African Americans discuss a lack of diversity in nature

James King, Jr.
Charles Hallman/MSR News

Last of a three-part series

Educators and others who work in areas that “advance the children and nature movement” talked about the importance of understanding equity and inclusion in nature, to a full room of attendees at the Children and Nature Network Conference that occurred during May of this year in St. Paul.

It was a very diverse audience, which was unexpected, accorind to James King, Jr. who was among several facilitators of “Getting Real About Diversity in the Outdoors.” On the conference’s second full day at St. Paul’s RiverCentre, organizers used a “fishbowl” approach, allowing at least four people to sit in a circle in the middle of the room, say their peace and go back to their original seat. No time limit was placed, but a general rule of being respectful of time did exist, which was mostly adhered to. The MSR was the only media present at the hour-long session:

Nature was her “sanctuary” while growing up in inner-city Cleveland, said Nicole Jackson, a Black environmental educator from Cleveland. She shared how she “learned about the outdoors by watching television,” visiting zoos and seeking more knowledge at the library. Her family didn’t understand why she wanted to learn about the outdoors, and saw her as being “weird,” she disclosed.

“Nature was my outlet, and connecting with the world in a different way,” said Johnson. “It helped me get through a lot of…things and how people viewed me. With my family it was very difficult to be that person to connect with them and tell them about all the experiences I had, and get them to understand it.”

Nicole Jackson
Nicole Jackson Charles Hallman/MSR News

Also, being a Black female in predominately White nature groups “was a struggle. ‘You like the outdoors, but you’re Black?’” she often heard from individuals in these groups. “I reached out to mentors, but every mentor was White.”

Active in coordinating environmental stewardship projects throughout the United States for over eight years, King, Jr., now living in Atlanta, said he looks at his involvement with nature differently. Blacks in slavery times “were engaged with nature and with the land,” he explained. “Harriet Tubman was engaged…as a navigator. When I look at myself, I am a reflection of my grandparents. They taught me about the environment. I have family members to say they are willing to give it a try.”

Debra Williams of Chicago regularly connects faith and nature, but added that there are challenges, especially with some of the people she works with who are dealing with urban concerns, such as unemployment and homelessness. Conversations about equity and inclusion “requires real introspections…at every level,” she said.

Debra Williams
Debra Williams Charles Hallman/MSR News

Diversity in nature work is not just bringing in one person of color, noted Grace Anderson, who works in North Dakota. She relayed the time of the ‘shocked’ reactions she received when she first arrived there to work because they weren’t expecting a Black female.

“I believe in nature access for all kids. But we just talk about it” at such conferences like the St. Paul event, said Sheree Cooks, a Black woman and parent engagement coordinator from Tacoma, Washington. She said afterwards, “We’re all here for the same reason, but I really came with what can I do now.”

“It’s very draining,” said a Black woman from St. Louis who complained that she’s afraid that she might be hired as a token at the organization where she is currently an intern. “I have a lot to offer” besides being “a token minority,” she pointed out.

The young woman told the MSR that she can oftentimes count the low number of Blacks in the room or at a conference. For this session she said, “I was overwhelmed by the number of people who came.”


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