Invasive Species

Last spring, I helped to organize a local event as part of a national campaign to get people connected to nature. As much as I wanted to share how wonderful the event was, how well attended and rich the experience, until now I was unable to do so because there was a part of the experience that day that pained me, and has since sat like a lump in the back of my throat.

All the time I hear reasons why African-Americans do not engage with the outdoors. From experience, I know it’s not just because of the bugs, or a rustic engagement with nature that can signal a lack of modern-day progress, but sometimes because of the people they may encounter along the way. In some circles, whispers still remain of “strange fruit,” or a fear that bad things happen to black people in the woods.

Many have seen the satire of Blair Underwood, stymied over and over again by the way those he encountered responded dramatically to his unassuming hike in nature. For many black people who find ourselves on a back-country trail as the only person of color for miles around, each Underwood scene, no matter how humorously staged, rings true, and exemplifies the psychological barriers we must push through in order to simply enjoy nature: the nervous or inquisitive stares, questions about what we are doing, or the overly enthusiastic embrace that can leave us feeling like a rare, identified species discovered in the wild.

So I partnered with an organization I respect tremendously to bring youth and their families by bus from the local community to come out for a day of play in nature. Leading up to the event, we deliberately reached out to families who live in poorer communities within a city (like many) divided geographically and socially by class, with many never venturing beyond the ten-square blocks of their own neighborhood, much less into the remote wild that looms perilously in the skyline. In the weeks before the event, we personally invited people at local community meetings, and early-childhood development centers. We obtained the blessing of city park and recreation leadership and also made promotional materials available in a few languages. Our efforts left us feeling hopeful that the event would reflect the true diversity of the community not commonly seen in local nature.

What began as a diverse group of families exploring nature, many for the first time, was quickly shaken-up by the presence of a nearby and vocal resident, who demanded to know: “What is going on here?”

The concerned resident was visibly upset, struggling to string together words to name her distress. She mentioned that the event came to her attention because she found herself in her car, stuck behind a slowly climbing bus on her way home. She decided to follow it to see where the diesel carrier might go, what it might contain.

She followed the passengers off the bus into the public park, and along the trail leading to the narrow, curved strip of land where the event was staged. There, she found a temporary play space in an impacted clearing, with imported natural materials such as dried bamboo, palm fronds, mounds of dirt, rocks, native plant clippings, and plenty of wet mud. While surveying the new park visitors, she expressed concern about the presence of so many “non-native” species, and said she was troubled by the threat to the local ecology.

Feeling responsible, I stepped in to try to engage her in a discussion about how people can engage with nature in a variety of ways. I tried to discuss cultural relevancy and how the event was a safe, rare invitation for families to discover and begin to build a relationship with the wild spaces right in their home town. I tried to explain how the material would be removed once the play event was over. But as we talked, I saw she was not satisfied with my answers, and became more agitated and resolute. With a sinking feeling, I could see my expressed passion for connecting this community of black and brown folks to the outdoors was very misunderstood.

Without satisfaction from our conversation, the resident said that she needed to speak to someone else because I had an “attitude,” and therefore decided she was going to contact the City Council as well as a national environmental organization to protest the event. Feeling deflated, yet still hopeful for resolution, I led her to my co-organizers and colleagues (all white) who helped to reassure her of the merits of the event and clean-up plans. And I listened nearby with humility, as they were also obliged to vouch for my character.

My own feelings aside, I was actually more worried about who might be overhearing this passionate exchange, and how they might react; Would they feel unwelcomed? Would they ever return to nature again?

The resident was eventually able to calm, and I decided to get present to the gifts all around me. I observed my own giddy kids from afar building forts and fairy houses, the pride of families creating in nature for the first time, many muddy fingers and toes, and relaxed parents (relieved from always having to say “no” to play in their own neighborhoods) finally safe to say “yes.”

Yet it was heartbreaking that the concerned resident could not see past those magic moments and into the future of these youth and their families to become the conservationists our lands and their health so desperately need. She could not see that the seeds of love for self and the planet evolve from connectedness and relationship between land and people, most often through unstructured discovery and play – and that there were no invasive species that day after all.

Here are three short videos that share some of the beauty in nature experienced by all that day:

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  • http://www.fledgingbirders.org/CFAB.html Dave Magpiong

    It gets increasingly frustrating to hear about “artificial barriers” that come between people and nature due to nothing more than ignorance and, dare I say, prejudice.

    During on of my Civil Rights Movement lessons this year, I had a student ask, “since we have a black president, doesn’t that mean there isn’t any more racism in America?”

    One can only wish it was that simple.

  • http://www.naturesculpture.com Zach Pine

    Thanks for sharing about the event. As another organizer there, I had many of the same feelings you had. Especially because we had all worked so hard to make everyone welcome there, it was upsetting to have this incident at the outset. I’m thankful for the strength and patience you and other organizers had in speaking with that woman – and, as you point out, it was a rich and wonderful event.

  • Rue

    Yes Dave, there is still work to do – thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  • Rue

    I appreciate you chiming in Zach. It is important to highlight that I was not the only organizer “bruised” by the event, but as evidenced in the photos and videos, it was really a terrific time had by the participating families. Therefore, I have no regrets.

  • Kymberly Miller

    Great post Rue. As situations like this may make organizers and participants frustrated, it does make me think that helping folks explore nature in their neighborhood is more about exposure to people. About being “other” or not; about what is “mine” and what is not “yours.” Nature then plays a backdrop to the evolution of how we see each other as human beings moving through the same spaces. It requires “organizers” to be armed with more….what, social science skills, compassion and controlled bravery. It requires participants to be armed with more self esteem, perseverance and strength. It shouldn’t but seems like it does. We pick up these learnings and continue to try and provide relevant and fun opportunities in nature for ourselves and our community. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  • Rue

    Very good points Kymberly. I could not agree more about the need to be able to address the multi-faceted experience of the outdoors beyond the nature…

  • http://www.naomisays.net Naomi Says

    My husband and I decided we were going to take our kids camping for the first time. We went to a local state park. He wanted to show our sons how to fish and our daughter how to set up her own tent. My husband is from the country but myself on the other hand, I was raised in the city. I thought OMG…I am going to hate this! To my disbelief I loved it as well as the kids. I support your mission 100%. My ignorant way of thinking (prior to our trip) was, black people didn’t camp and that it sounded to much like living in a slave house. There are some amazing tents out there! There is so much to be said about becoming one with nature, regardless of skin color, nationality, religion or whatever else excuse someone might want to give. People should give it a try before you miss out on the fun! I am working on a business promotion that involves a couples retreat in tents. If you have any advice or camp games I would greatly appreciate it.

  • http://www.naomisays.net Naomi Says

    Concerning the nosey local. I’m sure she wasn’t concerned for the environment. She more than likely had preconceived judgments similar to my pre-camping experience… ignorance. All that matters is that God prevailed and your mission was a success! Congrats

  • Rue

    Thank you Naomi for such a great story. It speaks directly to the intention of Outdoor Afro – that people get out from under their own sense of limitations to enjoy something wonderful and sustainable.

    I would love to profile your experience – it is definitely worth sharing!

  • http://caramelsonmaple.wordpress.com Francie

    Rue — Thank you so much for sharing. I am so sorry this happened to you and I really hope the folks you were with either missed, ignored or overcame this woman’s bigoted ignorance.

    I felt real heartbreak reading this story, because I’m a black woman raising three biracial kids in a semi-rural New England town, and scenarios like this are familiar to me. I remember being out on a glorious sunny day and stumbling onto a church rummage sale walking through our town (which has exactly one traffic light). A woman walked up to me immediately an asked how I had managed to find their sale “all the way out here.” I then explained that I lived three blocks up the street. In just a few seconds, she had ruined my day. But it’s so good to read that you’ve been able to move past the negative energy and not let it define such a positive event.

  • Rue

    Hi Francie – Thanks for your comment, and I am appreciative of your sharing.

    Sadly, these scenarios are far too common, therefore we have to speak our truth rather than suffer in silence and in isolation.

    I know the integrity of my work here depends on this. Perhaps together, through our shared stories, we can continue to raise visibility of this issue, find new ways to support one another, and transform this barrier into opportunities for greater connectedness with nature.

    Rue

  • http://www.earthwiseproductionsinc.com Audrey Peterman

    Dearest Rue,

    I love you! I love everything about you, and the noble work you are doing.

    I applaud your restraint in this particular situation. I could write a book about white individuals who have made similar disparaging comments to people of color who they perceive as “not belonging” in an outdoors setting. In less than 4 decades, 50 percent of the population of the US will be Americans of color, and you are setting a great example of the kind of tolerance needed to deal with those people who see their “privilege” being threatened just by the presence of others who don’t fit their idea of who “belongs.” we are all Americans, for Gosh sakes, and we will sink or swim together…check out another aspect of the discussion happening at http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2011/07/04/diversity-national-parks

  • Rue

    Thank you Audrey, you know that are very responsible for the way I am able to step out into the world through OA, and your thoughts mean so much to me.

    Honestly, it was really hard to move through the insult of that day, and I found I could not throw up a promotional blog without first getting through that hurt. And I am glad I took all the time needed to get grounded.

    I was also glad for the support of my co-organizers and colleges present that day who previewed the blog before I posted it. This not only helped us to have proper closure, but also served as a reminder that this work requires the thoughtful partnership of many different hues.

    Thank you again Audrey.

  • http://communityvillage.us Glenn Robinson

    Rue, thank you for sharing this story. The U.S. has quite a lot of work to do regarding the prevalence of xenophobia.

  • Anonymous

    BINGO Glenn – thanks for chiming in!

  • Anonymous

    I’m sorry that your trip was made less enjoyable by some ignorant person, but bravo for getting out there in the first place! I’m white but it’s always disturbed me to see so little diversity in camp grounds, national parks or even on beaches, but thankfully that seems to be changing. Nature should be enjoyed by all.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you! Certainly one bad apple did not spoil our fun, and it is so important to get outside regardless of the attitudes of others!

  • Bronx River-Sankofa

    Wow on so many counts. The videos are priceless – I needed them to feel the joy of the day. Sometimes we are made to feel unwelcome in our public spaces simply by the imposition of fees where there were none a generation ago before we allowed our tax base to be eroded by offshore banking and excessive tax cuts for fellow Americans in the upper 20% of incomes and large corporations.

  • Bronx River-Sankofa

    Wow on so many counts. The videos are priceless – I needed them to feel the joy of the day. Sometimes we are made to feel unwelcome in our public spaces simply by the imposition of fees where there were none a generation ago before we allowed our tax base to be eroded by offshore banking and excessive tax cuts for fellow Americans in the upper 20% of incomes and large corporations.

  • Bronx River-Sankofa

    I just listened to your interview Mama Audrey. Well done. It’s still on-line 2 years later.

  • rulette

    I know – thanks for your comment

    Sent from a hand held device. Apologies for typos or brevity.