A Longtime Advocate for DEI on Making People Feel Welcome

Troy Riddle, NRDC’s inaugural chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer

Ben Grieme for NRDC

When Troy Riddle got on the phone with a search firm asking if he was interested in a new position at NRDC, he was in his office at Albany Law School. It was a Friday afternoon in January 2020. The caller introduced herself and told him that the Natural Resources Defense Council was looking for an inaugural chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer.

“I heard ‘Natural Resources Defense Council’ and immediately decided that it was not an opportunity for me,” Riddle says. “At that point, I had not found my connection to the environmental movement—and it has always, to me, appeared to be more of a white space.”

The caller insisted that Riddle not decide too hastily; she asked him to review the job description and look at the NRDC website. He agreed to learn more and did a deep dive into the organization’s background, as well as into the general environmental nonprofit world. After reading about NRDC’s work fighting for justice for the people of Flint, Michigan—where city and state officials failed to treat highly corrosive water properly and caused a massive lead contamination of the city’s drinking water—he decided that “an organization that chose to get involved in that work was an organization that I could support.”

As Riddle began to seriously consider the job, he realized two things: “I saw this as a challenge, yes, but I also saw it as an opportunity to help diversify a space that was very much in need of some diversity.”

Riddle, who hails from Philadelphia, didn’t start his career doing diversity work. In fact, he says, “When I first entered this area of work, people told me I shouldn’t do it. They said it would be a career killer—’diversity’ was going to be a fad and it would go away. I’m happy to say that they were wrong. There are more jobs in this area than I’ve ever seen before.”

A first-generation college graduate and a first-generation professional school graduate—with an MBA from Philadelphia University and a JD from Widener University Delaware Law School—Riddle was first exposed to diversity work while he was at law school, when he received a fellowship from the chemical company DuPont. His task was to work with local students from a vocational high school in Wilmington, Delaware, many of whom came from low-income communities of color.

To help the students think about life beyond high school and the possibility of college and law school, Riddle created programming geared toward PSAT/SAT test prep, as well as application essay coaching. He also hosted a series of events for the students to interact with other Black and brown law school students and faculty from Widener, away from the high school setting. “‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ is an old adage that I think rings true with respect to diversifying spaces,” says Riddle. When Black and brown people see other people of color in higher education and in career fields that interest them, they’ll feel more comfortable pursuing the same paths, he explains.

“Working with those young people changed my life—and the trajectory of my career,” Riddle continues. “It was about igniting something in those students and helping them see that they could be more.”

In 2006, intent on continuing his diversity work, Riddle became the first executive director of the International Association of Black Actuaries, which helps empower and connect professionals and students in this STEM field of data-based risk assessment. (Actuaries work across sectors, ranging from financial services and health care to government agencies and consulting firms and beyond.) “One of my tasks there was to get more Black and brown students interested in the profession. If you like math, it’s a great alternative to, say, something like accounting,” Riddle says.

A few years later, he took a position as the assistant director of diversity initiatives at the Law School Admission Council, the creators of the LSAT test. From there, Riddle went on to create and lead diversity programs at Widener University Delaware Law School, the John Marshall Law School in Chicago and, most recently, Albany Law School. His commitment to inclusivity in the legal field—a profession in which only 14 percent of lawyers are nonwhite, according to 2020 data reported by the American Bar Association—has been steadfast.

Throughout his career, Riddle has worked to shift his colleagues’ concept of diversification from a recruitment effort to a culture change. In the beginning, he says, institutions were overly focused on hiring people of color as the end goal. “The thinking was simple: If we can get them, we can say we’re diverse,” he says. 

So Riddle began to help those around him understand the importance of creating environments that made people feel welcome—and want to stay awhile. In the academic settings where Riddle worked, efforts to foster inclusion and equity gained ground. “It was about creating climates on campus where diverse students could coexist and learn from each other,” he says.

To make true progress, colleges have to better understand campus life, he adds. Toward that end, he conducted student surveys that assessed the overall climate and student comfort level for reporting incidents of alleged bias, in and out of the classroom. 

Riddle recalls connecting with a law student on Facebook when she posted that, despite her repeated attempts to participate in class, her male law professor didn’t call on her during a class discussion. Afterward, she realized that this particular professor never called on her female classmates. Riddle encouraged the woman to share her experiences through the reporting form he created, which led to an opportunity to address the instructor’s behavior.

Riddle also saw to it that the schools where he worked provided students with safe spaces where they could unplug and interact with one another. At two universities, he secured funding for what he called a “serenity room.” The rooms supported diverse communities in varying ways; for example, Muslim students were able to use the space to pray so they didn’t have to leave campus or resort to stairwells to practice their faith.

Riddle is especially proud of the many events that he has organized. A four-day celebration of diversity on campus featured a mix of educational talks, outreach programs, and a food festival. One year, South Asian law students prepared a presentation about human trafficking to deliver at the event; another time, Riddle hosted a transgender identity awareness session, well attended by both students and staff. “Having faculty there sent a strong message that it was important,” he notes.

“As people have done research and studies, the science behind diversity has evolved to what we have today, which is really not just about bringing people in and checking off boxes but about making room for people to be who they are in those spaces while they’re there,” Riddle explains. “That has been the evolution I’ve watched in this area.”

It’s this evolution that he sees taking place at NRDC, which, he says, still has a lot of work to do as it looks to change its own culture. A recent Green 2.0 report, spotlighting diversity in the environmental movement, confirms that the largest U.S. green organizations (including NRDC) and their boards of directors are overwhelmingly made up of white faces. Yet people of color and Indigenous groups are the ones facing disproportionate harm from industrial pollution, toxic waste, and other forms of environmental hazards these organizations seek to address head-on.

Eight months into his job at NRDC, Riddle is looking forward to the work ahead. “I think that commitment to self-examine and self-correct is really what this work is about,” he says. “It’s a process. DEI work doesn’t happen by declaring itself. It requires intentionality and effort.”