An awkward silence quickly grew to fill an interminable moment of sheer agony. The thunderous clicks of my own eyelids boomed in my ears as I stood there blinking back at her. There in the crowded lounge amongst the sounds of clinking glasses and casual conversation I sighed quietly in frustration. Through clinched teeth I forced a smile and searched my mind for a politic answer to her question. As the seconds ticked past without a reply it’s possible she thought I hadn’t heard her. She asked again, “Why can’t black people, you know…just spend time outside? It’s not like anyone’s stopping them.”
I’m not easily struck speechless. In fact on this particular topic I’m considered something of a reluctant expert. Through the previous hour at this meeting for environmental activists I had outlined a very comprehensive presentation on the racial divide between those who spend time in nature and those who don’t. At that moment I was under the painful impression that this woman hadn’t heard a word I said. With a series of slides, video clips, personal anecdotes and case studies I detailed an exhaustive repertoire of plausible theories and explanations to describe what in a work of historical non-fiction of the same title I call the Adventure Gap.
At the reception following my keynote a small gaggle of conference attendees had crowded around me to chat as we sipped half-price cocktails and beer. With the woman’s question everyone in our huddle leaned in just a bit as I took a drag off the lip of my Corona. Having stalled as long as I could I offered up what has become my standard reply to this common question.
“Understanding why the adventure gap exists isn’t important, “ I said. “What matters is what each of us is doing in order to close it. The fact is there’s a growing segment of our population that has little to no relationship with the natural world and yes, many of them are people of color. But I think we all have to ask ourselves how we can inspire future generations, regardless of race, ethnicity or socio-economic status to love and ultimately protect the environment.”
The mission of the conservation movement really hasn’t changed since the days of John Muir, Horace Albright, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. Our purpose has always been to raise awareness for the importance of environmental protection among those who will take action and defend the natural world. I suppose what might be different today is the direct inclusion of those in our society who have long been marginalized and disenfranchised. Indeed, no one is stopping people of color from spending time in the outdoors. But it’s only been within the last few years that dedicated organizations have taken the time to actively encourage them.
Throughout the last century people of color who populate cities and urban areas around our county have had few opportunities, whether by personal choice or circumstances beyond their control, to venture out into nature for recreation. For decades the preservation of green space has been the priority of socially mobile, affluent, typically white citizens with the leisure time and disposable income to invest in play.
In recent years environmental inclusion groups such as Latino Outdoors, Outdoor Afro and GirlTrek, to name a few, have directly engaged minorities communities to encourage their participation in outdoor recreation. And even traditional conservation groups like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society have made sincere overtures of welcome to underrepresented segments of our population. But if we are going to make any substantive changes to encourage more people of color to become stewards of the environment I believe that it’s important for us as a society to do everything we can to make nature more readily accessible to those least likely to experience it.
The question of course is, how? As a writer I’ve pretty much decided that I’m going to try to find those efforts and initiatives that help people find nature where they are. Even in our most densely populated cities where steel and concrete so often overshadow trees and grass there are indeed places where all citizens can enjoy wonderful experiences in green spaces within walking distance of their own homes.In a recent article for the Trust For Public Land member magazine Land + People I discussed a bit of what is currently underway in my home city of Los Angeles to restore the LA River and the communities along its banks. And though much of our environmental ethos seems to revolve around the preservation of wilderness in remote areas of the West like Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon I believe our best hope of expanding the conservation movement to include more people of color lies in our best efforts to encourage everyone to spend time outside wherever they happen to be.
But first our discussions about outdoor recreation and environmental conservation have to become more inclusive. We must begin to talk about the natural world in terms that are relevant to the social and cultural realities of every population we aim to serve. And we must invite all people to participate in any way they can imagine. The protection of fresh air, clean water and open green space has greater meaning when it can be directly linked to the prosperity, health and well-being of people in their daily lives. I believe that must promote an ethos of sustainable living in our urban areas that includes the ability to safely walk for incidental exercise, access to public parks and sources of community supported agriculture. This way we can encourage all people to think proactively about preserving the natural world.
However, in order to take advantage of these primary amenities everyone in our society must be paid a living wage, have affordable housing and receive healthcare. Only then can we look upon environmental conservation as something other than the preoccupation of those who can afford to invest in spaces where they can play.
It’s not enough for us to simply ask people to spend time outside. We must also encourage them with the education and practical resources they need to enjoy it. If everyone has the financial resources and social encouragement to spend time outdoors, to eat wholesome foods and experience the quiet reflection of a natural setting I believe we can expand our constituency of empowered citizens who will support environmental conservation with their tax dollars and their votes well into the future.
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