Fall chores had preempted my regularly scheduled Sunday morning rituals. Yoga would have to wait as I raked the first round of fallen leaves from the lawn and prepared a pile of yard waste in anticipation of a Thursday pick-up. Sasha came bounding into the garden like a black scud missile on target to obliterate my efforts in a flurry of paws and her wagging tail. Our puppy loves the displacement of splashing puddles and swirling leaves as she turns every moment of our lives into a happy game of wanton destruction. I couldn’t help but laugh as our Labrador mix rolled in the pile on her back and snarled menacingly at the rake daring it to make work into play.
Just back from the dog park Shamane came through the gate with Reba trotting behind her. Our older girl, an Australian Shepherd, seemed more interested in her breakfast than continuing the morning’s excitement, but still she tumbled in the grass with Sasha before they both bolted into the house to eat.
“You’ve made a lot of progress,” Shamane said surveying my work so far. “That reminds me, I have to plant the garlic before Columbus Day.”
Leaning back into the rake and my pile of leaves I said, “Thanks,” and with a smirk, “You mean Native-American Holocaust Day?”
After 18 years of marriage my wife knows not to encourage a heavy conversation. Perhaps she sensed the funk that had settled over my thoughts in recent weeks and opted not to engage. As she walked into the house to feed the dogs I’m sure she rolled her eyes and said over her shoulder, “No, I mean it’s going to snow soon and we have to get ready for winter.”
Early the previous morning I poured coffee into my favorite driving mug. Screwing the cap into place I stood there at the kitchen counter with a lingering sense of dread. I wasn’t concerned about where I going. Thanks to the app on my iPhone I knew the way. The 80-mile trip to Hartford, Wisconsin would take less than two hours and the fall weather would be glorious. Only one question concerned me. What was I supposed to do once I arrived. On my way to another board of directors meeting, my third that week, I agonized over how I was supposed to influence the course of institutions charged with the protection of the natural world. As I had made it my mission to bring more people of color into the cause of environmental conservation I found that I was struggling with the notion of exactly how.
Having written a book on the topic, co-produced a documentary film and lectured on college campuses around the country I suppose it’s fair to suggest or even assume that I might have a least a few answers. At a recent presentation at the University of Wisconsin Department of Geography I was asked by a student, “What are you doing besides writing articles?” I confess the question made me wonder. As a writer is it my responsibility just to report on the actions of others or as a person of conscience is it my obligation to be an activist as well?
Shouldering my backpack I walked silently through the house in the pre-dawn darkness. Reba and Sasha followed as I made my way to the front door. Patting them each on the head I left house in a scuffle of crunchy leaves on the porch and down the sidewalk to the driveway. In the light of the street lamp I brushed a few more leaves from the windshield of my car and made a mental note to rake. “It’s going to snow soon,” I thought to myself. “And we have to get ready for winter.”
The week before I hoisted my bike off its hook in the garage. I contemplated driving instead as the grey sky above threatened to rain. We live just three miles from Downtown Madison and I couldn’t fathom the idea of paying to park, especially since Shamane rides to work every day even with a foot of snow on the ground. As the garage door came closed with a definitive “thunk!” I swung my leg over the seat and pedaled away, off to attend the YWCA Racial Justice Summit.
“Shouldn’t it just be justice?” I thought as I passed cars in the morning traffic. It would seem since the invasion of North America in 1492 we’ve made this mistaken distinction between “us” and “them” to divid the people of the world into classifications with no apparent difference other than the color of one’s skin. With the confiscation of land from native people and the genocide that followed with the enslavement of kidnapped Africans our social institutions are thoroughly tainted with racial discrimination to their very core. Rights and privileges are assigned to some and not others so that today we must gather to discuss and explore the existent to which we might achieve not just equality but equity.
“Racial Justice is the systemic fair treatment of all races that results in equitable opportunities and outcomes for everyone,” said day-one keynote speaker Rink Sen, Executive Director of Race Forward based in New York City. The complexities of institutional bias require us to invest our thoughts, actions and words in ways through which we might correct the failings of our past today in order to achieve better social circumstances tomorrow. As the event was themed “Changing The Narrative” I was interested in discovering how as a writer and storyteller I might help to change how we talk about race.
I learned that we have to challenge our presumptions. Despite the progress we have made in eliminating legal discrimination there still real remain institutional biases that deny justice for all.
“Question your conclusions, especially when you think you’re right,” said day-two keynote speaker, author and diversity advocate Verna Myers. “Intensionally look to break your unconscious bias.”
Nothing is as it seems. Just as we cannot assume all people of color live in poverty we cannot take for granted that all white people enjoy privilege and prosperity. I believe that we have to dismantle our common narratives and understand that even though we were all created equal we do not necessarily share the same cultural experiences or values. We must therefore learn to empathize with those of life circumstances that are different from our own and not as Myers said, “treat people the way WE would like to be treated, but rather how THEY would like to be treated.”
A week later that spirit of empathy rattled around somewhere in my head as I sat in a restaurant ballroom expected to advocate for the management of public land. As a board member of the Ice Age Trail Alliance I have the privilege of helping to protect space set aside for all people to enjoy. As a land trust organization we voted to acquire thousands of acres for recreational use and environmental protection. Somehow it occurred to me that with a seat at this particular table I was making it possible for anyone with the inclination, disposable income and leisure time to spend time in nature. But the reality is that due to the enduring inequities of wealth and privilege in our society, which sadly still fall along racial lines, there continues to be a disparity between those who can experience the outdoors and those who cannot. So if we are going to protect the natural environment we must work to resolve issues of racial justice as well.
Perhaps the sense of dread I feel stems from the overwhelming magnitude of this particular challenge. With so many other issues facing our society today homelessness, wage disparities, disproportionate rates of incarceration, drug abuse and gun violence, how can we expect to make environmental protection a national priority. As a solitary individual with limited resources and influence there is only so much I can ever accomplish to achieve the goals I seek. Blessed with the privileges of a debt-free college education, domestic stability, home ownership and financial literacy who am I to suggest to the parents of children who may not know where their next meal is coming from that they should seek solace in nature?
It’s not enough to merely set land aside for public use and declare that it is free and open to everyone. If we’re going to truly protect these wild places we must also repair the damaged systems that have traditionally provided the American people with the social capital necessary to enjoy them. If public land is going to be accessible to all we must also work to provide everyone with a living wage, affordable housing, health care, equitable banking services, fully funded public schools, access to nutritious food, clean drinking water and conscientious law enforcement. By removing the institutional biases that put these basic necessities out of reach for so many I believe that we can heal the wounds of our nation first inflicted by the trauma of racism and discrimination. If we can just acknowledge our common humanity and insist upon the fair treatment of everyone I believe that we can achieve racial justice as well as environmental justice.
With the leaves and yard waste piled neatly at the curb I set the rake back on its hook in the garage. In the coming weeks more leaves will fall but they will be swept into the flower beds to mulch Shamane’s spring tulips and daffodils. With her garlic bulbs planted before the first hard frost we’re pretty much set for the cold weather yet to come. But there is still so much to do. For now, just Sasha darts about in the sunshine of a cool autumn morning daring me to turn my work into play, I must find joy in this labor of love. I understand as a practical matter, like raking fall leaves, that I must put aside my bitterness and cynicism to do what I can to inspire others to continue in these essential tasks to make our world a better place.
“It’s going to snow soon,” I thought as Sasha followed me into the house. “And we have to get ready for winter.”
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