Taking Nature Black

by Susu Lassa

I was opportune to attend the 2021 Taking Nature Black Virtual Conference, which took place from Tuesday, February 23rd to Saturday, February 27th. It was put on by the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) as a Black history month celebration, with the theme being “Call and Response: Elevating Our Stories, Naturally.” Between classes this semester and work obligations, I was able to attend at least one panel a day. The panels I attended were: Living On and Off the Land; The Politics of the Environment; Breaking Decolonization’s Hold on the Environment; and Minding the Gap: Cultivating the Next Generation of Diverse Agricultural and EJ Activists. I intend to share some of my outtakes from these panels in this blog post, and I hope that the insights gleaned from this experience will foster a nuanced understanding of the experience of Black people in nature and ecological justice spaces.

How is the understanding of Black people in nature framed?

As this conference was intended as a space for healing, learning, dialogue, and organizing, an understanding of how the issue of black people in ecological and ecological justice (EJ) spaces is framed is essential to this endeavor. The issue is usually framed as “Black people are not in nature because they do not like nature/don’t want to be in nature.” However, the issue actually includes the centering of whiteness as normative or even aspirational and the reception of black people in these spaces, as well as the very real history of racism and segregation that deters black people from feeling safe in urban park and agricultural spaces. To that second point, I know the tangible hesitation that I personally felt being in public lands and parks in Washington D.C. after participating in the protests at the White House following the murder of George Floyd and various other people at the hands of the police. Seeing the highly militarized park police in riot gear brutalizing people and recognizing that such a militarized presence is present in public parks around the city and country make me weary of utilizing those spaces, and I do not think that I am alone in this sentiment.

What then is the experience of Black people in nature and in ecological justice spaces?

During the Living On and Off the Land panel, which was a conversation engaging Black farmers, the biggest issue experienced by Black people engaging with urban agriculture is access to land, so there not being enough land to feed entire communities. Throw in issues of soil quality in predominantly Black communities, and the issue gains more nuance. Militarized public spaces, issues around access to public lands, and hesitation to engage due to the legacy of slavery are also reasons that can help us develop an understanding of the experience of Black people in nature. During the Breaking Decolonization’s Hold on the Environment panel, the issue of ‘diversity and inclusion’ in ecological/ecological justice spaces came up, illumining an aversion to encouraging Black people -collapsed into ‘diversity’- into these white-centric spaces, when focus and effort should be geared towards interrogating the ownership of these spaces that see Black people as having to be ‘invited-in’. Thus, this perception of Black People as ‘diversity’ and not as stakeholders in these spaces forces Black people to pull back and invest in movements that do not pigeonhole them.

How and why is the environment political?

The environment is political by virtue of the inequitable nature of land use. Thus, the salient interest is proprietorship, and politics in an adversarial context elevates economic gain and profit at the expense of the environment. It is key to remember that the health and well-being of the environment is a political fight in a political space because it is less about the land itself and more about wealth.

Knowing what we know, how can we move forward?

A good first step would be encouraging a reorientation of minds from a consumption mindset to a mindset that encourages growth for both the land and the people. This insight was shared by a Black farmer in the south with the aim of shedding the reputation of sharecroppers imposed on black landowners and farmworkers in the south. A second step is to encourage an understanding of public land as a necessary component of Black healthy living. We can also find and support individual efforts geared at urban agriculture -if you live in an urban setting- as there is funding available for agricultural communities that are disbursed by NGOs which do not often trickle down to these efforts.

What can we do politically?

We should encourage and emphasize the interconnected nature of land stewardship issues taking place in various communities nationwide based on geographical location, while understanding that there is no one fix. We should also tie urban agriculture to bigger initiatives of the Biden administration’s climate initiatives, i.e.: growing food near to communities, which cuts down on carbon emissions. Lastly, we should make sure to always connect domestic EJ work to global issues. In the words of one of the panelists, “we can’t play whack-a-mole with these issues, as a solutions pop-up here and more issues there.”

What can we do educationally?

We should encourage environmental literacy, especially in young POC as young people live at the forefront of civil rights and social justice spaces. By providing youth with the tools for advocacy and empowerment regarding EJ issues, we will be able to utilize this current time in history and mobilize young people around EJ issues and natural science/agriculture fields. During the Minding the Gap: Cultivating the Next Generation of Diverse Agricultural and EJ Activists panel, I learned that some of the barriers to underrepresented youth pursuing natural science and agricultural fields include a deep stigma related to environmental/agricultural fields due to the history of racism, as well as a misunderstanding of the diversity of careers in these fields and a lack of representation (seeing people who look like they do). Thus, by creating channels for kids to foster relationships with people in these fields and nurturing the sense of agency and efficacy in young people, youth will be enabled to know their worth and value in community spaces addressing these issues and have the confidence to take on roadblocks.

In parting, those of us in EJ movement spaces and organizations must understand that it is not about being Black in movements, it is about changing the norm that centers and elevates whiteness in these spaces so that everyone can bring their talents and skills, regardless of social location, because in the words of Ella Baker, contact with all people, if you are interested in people, can be valuable.

This blog post was written by Susu Lassa, former BVSer, presently BTS and studying with OPP focusing on Ecological Justice.