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NERC’s Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Journey

January 19, 2024

The Northeast Recycling Council (NERC)’s work on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) began approximately 20 years ago and continues today. The effort, spearheaded by Mary Ann Remolador, Assistant Director and Conference Organizer, started with the realization that NERC’s events were comprised of one-dimensional presenters and attendees. NERC knew it needed to diversify its constituency to gain different perspectives in conversations and obtain a deeper understanding of the issues facing Sustainable Materials Management (SMM).

In 2003, NERC began a concerted effort to invite women from its member states and organizations to submit abstracts for presentations and to attend events. This resulted in a significant increase in the number of women participating in our events. Today, not only are more than half of the members of NERC’s committees' women; NERC’s latest conference in the fall of 2023 featured women that made up over half of the presenters. Women play an influential role in guiding project work and discussions on topical issues at NERC.

Five years later, the NERC team added students to their outreach demographic to increase the number of younger participants at its conferences. Colleges and universities throughout the 11 Northeast states were given information about NERC’s events. By 2010, NERC had launched a student scholarship program that allowed interested students to attend its conferences at no cost. To date, a total of 39 students participated in the program, who expanded their professional network and gained direct exposure to the field of SMM.

It was then, NERC turned its focus to ensure that more people of color were represented across presenters and attendees to support equal representation of individuals across the industry. To continue with diversifying NERC events, the team widened its scope of groups to reach out to, which included Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and student groups such as Asian, Latino, and LGBTQ+ at colleges and universities.  As a result, 16 individuals from HBCUs were provided scholarships to attend NERC conferences.

This past Fall, NERC launched the Emerging Professionals Program which invites state agencies and industry organizations to sponsor professionals new to the field from their workforce to participate in the Conference. The initial cohort included three emerging professionals.

In March 2021, NERC developed a four-part Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) Training series for those working in SMM across the country.  The trainings were free and open for anyone to attend. The topics explored in the series included Making the Case for DE&I, Recognizing & Addressing Unconscious Bias, Creating a DE&I Path, and Engaging with Diverse Communities. Attendees totaled 800 from 37 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Canada.

By the end of the training series, the NERC Board recognized the need to establish a DE&I Committee to formally work on incorporating DE&I into its operations and work. Additionally, a commitment was made to ensure at least one session about DE&I is featured in all conferences. Moving forward, DE&I and environmental justice (EJ) considerations will also be woven into every conference session as is relevant.

The DE&I Committee was first tasked with developing a DE&I mission statement. The statement, which was formally adopted by the NERC Board in 2023, is outlined below:

NERC works to minimize waste, conserve natural resources, and advance a sustainable economy through facilitated collaboration and action. We are dedicated to representing our diverse world while fostering equitable access to effective sustainable materials management. We are committed to building a culture based on the values of equity, respect, accountability, and trust rooted in our organizational decision-making, programs and operations, and the communities we serve.

The DE&I Committee, chaired by Jessica Levine, Diversity & Inclusion Manager at The Recycling Partnership, led the development of NERC’s latest spring conference Building a Diverse Workforce for Sustainable Materials Management, which included sessions, such as Clearing Pathways for Underrepresented Individuals and Creating Retention Strategies for an Inclusive Workplace.

“NERC's dedicated effort to integrating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) into its core mission reflects a significant leap forward in aligning organizational values with the evolving needs of today's society,” Levine says. “Prioritizing diversity and equity as foundational principles to advancing their mission, NERC demonstrates its dedication to environmental stewardship while also fostering inclusivity. Their mission reflects a purposeful and expanding effort to embed these values across operations and community engagement, underscoring a resolute commitment to creating a more inclusive and sustainable future.”

As NERC continues to work on embedding DE&I into its mission, values, and operations, we welcome ideas, feedback, and other comments on how to better serve the communities in our region and work towards a more equitable and inclusive industry.

All NERC State and Advisory Members are invited to join NERC’s active DE&I Committee. For more information about the DE&I work or committee, please contact Mary Ann Remolador.

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