How many of you have heard the stereotype that black people don’t hike? I know I have. It’s a stereotype I’m reminded of when I share with others that not only do I love hiking, but I also have a degree in environmental science. Despite the fun that I have, occupying space in this career field as a young black woman, at times, is alienating. Minorities only represent 16 percent of the environmental science workforce. This lack of diversity perpetuates the stereotype that black Americans don’t have a place outdoors and further obscures the rich history of how black Americans have worked to preserve and explore nature.
For example, the first black U.S. Army units formed by Congress after the Civil War, the Buffalo Soldiers, were charged with protecting westward expansion, and they were also the first backcountry park rangers of Sequoia and Yosemite national parks. They disbanded poachers, thwarted attempts of illegal loggers and fought forest fires.
Matthew Henson, an African American Maryland native, was one of two men credited with discovering the North Pole in 1909. On the harrowing voyage there, which took multiple tries over several years, Henson proved indispensable as a team member, with expert skills as a dog sledder, mechanic, carpenter and navigator who had learned to communicate with the local Eskimo people in their native language.
In 1971, John Francis refused to drive or ride in motorized vehicles after a tanker accident spilled 1.5 million gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay and instead chose to walk, earning him the nickname “Planetwalker”; this continued for 22 years. During that time, he also made the decision to stop speaking as a silent protest that lasted for 17 years (except for one call to his mother). In this period, he earned three degrees (including a doctorate), was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Environment Program, walked across the United States and through South America, sailed to the Caribbean, and founded the nonprofit environmental awareness organization, Planetwalk.
The same year as the 1971 spill that inspired Mr. Francis, Motown singer, Marvin Gaye released “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” a Billboard charting single shedding light on major environmental problems:
Whoa mercy, mercy me,Oh things ain't what they used to be, no no Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas, fish full of mercury
In 1973, Margie Richard became an environmental justice activist after a Shell gas pipeline exploded one block from her home and killed two of her neighbors. Her grassroots campaign for justice lasted 13 years and led Shell to agree to reduce its toxic air pollution by 30 percent, give $5 million for community development, and pay for the relocation of Ms. Richard and her neighbors.
The contributions of these black Americans as explorers, conservationists and activists poke holes in the notion that black Americans are apathetic to the environment and its degradation. Still, it is true that this nation’s long legislative history of exclusion has cut cultural ties between black Americans and nature deeply.
Now more than ever, those ties need to be restored. The natural world is noticeably changing, and we need diverse perspectives filling seats at the table — especially when considering that low-income people of color are more likely to be adversely affected by a changing environment. This unfortunate truth was experienced in several states in the last months of 2017 with the severity and frequency of hurricanes, droughts, extreme temperatures and flood events devastating low income, minority communities.
There is a dire need for black leaders in the environmental field, but environmental stewardship can only begin with a meaningful connection to nature. In 2010, we only represented 2 percent of visitors to Maryland State Parks. So, in honor of Black History Month, I have a suggestion: Take a hike! The Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ website lists the state’s parks. You can also connect with other people of color with the meetup group Outdoor Afro, or get inspired by the social media initiative, @BrownPeopleCamping, which highlights people of color exploring the outdoors.
Diamonique Clark (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Chesapeake Conservation Corps member hosted by Stevenson University’s Center for Environmental Stewardship.