Without Racial Diversity, Do Enviros Risk Becoming Marginalized?

February 25, 2015

The environmental movement has been described as one of the most segregated sectors of American society.

“We essentially have a racially segregated environmental movement,” said Van Jones, former advisor to President Obama on green jobs. “We’re too polite to say that. Instead, we say we have an environmental justice movement and a mainstream movement.”

Despite years of talk, mainstream environmental groups still have not achieved much diversity in their ranks. And head out into nature, and the picture is still overwhelmingly White. According to a 2011 survey, only 7 percent of National Park visitors are African American, which is half the percentage represented in the U.S. population. The reasons listed by African American respondents: not knowing much about the parks, the high costs of hotels and food, and inaccessibility. Latinos are similarly absent.

unnamedGreater diversity isn’t just a way for the environmental movement to become truly socially progressive. It may be that the future of the movement itself depends on greater inclusion. Carolyn Finney, a UC Berkeley cultural geographer and author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, says that to gain public support the environmental movement needs to be reflective of the country’s changing demographics. Tackling big issues like climate change can’t happen without the involvement of wider public support, she says.

Without greater racial diversity, does the environmental movement risk becoming marginalized? Finney delves into the thorny task of exploring why the participation of some groups in the environmental movement, notably African Americans, is so limp and what we all can do about it.

Finney is a speaker at the biennial Geography of Hope conference this year, a three day literary gathering in Point Reyes Station on March 13-15. The topic of this year’s event is “Women and the Land.”

Q: How did your experience growing up on an estate in Westchester County, NY shape your sensibility toward the environment?

As a child, I was just living. My growing up was unusual in that we were a black family living in a white neighborhood where my parents were gardeners and caretakers of an estate. I was like a black Sabrina, but I didn’t get the rich guy’s son in the end. We got to play outside every day and the owners were often not there during the week, and even when they were we had a huge place to play.

My mother and father were always there and we could play outdoors, and pretty safely. But the impulse to play outdoors was not to be a part of nature. It was, you gotta get outside and play because there was not anything else you could afford to do.

When we talk about nature, everyone has a relationship with nature. Are you breathing? You’ve got a relationship with nature. A lot of African Americans I spoke with (for my book), particularly older African Americans, when I asked them to define nature they would say this is the first time anyone has asked them. What does that mean about who gets asked and whose experience gets recognized? Who is visible in this conversation about nature and who is invisible in the conversation?

Q: You talk about a “White wilderness” and parks being “White spaces.” What would a more inclusive, expansive environmental movement look like?

The ideals and ideas of the conservation movement spring from a certain mindset of a group of people. John Muir and Henry David Thoreau were privileged to be in a position where their point of view got heard and promoted. But that’s an experience of a privileged few, and historically it has not included a lot of people of color, and we have a legacy of that today.

I would like to see leadership within institutions reflect the greater reality of who is in this country and they still don’t. How many years have we been having the conversation about environmental organizations and leadership and there are still few people of color. For me it’s not always about making a place more inclusive because generally the person who you bring in has to make all the changes and adjustments and it does more harm to the community or individual you brought in. The organization needs to change from the inside out and that’s the work that has to happen.

When I talk to different groups or environmental organizations, I say the first thing you have to do is take into account what’s going on in your organization around diversity. You have to look at your mission statement, maybe it was created 50 years ago but it’s still driving you today. Leaders: you may have to step aside because you may not be the best person leading this charge. That’s hard because some people have to give up power and privilege.

Q: What are the top things an organization can do to become more inclusive of people with different backgrounds?

The first thing you have to do is take stock. Do the internal work. It is not the job of any person of color to come in and tell you what to do. It’s not our job to educate you. You have to get real and that takes time. Take stock of your capacities and competencies and get real with that.

In terms of building collaborative relationships, find people who can work with you to grow what it is you want to do, and that takes trust, time and commitment. I’m interested in relationships of reciprocity. If I bring you into my circle and you learn what I do, that assumes the person doesn’t have their own ideas. With reciprocity, I have to get to know you and I have to make some changes, I have to shift, I don’t know everything. We both have something to bring to the table and maybe I have the resources and the money and currency in terms of the relationships, but maybe the person I’m connecting to in the community has relationships in the community that are needed, and they have some great idea about how to deal with an issue there because they know that community.

Q: What is the value of undeveloped “wilderness” lands in terms of the African American perspective and experience? How can those places, and the work to conserve imperiled species, also be inclusive of diverse human communities?

There are diverse answers. All African Americans aren’t going to say one thing. All Native Americans aren’t going to say one thing. I’m not going to say that we shouldn’t have some areas without major human impact, and in and of itself I don’t find that as a problem. It’s a nice idea on some level. I also don’t think everybody is going to go to Yosemite, and I don’t know if we should all be going to Yosemite.

But it’s important to understand that nature is everywhere, so that we show concern for nature wherever it is, and not only is the place cared for but the people are, too. I’ve had the privilege of backpacking all over the world and I’ve seen a lot of natural areas and probably there are places I’ll never see. Part of my ability to appreciate those places without going there is to appreciate exactly where I am, walking down the street and seeing an unusual insect and enjoying the shade of a particular tree. You don’t have to go to Yosemite to get those qualities; they can be developed exactly where you are. That’s what I say to environmental organizations, it’s not to dismiss the desire to take care of wilderness areas, but to advocate caring for nature everywhere, even in cities. What would happen if we put the our concern everywhere? How do we shift that dynamic?

Five years ago I served on the National Park Advisory Board. Washington DC has 12 national parks, and they took us to an afterschool community center for kids who were African American and Latino. They took the kids to camp out in Rock Creek Park. The kids lived in the area but had never camped in Rock Creek. They came back to the community center and created art projects and spoken word. One of the main things that stuck with me was a couple of them said after spending a couple days in the park they really noticed garbage in the neighborhood. It’s not that the garbage wasn’t there before. So when we talk about taking kids to beautiful areas, that’s great but those people have to go back to their neighborhoods. Now they care more, but they are more frustrated.

Q: But isn’t it good that those kids saw the trash in their neighborhoods? Maybe they will feel compelled to do something about it some day.

We need a deeper and longer commitment. What would happen if there was some program or attention to what’s happening with nature in the communities where they live? I think about the fact that 50 years ago when we look at the creation of the Wilderness Act (and it was the same year as the Civil Rights Act). It was a period of time when we could sit back and all we needed to do is look at those beautiful areas. We really, in my opinion, do not have the privilege to do that now. Our country looks entirely different and we have a lot more people than before. We don’t have the luxury of only thinking about wilderness areas as something separate and pristine to protect. We need to be thinking in complex ways, and it’s not up to (environmental) organizations to do all that work alone. If you start building relationships with diverse communities, its something that can be tackled together.

Q: You’re on the commission in charge of revising California State Parks — the Parks Forward Commission. Were you the one who specifically called for a more inclusive approach to parks, with the recommendation to invest resources in urban parks. Is this something you think could help?

It wasn’t just me asking for that. I hope it would change the way urban parks and urban communities are viewed. It changes the nature of how we have this conversation about parks and nature, and whose nature counts. Those who have access to Yosemite? It’s a nice goal but it’s just not enough. We have this way of separating ourselves from each other and whether we know it or not, we create a hierarchy. When we talk about nature, “urban” tends to be at the bottom of that hierarchy. A lot of mainstream environmentalists start from that premise, where you look down at the city. And when you look down at the city you look down at a lot of people as well.

Q: I’ve been thinking a lot about how the environmental crises we face today — from massive species extinction to climate change — cannot be isolated from the deep poverty and marginalization of many people across the planet. Do you see these issues as part and parcel of a larger dysfunction?

These systems don’t operate separately. I look at the founding of this country and understand that when European immigrants came here and took control of the resources in a particular way, it wasn’t only about the land and natural resources, it built our economy and politics and all that is embedded. Whenever we talk about an environmental issue, there is always an economic and social issue attached to that. When I see someone gained something, like a wilderness area, who lost something?

Environmental change is happening. When something really bad happens, what gets revealed are all the strengths and weaknesses underneath. Hurricane Katrina revealed a lot of truth about our country. Environmental disasters just reveal what was already there. For me, all these things are intricately connected.

Environmentalism should not be simply about protecting the wilderness. The opportunity here is to change the way we think about all these issues, instead of thinking about them separately. We have such an opportunity here and it’s hard. This is calling us to task with stuff to get real with ourselves about race, class and gender differences and to get real about the environmental excesses in this country. In a strange way, it’s an exciting moment when the tension is at its greatest. We have a lot of tension and a lot of resistance to change, but there’s opportunity for something new to emerge. It’s going to be scary and it means some people will have to give up power and privilege and we’re going to have to reach out to different communities we don’t understand. We have to be willing to make the leap now.

Q: You talk a lot about the way history is written —like the Homestead Act —and how Native Americans and African Americans are left out of the story because they lacked the same opportunities as Whites. What is missing from the story of our own conservation history in the Bay Area?

I don’t know much specifically about the Bay Area. I’m from New York and I’ve lived here about 8 years. What I can say to you is that the stories I hear, John Muir is always at the top of the story. My thing would be to go looking for other stories and I’m willing to bet that you don’t have to look far. It takes a little time because you have to take the time to get to know people and ask people, but I have no doubt there are lots of stories we don’t know about.

John Francis’ story — he lived here and it was the oil spill in the San Francisco Bay that motivated him to start walking. Betty Reed Soskin is the oldest park ranger and she works at Rosy the Riveter in Richmond, right here in the Bay Area. Rue Mapp of Outdoor Afro is a single mom of three kids. Outdoor Afro is a national organization about getting African American families in the great outdoors and she’s right here in Oakland. Even I can start thinking about people. Right here I just gave you three stories with national relevance, right from the Bay Area. There are things happening right here that tell a more expansive story about community in the Bay Area.

About the Author

Alison Hawkes was a Bay Nature editor from 2011-2017. Before Bay Nature she worked in journalism for more than a decade as a former newspaper reporter turned radio producer turned web editor with each rendition bringing her closer to her dream of covering environmental issues. She co-founded Way Out West, a site dedicated to covering Bay Area environmental news.

Read This Next

Geography of Hope