People of color have long been excluded from environmental policy and conservation—creating blind spots that perpetuate inequality.
As a governmental affairs coordinator for the National Audubon Society, Tykee James says he’s used to interjecting race and equity issues in conversations about the environment and conservation.
“Being the only Black guy in the room, everyone’s like, ‘Let’s yield the floor, Tykee has a statement to say about race. Everybody calm down,’” the 26-year-old Philadelphia native says. “And then I have to become Martin Luther King, just because I want to say that we should care about Black people in our policies.”
But James welcomes that role. He is one of a growing group of young, diverse environmental leaders examining how racism and white supremacy have long excluded Black, brown, and Indigenous people in environmental policy, conservation, and public health issues. Their work comes as environmental groups have begun publicly examining their role in perpetuating systemic racist policies and practices. The Sierra Club, one of America’s pre-eminent conservationist organizations, recently renounced the racist beliefs and actions of its legendary founder, John Muir. Black scientists and researchers in organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have spoken out about decades of dismissive treatment and barriers to advancement based on race.
As the world grapples with an unprecedented public health crisis that is disproportionately affecting people of color, many observers say that excluding them from leadership is a recipe for failure. For instance, many solutions to natural resource concerns are often experienced as environmental gentrification for communities of color, according to James. Take bike lanes, which are often carved through communities where parking space is scarce and public transportation is minimal.
“When you don’t address with justice the environmental issues of today, you are perpetuating the root causes of that inequity,” says James, who has also worked as a wildlife guide and educator as well as a legislative advisor for a Pennsylvania state senator. “You are stipulating who is going to be sacrificed to make those decisions.”
A viral message
For Leah Thomas, the link between the environment and social justice emerged in summer 2014. An unarmed 19-year-old Black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by police a few miles from her hometown of Florissant, Missouri. The ensuing protests and national dialogue stayed with Thomas when she returned to Chapman University in Southern California, where she was studying environmental science and policy.
“I didn’t know Mike, but he was probably just a couple of friend circles away,” Thomas, 25, recalls. “The more I learned about the incident, and when I began to study environmental injustice, I started thinking about intersectional theory and how it could also be applied to the environmental movement.” Intersectional theory, a term first used by legal scholar and activist Kimberle Williams Crenshaw in 1989, posits that oppression affects certain groups on multiple levels, including race, class, gender, religion, and other aspects of their identity.
Thomas decided that it was hypocritical to preach the interconnectedness of nature and humanity while turning a blind eye to racial and economic injustice, and she was determined to do something about it. She did two internships with the National Park Service during college, and then worked with Patagonia’s communications and PR team on corporate sustainability issues. (Here’s how national parks are working to become anti-racist.)
But after being furloughed in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thomas wrote an Instagram post outlining why environmentalists should embrace the Black Lives Matter movement. Her words went viral, as did her call for a movement of Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) at the forefront of environmental activism.
“The more I protested about climate change, or helped colleagues speak out about issues like endangered salmon, one thing became increasingly clear,” Thomas says. “Not only was I often the only Black person at these events, but I felt invisible. It seemed like they acknowledged everything but my Blackness or were nice about everything but race and culture. It was like, ‘Oh Leah, we’re doing so much for the planet, why do we have to talk about racial issues?’”
Now, Thomas is focused on communicating her intersectional environmentalist message to a broader audience. She’s coordinating the creation of a diversity curriculum for businesses and non-profits in the environmental space and partnering with LGBTQ+ groups and disability activists to ensure that their contributions are also acknowledged in conservation circles. In honor of Disability Pride Month, she is donating five percent of proceeds from a merchandise sale to Queer Nature, a group advocating for disability awareness and the protection of the planet.
“What we’re fighting for is representation and acknowledgement and accountability in the environmental movement in a way that has never even been considered before,” Thomas says. “What the Sierra Club did was a step in the right direction, but a lot of organizations need to gain back the trust in their work that has eroded or never existed.”
And Thomas is not waiting for permission from established environmentalist groups to make these moves.
“They can stand beside us, if they want to,” she says. “If you’re not going to offer me a seat at the table, I’m going to create my own, and hopefully we can have more and more organizations cropping up. We’ve grown a community of over 70,000 young people, and it’s just growing and growing. They can find a way to partner with us.”
Many environmental activists of color were introduced to wildlife and nature pursuits early in life. But they’re keenly aware that historically, many Black and brown children have not had the same opportunities to interact with nature as their white peers. Even those who are raised on farms or in rural areas often have limited trust in those settings because of incidents of violence and threats to people of color there. (People of color are three times more likely to live in ‘nature deprived’ U.S. neighborhoods.)
Elise Tolbert, who grew up exploring the woods and navigating local creeks and streams near her hometown of Tuskegee, Alabama, is trying to change that.
As the great-granddaughter of Black men who were recruited for the infamous government-funded Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which men with the disease were not informed of the diagnosis or provided with treatment, the 29-year-old environmental health scientist combines a love of nature with an inherent knowledge of what fuels environmental injustice and inequity.
During a high school seminar about environmental degradation, Tolbert learned about Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” an area along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where the largely low-income, Black population has endured unusually high rates of cancer. Tolbert says she left the session feeling like “public health professionals were superheroes without capes.”
She went on to study environmental science at Tuskegee University in some of the buildings where legendary African American scientist George Washington Carver conducted his agricultural research. Her background, and the communities she grew up near, prepared her for an expansive view of environmentalism.
“After interning in Mongolia studying water quality for three months, I began to see the issues that exist in developing countries are so similar to the issues that exist in very low-income Black communities in America.”
In her current role as deputy director of partner engagement for the Climate Action Campaign, Tolbert says her public health expertise has been invaluable. “I learned more about how global warming was exacerbating the hazards for Black and brown communities. Our environment is the context for our entire life, and those negative exposures affect the ability of a person to pursue their own goals and dreams for life, because it influences their health.”
Tolbert also founded the Next Step Up, a Tuskegee-based non-profit that mentors and tutors high school students. “There’s a difference between letting people sit at the table, but then not letting them have a plate,” she says. “I want to help prepare young people to know that they have that right to full access.”
Similarly, when Brianna Amingwa was six, she took a pony ride at a Detroit fair and fell in love with horses. But there were no opportunities for her to ride in the inner-city neighborhood where she lived. Her mother eventually heard about an African American attorney who owned a stable in Ann Arbor and invited city kids to come and ride every Saturday. Amingwa spent many weekends working in the stables there during her high school years, and her love of horses gave her a perspective on nature that many of her peers didn’t have.
“A lot of my friends and cousins thought it was cool that I liked horses, but definitely kinda weird that I went on long trail rides and spent so much time out in the woods,” Amingwa, 27, says. That interest led to a degree from Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. She’s now the environment education supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Philadelphia, helping more kids access and learn to love nature like she did.
Through her work with the Philly Nature Kids program, Amingwa oversees activities for 150 fourth graders from around Philadelphia. They study science and environmentalism and examine myths and fears about nature before venturing outdoors to the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge for trail walks and on-site learning. After six months of study, each class gets $500 to design a nature conservation project.
“This is my passion, getting kids who are like I was and giving them this totally new experience,” Amingwa says. “It’s not that kids who are Black and brown don’t have an interest in nature and the natural sciences. They simply may not have the access to those spaces.”
A sense of belonging
By bringing more young people of color into nature, these activists hope to move away from the perception that people of color don’t belong in nature, or that they’re not interested in or equipped to contribute to conservation and exploration. And they are leveraging opportunities to lessen threats for Black and brown people in those spaces doing activities that white people take for granted.
Tykee James believes the May 25 Central Park incident where Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper was viewed as a threat not only unmasked white privilege, it also highlighted the dramatically different experiences people of color may have in conservation spaces.
“My first reaction to the Christian Cooper case was part of a reflection that I had been having about Ahmaud Arbery. Ahmaud Arbery could have been out birding when he was killed,” James says of the February murder of a Black jogger in Georgia. Three white men, who say they suspected Arbery was a burglar, have been charged in his death. “What happened with Mr. Cooper was the opportunity to say that this doesn’t always have to be the narrative. The Black experience isn’t always about trauma. It’s about strength and pride and style and humor and fun.”
In response to the Central Park incident, activists quickly organized a Black Birders Week, capitalizing on the momentum of the Black Lives Matter protests that spread across the country after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “Black Birders Week was a snowflake that I hope will become an avalanche for the environmental movement.” James says.
And in every legislative meeting, rally, or environmental conference going forward, James plans to embrace what being one of the few, or the only, people of color means.
“When you’re in the policy room, and you’re talking about issues like environmental justice, like land theft, like public health, you get to remind these organizations that their strategies have not led to the outcomes that they intended, and it’s because they have institutional blind spots that perpetuate inequity,” he says. “That’s part of the deeper conversations that need to occur.”