGA.  

UGA helped me grow up. I really wanted to stay at UGA because, thanks to the turnaround in my academics, UGA offered me a scholarship. However, I went to my Dean at the time and these were my words,

“I’m not going to stay at UGA. I’m going back to Alabama A&M. I know we have the resources and facilities. I really wish I could stay and do that, but I have one problem. I had to prove to you that I was smart. That’s not unconditional. You know how you tell people that you want people to feel comfortable. You didn’t make me feel at home at all. It wasn’t until I showed you that I passed, now you want to listen to me and hold on to me. So, I’m going back to Alabama A&M.”

It was a big decision for me, but it felt like the right call to finish my degree at Alabama A&M.

After graduating, I ended up working with the forest service. That was fun because Montana was a lovely place. It was also the place where I was the only black person in the city. My role in the Forest was both in TImber Sales Preparation and Law Enforcement. While I’m glad that I had those skills, I loved being in the forest, but I recognized that I still wanted to do genetics. After working with World Renown Research Dr. Scott Merkle and beginning my career with Dr. Rufina Ward in tissue culture, I wanted back in genetics.

Next I went to Iowa State University. When I got there, I thought that I’d just stay in the summer program. However, I outperformed my peers and did a great presentation jsut like I did to get the Forest Service Scholarship. So I think that my speaking gift started when I was a child, but you’ll see as I speak, I can get support. Rick Hall, I love Dr. Hall, he wanted to let me into the program, but Iowa State only let me in provisionally. Again, I had to prove to them I was worthy… I went to Dr. Hall, and said I had a 4.0 my Senior Year at A&M and I did well this summer, what is the problem? He said their concern was that after what happened when I first started at UGA, they were concerned that I may not be successful. I told him “Y’all don’t look at the fine print. I succeeded at UGA, look at my 2nd semester grades and my final year at A&M and you’ll see I will do just fine here with the right support. I know y’all need my representation here and if you don’t give me a full ride, then you don’t get the benefit. “ Thankfully, it worked out and I stayed at Iowa State through my Masters Degree. I just want to say that places that want to offer people support to people, need to try something that is hard, consider the conditions of the person you’re trying to support instead of always thinking of your resources first. Its not like the resources have human agency and those resources will help a person to be successful.

As for a plan, I honestly didn’t have one. I just thank God that it worked out that way. If it was up to my mother at that time, I wouldn’t have finished my Masters Degree and now I’m so thankful I did. My mom is my biggest advocate and like me as she stepped into new terrain it took time for her to feel comfortable. Sometimes a person’s career, education and success are new terrains.

Even as a hip hop artist, if I had listened to older people in particular, I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s now part of my brand.

Tell me a bit about your work and how you’re working to make a positive impact? 

As the Assistant Dean of Community and Inclusion, they want me to help them enhance and grow diversity and to me you can’t do that without expanding your networks. What they don’t realize is that they also need encouragement and support. What they are starting to realize is that the structure at Yale inherently creates boundaries that tie the hands of those that try to push the boundary. Therefore, if changing the environment is needed to bring in more diversity, people must be committed to diversity and not just concerned about it . To only uphold the policies of the institution can block progress. Also, when a person works in diversity and they are reaching goals and accomplishing tasks is to try to micro-manage them. It’s difficult because you must support them to do the job and you’re also subject to the same rules. When people see others being freer then they feel, sometimes they will block it and call it being compliant. I do get it, and enhancing diversity in environmental settings should be more than bringing in representation.

What most people outside of New Haven don’t know is that it’s mostly a black city. It has a black mayor and black police chief. I did not know that until I came here. Since I’ve been here and getting out in the community, I was shocked.

I’m mainly here to help people think through what they want to achieve.

I’m both the victim and part of the solution, so now it comes down to whether or not they are ready to listen to my perspective or if they want to push and we create newness together. It’s always going to be more of the latter which is why I tell people put limits on your clock in settings like this. Self preservation is key as well as picking your battles is wise. Some places may have to fall and continue failing before they realize they are part of the problem they are trying to solve. As a person of color it is important to help the institution I am employed, and to never turn my back on the community that got me here.

I don’t hang on the fact that Yale brought me here. I hang on my 15 years of experience. In a staff faculty meeting, I had to make it clear that people do not need to be scared to come see me. I’ve discovered they are scared and nervous about messing up.

Honestly, Yale hasn’t done well with diversity, but they are not alone. Not any private, Ivy League institutions, have this down to a science and for years they never had to worry about it. Not many public universities have diversity to a science either.

If a black person came and then they left, they blamed it on other factors like they didn’t know about the job, incompetence, or something internal with them.

It’s tough to consider that the environment is harmful or hostile to people that don’t reflect those that created this discipline and institution primarily to keep certain people out and others’ in.

Even the way they hire and promote the faculty tenure system causes diversity and inclusion challenges. If I could sit with every faculty that has tenure, and learn what they think of diversity, I would learn a lot. I believe I would learn more of what I need to connect with them. Sadly, I believe that’s part of the reason the academy is jacked up. Tenure was never supposed to be about job protection in a sense of you doing what you want and not having to be accountable, it was supposed to protect the research that you administered and help you do your job better. Now tenured professors make the decisions and, in many ways, control the school which is not advantageous for the institution when it’s not just faculty that run or govern an institution and they never have. There have always been others that help with the movement of the school. Some are behind the scenes and some get research grants and awards. They all are significant.

Is it that the staff don’t have diversity? Or that the tenured faculty aren’t ready to be inclusive?

It’s likely a bit of both. The hard part about all of this is trying to communicate the subtle signs that people aren’t bought in.  It’s about body language. It’s about personal histories, it’s about emotions, and it’s about perceptions. All of which can be up for interpretation. Some people don’t know how to build genuine relationships, not just relationships that get them what they want.

You have low representation, so you don’t have people that are willing to vocalize their different lens.  

People think this is a plush position because people think they know my job. Its a hard job because the people that are your allies can also be a barrier. The same people that need to be educated also need to be affirmed so they can stay engaged. I do not have an issue helping people work through diversity even when its uncomfortable, but I expect reciprocity in this work. One thing that’s important to me is that I will not let anyone feel that they have power over me. To get anything done with me, you have to work with me. I respect positions, and I will follow rules but I honor people. Isn’t it strange that through having positive work relationships, work environments can change.

We’re still getting our agenda together. We’re working on introductions with Historically Black Colleges. We are going to conferences where there are diverse students and taking representatives to these conferences. In the past, they were typically sending members of the admissions team and now we realize that we need to send people to conferences that are representative.

Students have no idea that there are other people minorities or people of color in Agriculture and Related sciences. Everyone comes from a different bubble and even our students of color sometimes need support as they learn more about themselves and their own community while being in a white homogenous setting where they stuck out.

Yale views Harvard as their peer school, along with Princeton, and Columbia. When I think of schools like NC State and Texas A&M I wonder how people feel about these schools.  I’m helping the administrators realize who their peers truly are as it relates not just to prestige and reputations, but to impacting our discipline and being innovative. I’m helping them rethink it. Your peers are the people that are about to steal the people you’re trying to get. Duke, NCSU and Alabama A&M is about to beat you. That’s where you should be going to connect with people.

What helps is that I am a forester, a southerner, black man, an author, an artist, a scholar and none of my co-workers are all of this in one, but we are all pieces of one another. None of these identities will save you, but they will take you places. So they have parts of what I have and I have parts of what they have. I am surrounded by that and that’s why my attitude is the way it is. I don’t care anything about status. I care if you’ve helped people.

Since I’ve been up here, I have to give Yale credit –at Yale, they really do try to address how to change culture and switch culture. The conversations here are on a whole new level. I spend 8 hours a day having higher level conversations. The people are here are wonderfully curious, the students are powerfully passionate and the faculty/staff or very concerned about the students as well as their work. Its great to be in a place where people work very hard and try to understand. Its challenging being in a place (this is wherever I go) where people would rather be heard then be corrected.

How do you stay energized? That’s still heavy work to be doing.

I pray, meditate and exercise to take care of myself. I do yoga. I watch comedy. I talk to my family, loved ones, friends and I feed my passion of hip hop.

I’m also a vegetarian. It works for me to keep my weight down.

Last week, I changed my regimine. For the last 18 years, I’ve been working out in the morning. I love showing up to work energized, but last year I got into meditation after going through a challenging time. I thought that I understood meditation. Then, I went and talked to a couple of elders in the community about it and realized I had more to learn.

I love to read. Also, making time to be alone helps. When I was working in NCSU my last three years, I became a recluse. The work became so stressful and the leaders (at least to me) were to arrogant to listen to ideas until I was gone. I’m actually the ultimate introvert, but most people don’t know that. When they see me out making people feel good, it takes a lot of energy out of me. It’s easy for me to be by myself.

Music is another big outlet for stress release. Last week, I decided that when I wake up in the morning, I ease into the day. I meditate and do yoga… and now I go into work in a peaceful state. Every day is different.

Then I come home and workout to ‘work the day off.’

Now that I’m up here, I’m sleeping a lot more, between 5 and 6 hours. When I was in NC, I only slept 4 hours a night. Since I wasn’t sleeping, I started a business, I wrote a book, etc. with all of that extra time.

Sometimes environments are exhausting. Before I was 35 years old, I wasn’t aware of my environment. I honestly had to figure it out. It wasn’t until I was in my doctoral program and almost got kicked out. My body caught up with my mind and my heart.

The pain I went through, it forced me to grow up. I learned through abuse, through getting in trouble, I learned through being in pain. I also learn through love, victory and accomplishments. That’s how I learned to work with people, but my mind and my nature is still like a kid.

Now I’ve been doing things way more intentionally.

Is there anything we didn’t talk about?

I didn’t talk about being a campus pastor for a couple of year. Peace church – I was there for 4 years. When I started we only had 14 members in our congregation and at the height we had over 100 coming each week. I grew up in the church, but then when my grandmother died I stopped believing in God. I researched all religions, explored Islam and even joined a religious cult at one point, which was kind of dangerous.

When I was venturing off, It was hard on my family. My mom threatened to kick me out. So what I did was, I explored behind her back and got deeper. Discipline is great for children, but parents must remember, that your child is not your mini-you but a part of you trying to figure out its place in the world. Make sure you create an environment for them to empower themselves and mature.  

When I talk to people who don’t like faith or religion, when they find out that I’m a Christian and I’m a pastor, I explain to them that we feel the same way. I don’t like religion either. It doesn’t make room for error and growth.

I believe in faith. If you have hope in everything, then you are a person of faith. I try to connect with people’s hope. I try to help them not run away from what they feel inside. I do it because I’m a Christian.

Then they learn my history, they are often surprised I’m a LGBTQ advocate. When I look at the bible, I see the sexism and I see the prejudice.

When I look at the person we strive to be like – it’s Jesus. I don’t think that is anti-LGBTQ. These are communities that have been left out, downtrodden. It’s why I do what I do. It teaches me the person I should be.

I can talk to any person of all faiths – we all want to make the world better. That’s the anchor of what Christianity is. I’m not worried about the commandments but I am worried about the spirit in the word and I care about how I and you treat others.

My faith is the center of everything I do.

My business happened naturally, most things happened naturally.  I now have eight artists working with me. We do it together. The only rule I have is don’t charge each other as we first start out. Everyone comes to this with talent, ignorance and lack of resources. None of y’all brought anything to the table other than talent. The only person you owe is me, and they don’t owe me anything because I do this because I want to.  

What advice do you have for people that want to change the world or pursue their passion?

Music changed my life. My favorite band is a Tribe Called Quest and my second favorite is Outkast.

Big Boi on Humble Mumble off Stankonia LP said ‘you want to change the world, brother, start from your corner.’ Don’t try to save the world, try to save the neighborhood. Save your family. Start there, because you can make a lot more impact on a micro level versus jumping fast at the macro level.

The world is ready to love on you and it’s also ready to eat you alive. You want people to love on you.  You learn the world by watching other people and you learn the world by informing yourself from multiple lenses and perspectives. Then use your influence and privilege, fix it at home.

Don’t jump and go to China. Here is why I say that… in China, they send their big brained people over here to get educated and then some go home. Let the Chinese take care of China, but let them inform us how to be and invite us to be a part of China.

It is not your duty to change the world, it’s your duty to change yourself and help your community. All of us are made out of stardust. That’s how we were created and what we’ll become.