Working for “ nature for all ” in New Jersey
Are you comfortable outdoors? Do you feel happy and safe in parks and outdoor spaces, or do you feel unwelcome or uncomfortable?
The State We Are In By Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
Your answer may depend on the color of your skin.
Not everyone feels safe in the parks and nature reserves that belong to all of us. People of color may feel out of place or, worse, be the target of suspicion or hostility.
Changing that was the goal of a recent discussion on “outdoor equity” led by black author, storyteller and educator Carolyn Finney.
Finney was invited to speak to the New Jersey Land Conservation Community – a largely white group that works to preserve open spaces, parks, trails and farmland – about ways to make their work more inclusive of New Jersey residents of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
Finney is the author of the book “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African-Americans in the Great Outdoors”. She has traveled all over the world and has seen firsthand that people of color are frequently challenged or questioned when they are in the wild.
“For blacks, navigating the city streets and hiking trails may pay off; at worst, these are tense grounds where we are at the mercy of someone else’s interpretation of our presence, “she wrote in a 2020 essay.” Too often, by default, Blacks are seen as threats to the physical safety of whites. ” In turn, this threatens their safety.
For example, on the morning of Memorial Day 2020, a black bird watcher named Christian Cooper grabbed his binoculars and headed to his favorite spot in Central Park in New York City.
Problems arose when he asked a woman to let her dog loose. When she refused, he started filming her on his phone. The woman, who is white, responded by saying she would tell police that “an African American man is threatening my life” and then dialing 911.
“George Floyd and Christian Cooper exist on a continuum,” Finney told New Jersey audiences via Zoom. “At one end of the continuum, you could die.”
The theme of Finney’s lecture was “Finding Common Ground: Equitable Access for All to Nature and Preserved Lands”.
Making New Jersey’s outdoor spaces more inclusive for all races isn’t easy. The perception of many people of color, Finney noted, is that parks and open spaces are preserved for wealthy whites. What is needed to change that perception, she said, is the willingness of those in power “to meet people where they are and to connect with their humanity.”
It means acknowledging the historic losses that occurred when Blacks, Native Americans and other people of color were separated from their land. This means demystifying the 19e the doctrine of the manifest destiny of the century, the belief that American expansion across the American continent was justified and inevitable. This could mean reparations for land unfairly taken.
“Repairs means repair,” Finney said. “We can find common ground on what the repair looks like.”
The process will not be quick; Finney calls it “the long game”. It will also take courage and the will of those in power to step out of their comfort zone. “If you look at this honestly, it’s going to turn your world upside down,” she said. “A lot of people don’t want to do this because it’s crap and you have to give up some things.”
But Finney feels encouraged by the simple fact that a conversation is taking place here in the Garden State: “I’ve never seen such a wide open door in my life.”
In Mercer County, for example, a coalition of public and private conservation groups founded the Outdoor Equity Alliance to ensure that nature is accessible to all.
Jay Watson, head of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s land preservation program and one of the founding members of the Alliance, said the group’s goal was to ensure that everyone can enjoy the mental benefits. , physical and spiritual to spend time outdoors without fear or feeling intrusive. .
The Outdoor Equity Alliance explores real and perceived barriers to enjoying nature. For example, some people may lack transportation to get to parks and reserves, while others may feel they don’t know enough about the outdoors to feel safe. The Alliance is also studying how outdoor education programs, possibly offered in classrooms or through outdoor clubs, could turn the situation around.
The Alliance is currently drafting its first strategic plan to increase the diversity of outdoor landscapes and to help create the next generation of conservation leaders. The group hopes their work will be replicable in other parts of the state and nation. “We want this to be done so well that others working for equity will want to take it out and make ‘nature for all’ a reality,” Jay said.
To learn more, visit the Outdoor Equity Alliance website at https://outdoorequityalliance.org/.
For more information on Carolyn Finney and her work, visit https://www.carolynfinney.com/.