Walking Freely in Nature

I grew up in the outdoors. For as far back as I can remember, most days revolved around that simple fact. It’s a way of life that I continue to this day. Numerous times each week I head outside just to be closer to nature. I go for walks, run, work out, golf, bird watch, have drinks, camp. You name it.

I’m thankful I live in a world where I have the opportunity to recreate outdoors whenever I like and without question. However, there’s a whole segment of society, namely people of color, and more specifically, black Americans, who can’t share in that same experience without real fear. Fear that their next experience in nature might be their last. Think about that reality. That’s completely unfair and immoral.

This past week, we’ve witnessed unrest across the nation that hasn’t been seen in over 50 years. The protests that are marching across the country were touched off by the murder of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.

But George’s murder doesn’t exist within a bubble. The same day in New York City’s Central Park, Amy Cooper illustrated one of the many dangers that black people, specfically black men, face when recreating outdoors. She was confronted by Christian Cooper (no relation), a bird watcher, for not having her dog on a lease. He asked if she could leash her dog. She responded by immediately calling the police, feigning danger, explicitly focusing on Mr. Cooper’s race (African American) as the main threat. She weaponized her fear and the underlying racism within herself and in this country. He was fortunate that his benign request didn’t bring him harm.

Mr. Cooper’s experience isn’t unique. In fact, it’s all too common. Only a few days earlier, a video showing the killing of Ahmaud Arbery surfaced. His crime? Going for a jog in a white neighborhood as a black man.

Experiences and stories like these rob a significant segment of society of their ability to enjoy and benefit from being in the outdoors. It robs them of opportunities that I don’t even have to think twice about.

When I created the ‘Voices of a Flyway’ project, my main goal was to highight the shared connections we all have with the natural world so we can collectively better understand how to move forward more sustainably. This includes elevating the voices of people of color and other minorities.

The echoes of Mr. Cooper’s and Mr. Arbery’s stories reverberate in our project. We spoke with numerous people of color and minorities who can’t experience nature like I can. They either have issues accessing natural spaces, big corporations and government poison the land and air where they live, and some, taking heed of history, flat out fear venturing into unfamiliar outdoor spaces.

To cope, many just don’t go outside. Of those who do, some have developed the use of a unilateral set of rules to protect them from harm that originates from the same segments of society that keeps people like me safe. The difference? My skin is lighter color.

When we think of sustainability, we think of the environment. We think of trees, animals, climate, and food. But what we forget is that the word ‘environment’ actually means the surroundings or conditions that a person, plant, or other animal lives within. The environmental conditions that Christian, Ahmaud, and so many other people of color live within are completely unsustainable.

So, under this context, how do we move forward more sustainably? We are starting by elevating those voices that need to be heard most right now. All week we are sharing stories from people of color on our social media accounts. Their lived experiences are real and need to be heard and felt by everyone. We should all take the time to listen.

Second, something all white people can do is better understand our privilege that allows us to go outside without thought. By doing this, we can better advocate for those who can’t. We must internalize this privilege and pick apart those advantages one-by-one, so we can better leverage action points that can change this system. It’s going to take a lot of work and humility, but change starts from within.

To quote Miguel, a black bird watcher from St. Louis, “The outdoors is for everyone. It’s a gift. It’s a gift for all to enjoy”. We have to look inward in this moment and focus on demanding meaningful and lasting change that truly offers everyone that gift. We do it so we can move forward sustainably, together.