Community, Inclusivity, and Connection: Reflecting on the 2023 Women of the Water Conference

By Kaitlyn Theberge | Virginia Tech
By Hayley Lemoine | Florida State University

On a sunny, humid morning at the end of September, in a large meeting room overlooking Sarasota Bay, the buzzing of excited chatter filled the air as friends, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers gathered together for the second Women of the Water conference. Almost 100 individuals from a dozen different states and Washington D.C., met in Sarasota, Florida for the three-day long event. Hailing from a diverse suite of professions–scientists, regulators, community organizers, aquatic farmers, students, and filmmakers to name a few–this group of people was united by a shared interest: increasing diversity and inclusion in aquaculture. 

Aquaculture (i.e., the farming of aquatic organisms) is the most rapidly growing sector of the agrifood industry, both in the U.S. and globally, with an average growth of 6.7% over the last three decades

Women of the Water is the brainchild of Blair Morrison, who came up with the idea when she was a Gulf Research Program (GRP) science policy fellow at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) in 2021. She worked with her then-fellowship mentor, Dr. Marcy Cockrell (now a Science Coordinator at the NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture) to plan and execute the conference, realizing her vision in June 2022 when the first conference was held at Mote Marine Lab and Aquaculture Research Park in Sarasota, Florida. Morrison and Cockrell continue to serve as conference co-directors.

The mission of Women of the Water is to “build community through connection and empowerment, catalyze learning and interdisciplinary collaboration, and enhance professional development opportunities for marginalized and underrepresented groups in aquaculture.” It is the first conference of its kind in the U.S. and aims to be a catalyst for a larger, much needed community of practice for women, non-binary and gender-expansive people, and other underrepresented groups in aquaculture across the country. Read more about the first Women of the Water conference in this Oceanography article.

This year, the conference welcomed approximately 100 participants. The size of the conference ensures that its engaging participatory format is possible. The conference included two keynote presentations, research talks and posters, small-group workshops, a tour of the Mote Aquaculture Park, and conference-wide discussion-based exercises. There were also plenty of opportunities intentionally planned for formal and informal networking, including a catered networking reception on the first evening.

New to the conference this year was a mentorship program in which attendees of all different stages of their careers were assigned a mentor or mentee. The program included a pre-conference webinar, a meet-and-greet breakfast, and a custom workbook with tips and guided prompts for both mentors and mentees. The conference also offered student travel awards and more generous invited speaker honoraria, thanks to anonymous donors and sponsorships from Florida Sea Grant, and Virginia Sea Grant via the Aquaculture Information Exchange, and Mote Marine Lab.

Reflecting on this experience as early career professionals, we wanted to share some of our key takeaways. We had the privilege of serving on the steering committee and on the new mentorship sub-committee for the 2023 conference. As we look at what lies ahead for both the aquaculture industry and our own careers, we believe there are important lessons in community, leadership, inclusivity, and connection from this conference to take with us and share with others.

Build Community through connection and empowerment, catalyze learning and interdisciplinary collaboration, and enhance professional development opportunities for marginalized and underrepresented groups in aquaculture.

Being a leader starts with building a community:

In order to make lasting, positive change, it is critical to build a community that shares your mission.

Women of the Water showcased how leaders in aquaculture navigate their careers and the role their professional community plays in shaping their work. The conference began with a powerful and inspiring presentation from Dr. Megan Davis, who spoke about her experience as a pioneer in the field of conch restoration aquaculture. She shared the isolation she felt and the challenges she faced as one of the only women working on a remote island in the Caribbean, and the creative solutions she used to build the science and practice of conch aquaculture. She highlighted her efforts to collaborate with local residents and how the foundation of her success stemmed from the international network she established.

The following day, Imani Black gave an invigorating talk in which she took the audience through the history of Black fishers and watermen in the Chesapeake Bay, their near invisibility on the working waterfront today, and the nonprofit organization she established to bring attention to this tradition: Minorities in Aquaculture. She discussed how the painful and shocking realization that shellfish aquaculture in the U.S. employs very few black women motivated her to change the field by starting Minorities in Aquaculture.

She formed a collaboration of organizations and professionals that open doors and ensure that women of color have the support and resources needed to succeed in aquaculture. These talks made clear that being a leader does not mean working alone in a silo. In order to make lasting, positive change, it is critical to build a community that shares your mission, strengthens your efforts, and ensures the vision is carried on by those who follow in your footsteps

Inclusivity is the foundation for collaboration:

How does the process of incorporating diversity, equity, inclusivity, and accessibility (DEIA) practices into daily life and professional activities happen? This conference—built for and by those who identify as underrepresented or a minority in aquaculture—provided one such snapshot. 

Prior to this conference, neither of us experienced an event specifically centered on women in aquaculture, and we relished the opportunity to connect with so many admirable people throughout the event. Aquaculture and fisheries are known for being homogenous fields, and while influential women have always been a part of aquaculture, it is an all too common experience to be the only woman in the room, making it easy to feel alone and even extraneous. In the space created by Women of the Water, attendees from different stakeholder groups shared not only their research and their professional experiences, but they also shared how their intersecting identities—including neurodiversity, disability, age, race, parenthood, LGBTQ+ identity, and gender identity—shaped the challenges they face and the successes they’ve had in aquaculture. For example, manufacturers often don’t produce gear that fits most women because they never consider that different body types will be using the gear, which was a challenge echoed by many of the attendees.

While the conference is geared toward women and gender-diverse people, it was remarkable to learn how much diversity exists within those labels and to see the willingness of attendees to share vulnerable aspects of who they are and how it has impacted their careers. We were encouraged by the openness of the attendees and humbled by the process of creating an inclusive and welcoming space. We learned how simple additions to the conference, such as ensuring that people with disabilities had access to all conference spaces and that a private lactation room was available for those currently breastfeeding, can resolve some of the often unaddressed needs of women and minority groups, thus allowing for greater engagement from attendees.

The Women of the Water Code of Conduct also provides attendees with guidelines for acceptable behavior. With this experience in mind, we are motivated to continue learning about inclusivity and to improve future experiences by instituting more inclusive practices.  The intentional consideration and planning around how to incorporate more inclusive practices, even in simple actions like the addition of pronouns on name tags, can be very impactful, and we believe that Women of the Water could be a useful case study for how to approach inclusivity at other professional events.

We enjoyed witnessing the cheerful formation of a network of professionals from all different career stages connecting over their shared interest in aquaculture, exchanging career advice and experience, and lifting each other up.

We are stronger together than alone:

This year we worked with Dr. Nicole Rhody (Program Manager and Senior Scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory) and Maeesha Saeed (Program Officer at The National Academies Gulf Research Program), in addition to Morrison and Dr. Cockrell, to establish a mentorship program as part of the conference experience. This addition was based on 2022 conference feedback and discussions about needing more mentorship opportunities.

We brought together 15 mentor-mentee pairs based on their professional interests and career stages. Prior to the conference, we hosted a webinar in which program participants could meet each other and learn about successful mentorship, and on the first morning of the conference, we held a breakfast for all mentors and mentees. We enjoyed witnessing the cheerful formation of a network of professionals from all different career stages connecting over their shared interest in aquaculture, exchanging career advice and experience, and lifting each other up. 

This vision was further validated during a round table discussion about the challenges women and gender-expansive folks face in aquaculture, and what can be done to address them. We discussed the concept of a “toolbox” (i.e. the resources people can refer to when they are navigating new or uncomfortable situations, such as tips for negotiating pay or suggestions for responding to inappropriate comments). As ideas for “tools” floated around the room, one attendee noted, “In fact, we are the toolbox.” This comment caught everyone’s attention and upon further discussion, attendees agreed that while having many different “tools” is important, in the long term, one of the most valuable resources a person can have is a supportive network to turn to for guidance when needed. 

Creating a network of diverse professionals with a shared passion for aquaculture, and curating spaces like Women of the Water in which we can come together to share and learn, can help each of us feel less isolated and more supported. 

Reflecting back to look ahead:

Women of the Water was an opportunity for us to learn about the incredible work taking place in aquaculture, build our professional network, and acquire useful skills and resources. While we were impressed by the experience as a whole, the most profound lessons we learned all center on the idea of connection. Leadership, inclusivity, and community are ways to promote connection among people, industries, sectors, and more. Research has shown time and again that diverse working groups increase productivity and enhance creative problem-solving.

Women of the Water celebrates this diversity through connection. We feel grateful for our experience at Women of the Water and look forward to pursuing more opportunities for diverse groups to build community, expand inclusivity, and strengthen the diverse network of people in aquaculture!

Are you interested in getting involved with next year’s conference?  Fill out this form to let us know you’re interested!

Hayley Lemoine (she/her) is a Ph.D. candidate in the Geography Department at Florida State University and a Florida Sea Grant Aquaculture and Communications Graduate Student Fellow. She is interested in the social and ecological dynamics of seafood systems, and her dissertation focuses on the social dimensions of marine aquaculture. Prior to pursuing her PhD, Hayley earned a Master of Environmental Management degree from Yale University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology from Vassar College. In 2021, Hayley served as a Florida Sea Grant HARVEST intern where she worked on Ocean Era’s Velella Epsilon project.

Kaitlyn Theberge (she/her) is the Seafood Resources Knauss Fellow at the National Sea Grant Office. Her fellowship work involves conducting a needs assessment of aquaculture and related programs at Minority Serving Institutions around the country.  Her broader interests include bridging science, policy, industry, and the public to find solutions in sustainable seafood and other key ocean issues. Kaitlyn earned a Master of Science degree in Fish & Wildlife Conservation from Virginia Tech and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Science and French from Bowdoin College.t

Published February 7, 2024.

Reasearch has show time  and again that diverse working groups increase productivity and enhance creative problem-solving.

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