In the new fall 2020 elective “Colors of Nature,” seventh- and eighth-grade students explored the notion that people of color have different access to and privileges in the natural world. Through class discussions and creative journals, students reflected on how environmentalism and racism are intertwined. Eighth-grader Jax C. shares an introduction below, and three students—Anika G., Kayla L., and Anjuli M.—reflect on their experience in this course.
In the course, The Colors of Nature, we learned about nature and racism and how they affect and are related to each other. We read the book, The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors by James Mills, which is about a group of African Americans who participated in expedition Denali. One thing we focused on in the beginning of the semester was the concept of representation. The majority of movies and photographs about nature present white people as explorers, park rangers, and adventurers. We looked into why that is, and what’s changing in the world about this lack of representation. We took so much away from the course, as we learned so much about the environment, racial inequality, and nature.
Anika G., 7th Grade—Access to Nature and Experiences with It for BIPOC
This class was really eye-opening for me because it went into environmental racism, a facet of racial discrimination that is less talked about than other forms of racism. In this elective, I learned about how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) have very different experiences in the outdoors than white people. For one thing, many BIPOC face racial profiling when enjoying activities in nature, such as the black birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, who had the New York City Police called on him by a white woman because she was upset that he asked her to put a leash on her dog. This and other painful experiences (some of which lead to death) with nature and the outdoors hinder BIPOC from developing a positive relationship with nature.
Another thing I learned in this class that I hadn’t realized was that BIPOC often have less access to nature. City planners often focused on planting trees in only the more affluent areas, which are likely white communities. Additionally, state and national parks might charge entrance fees, making cost a barrier for many lower income BIPOC. These, and other factors, mean that many communities of color are nature-deprived.
A third aspect of the course that has really stuck with me is that fact that communities of color face more of the effects of climate change and environmental damage. For example, fracking occurs on indigenous reservations, and the government doesn’t take the time to clean the water or educate Indigenous people about what water isn’t polluted with chemicals and thus safe to drink. Indigenous people now have damaged immune systems from all the pollution, making them more susceptible to COVID-19. This is a horrifying parallel to Indigenous people dying from diseases brought by British colonizers due to unprepared immune systems. And communities of color and the poor are often near toxic air as well as water pollution because of socioeconomic trends. Learning that all of these components of systemic racism cause a very different access and experience with nature was one of my core takeaways from this class.
Overall, this elective was really inspiring to me as it taught me about racial issues and nature. It was very informative and a great course. Thank you, Judith, for offering this!
Kayla L., 7th Grade—Representation in Media (in Nature and Beyond)
Between binge-watching TV and talking to tiny boxes every day, the line between reality and the digital world starts to blur. What we see on-screen reflects in our actions, and the media’s “status quo” rules our beliefs.
This course helped me to unpack the reality behind the myths and ideals that the media (namely, the internet, television, and Hollywood) shape, create, and embrace. What does that mean? Try to picture an adventurer: Who do you see? While I can’t necessarily tell you the specific details of the person you pictured, I can tell you one thing: you likely didn’t just conjure up an image of a queer, disabled, woman of color.
Why was this not the picture you imagined? Because the media has conditioned you to think of adventurers in a particular way. Jumanji. Survivor. Bear Grylls. These figures tell you that the ideal adventurer is an able, white man— who is likely straight. But one thing we all must know: we also need to hold ourselves accountable because we accepted this image the media told us to idealize. But let’s not. We need to reimagine and restructure our belief system. Now.
So, I ask you to learn about BIPOC adventurers. Learn about female adventurers. Learn about LGBTQ+ diversity in the natural world. You can start by finding the story of Charles Crenchaw; find the statistics that show how communities of color lack access to nature disproportionately to white communities; read The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors by James Edward Mills.
Anjuli M., 8th Grade—Patriotism and Privilege: Our Changing View of an Adventurer
For me, this course acted as an extension of my unanswered questions and curiosities that were first teased in a unit last year in my seventh-grade humanities class. During this unit we studied the historical significance of nature, the battles that have been fought over nature, and, most importantly, the stigma people have against those whom we believe belong in nature, and those who don’t.
As part of this study, we read an excerpt from Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. It was obvious that Abbey cared deeply about nature and was a pioneer for environmentalism and sustainability. He wrote about how nature had become collateral damage during America’s industrial revolution. He talked vividly about hating the idea of cars filling up the space between the mountains in our national parks, or people walking in with their grandmothers in wheelchairs holding crying babies on their hips.
Abbey was honorable in the way that he loved nature, but he also had a very strict view of who was allowed to love nature. I agree with Abbey to some extent. I am passionate about the environment, about helping the climate crisis, about fighting for the rights of Native Americans, and of course spending time in nature. Unlike Abbey, however, I do not think anyone should be denied the opportunity to enjoy nature; whether you are able-bodied or disabled, man or woman, white or a person of color, old or young, nature is for everyone.
I disagree with an important part of Abbey’s logic. He believed that the people who should be allowed to experience nature should be white, male, wealthy, and fit. This is the standard he and others have set for who the world’s adventurers are, but how silly is this considering that this fits so little of us that live on this earth? Despite this, it has become the standard that has conditioned society for centuries.
The so-called explorers that we learn about in history class always seem to be white (or at least they are the only ones discussed), they are always male, and they mostly come from wealthy and powerful families. Try searching for a pair of hiking boots . . . you’ll likely see someone who looks just as I describe: white, male, and well-off. When I looked up the list of people who have summited Mount Everest, the pattern continued: the list of accomplished mountaineers lacked any sort of diversity. As a woman of color, I see myself dramatically underrepresented in the world of nature and adventuring.
Yet, I do not think that Abbey had this view because he believed that a white person could scale a mountain and an African American person could not; rather I think he feared them because they were foreign. They didn’t fit his mold, and that was hard for him to accept. I’m sorry, sir, but your cowardness will not discourage me.
However, Abbey and I do agree on one thing: Nature is sacred. It is our home and without it we would not survive. America is special in the way that we have established a system where beautiful parts of our country can be preserved for the public in our National Parks. I am proud to be a citizen of a country that finds nature important enough to do this.
However, I am also dismayed to be a part of a country where our government officials continuously ignore the problems that climate change brings, while instead push further on initiatives that will eventually destroy our world, leaving money in the hands of the powerful, and young people like me to deal with the consequences.
I think the fact that I was even able to take a course like this just shows how much progress we have made in making nature a more inclusive place. There is so much good that has been made, so much love that has been poured into making nature a real home, but there is still a way to go. But I know that it is the conversations and ideas that were exchanged in this course, and the minds of students like us that will continue to fight for the rights of Mother Nature.