Equity in nature includes greening urban areas

African Americans need access to the healing of nature

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Dr. Gail Christopher has been a national leader in health policy, especially in issues that relate to health inequities among people of color. She was a keynote speaker at the four-day Children and Nature Network national conference in St. Paul in May.

Nature is “fundamentally a part of the racial healing work” and should be a part of inclusion and equity, said Christopher to the conference attendees. She is vice president for policy and senior advisor at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“Being outdoors has enormous effects,” said Christopher, who added that Blacks and other people of color need “exposure to nature.” She recalled how she was first introduced to the importance of nature when she attended a summer camp in New York State as a young teenager. She also briefly talked about her sharing a room with a White girl that helped shaped both teenagers’ world view on diversity.

Christopher sat down with the MSR after her address. She joined the Kellogg Foundation in 2007 and has had a “quiet influence” during her tenure there. “I was one of the forces that helped make that true,” she said of providing overall direction and leadership for the foundation.

Dr. Gail Christopher
Dr. Gail Christopher (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

“We were one of the critical funders of the Children and Nature Network from its beginnings,” she pointed out. “We don’t have a big environmental portfolio. We have helped to transform schools and school gardens. We have a big public health investment, creating walking trails and places for people to walk. We have a big economic investment, which helps to create green jobs.”

Access to nature is a human right, said Christopher. “Nature is a healing shift. I know from a personal experience that being in nature is a healing force.”

This is especially true for Blacks, she says. “We who experience more stress, we don’t have enough access to that calming.” As a result, some neighborhoods have lost trees, and others — especially public housing areas — “are poorly designed,” Christopher said. “There is no green space. The importance of green space…is more important to us [as Black people] who have more stress than people realize. That has to be one of the human rights that we stand up for.”

When asked what equity in nature looks like, or should look like:  “Every community in America should have green space that is designed to be accessed within 10 minutes of everything — it’s just that simple,” responded Christopher. “Whether it’s a park or a transformed schoolyard, or a public garden. This idea of the earth, the green, the trees, the sun — space that is not built out in the forms of buildings, etc. Some sort of open space populated by natural things, it means that is available to all within a 10-minute walk.

“That means redesigning and re-planning many of our urban areas. That means reinvesting. That means engaging communities in deciding what that is going to look like.”

On Blacks being more involved in environmental issues, “The environment is more than just saving the planet. It’s having quality air to breathe, and having quality water to drink,” said Christopher.

The Flint crisis “is not an issue just in Flint, but drinking water and dust…lead piping is an issue [for everyone]… The achievement gap has something to do with elevated lead levels. We know that in the medical world, there is no safe level of lead. A lot of us — particularly children — [are] walking around with [high] blood lead levels.

“Our relationship to our environment — the food, the water, to the air — all of that [contributes to] what makes us healthy.”

Christopher points out that St. Paul, which hosted the national nature conference, is a leader in connecting all people to nature. “He cares deeply. He is a national leader,” she said of Mayor Chris Coleman. “I think there is some real progress being made here.

“You have a lot of diversity here — a large Hmong population, a large African American population — and I think it is part of what needs to happen to overcome the vestiges of segregation and racial divide in this city, which is true in all cities.

“I think a real key in isolated low-income areas is to use abandoned spaces or houses or schools and transformed them,” continued Christopher. “You can bring soil in and make things happen. But there has to be leadership across multiple sectors that are willing to make the investment.”

Christopher suggests the next “connection step” needed in the nature movement: “We need more from the faith community. We need more ministers to stand up in their pulpits and somehow connect that which is good, spiritual and wholesome to that which is nature.

“Our ministers still [have] influence. We need more faith leadership.”


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.