Lisa Gaines’ grandmother made it a priority to educate her girls. “I will educate my daughters before I educate my sons,” Gaines remembers her saying. Gaines’ grandmother lived her entire life in the black community in St. Louis and saw that young men “always found a way of making it through, but women did not.”
That ethic of female empowerment affected Gaines’ life as well. As she was growing up in San Diego, the daughter of a U.S. Navy officer and a teacher, there was never any question that she would be going to college. The drive for education had a history on her father’s side of the family. Her father’s uncle was the plaintiff in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Gaines v. Canada, which set precedent for Brown v. Board of Education.
Trained in international relations, natural resource economics and environmental sciences, Gaines sees herself as a facilitator of difficult conversations among people with diverse interests. “I’m able to talk to people and move things along,” she says. “If people ask me if I’m a mover and a shaker, I say absolutely not. Not even close. But I can talk with individuals and get a point across. Despite the fact that I have a great respect for rivers, land and air, my main interface was always with people.”
Terra: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
“It’s this ability to talk to and be understood and trusted by multiple audiences. Faculty and natural resource decision-makers have come to me if they have issues about the science or the trajectory of a project and know that I will hold their concerns in confidence and help change the course or dynamics of a project overall. I end up being a mediator.
Terra: How have gender and diversity influenced your career?
“As a woman, when I participate in this area of natural resources science and policy, I’m seeing more women in the room, usually about 50-50. But I can think of only two times in Oregon in natural resource meetings when I have not been the only African-American person in the room. Let alone one of the few minorities.
“Why aren’t minorities higher up in levels of thinking about natural resources, on the impact on their world in the urban environment or the rural environment? Why is this not a career trajectory?
“I was nominated by someone on my board to participate in the American Leadership Forum of Oregon. These are people from government, education, business, and part of its mission is to build on the strengths of diversity to train leaders to work collaboratively. My class was a widely diverse group in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, political background, geography and religion. It was wonderful to be part of this group as we thought through issues that affect Oregon.”