Ideas & The Tools of Democracy

Ideas & The Tools of Democracy

Over the weekend I had the distinct privilege of hosting a panel discussion. The CapTimes Idea Fest is annual gathering in Madison where local thought leaders share their expertise on a variety of different topics. Ranging from the current state of Wisconsin politics and early childhood education through racial equality and the cultural significance of the musical Hamilton, more than 1,300 members of our community came together so that they might better understand the pressing issues of modern times. 

The panel I moderated was titled Wisconsin’s Environment and Communities of Color. In keeping with my focus on the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in outdoor recreation and environmental conservation, I invited three colleagues that work directly on these issues as both advocates and educators. My friend Gloria Castillo Posada is the sustainable communities initiative director at Sustain Dane, a nonprofit dedicated to making Dane County environmentally sustainable. Dylan Bizhikiins Jennings is the director of public information at Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, which manages treaty-protected natural resources. Dylan is a tribal council member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. And Monica White is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison in the department of Community and Environmental Sociology. Her research engages communities of color and grassroots organizations that are involved in the development of sustainable community food systems. 

It was humbling to be in such distinguished company for this discussion. But I was excited to learn more about the critical work currently underway to tell a more comprehensive story about how Latinos, Native Americans and African Americans live, work and play in the natural world. I have long believed that along with all public lands our National Parks are the best idea we as a nation have ever had. It should come as no surprise that people of color have always been involved in environmental conservation. What remains to understand is exactly how these communities express their cultural values, their ideas, in the preservation of nature.

At the conclusion of our panel I was approached by an older white gentleman who was apparently inspired by the things he had learned. “I have two young African-American grandchildren,” he said. “And I would love to get them involved in the outdoors. Are there any groups you can recommend to help me do that?” 

This is a question I am frequently asked. As a growing number of white couples are adopting black children, either here in the U.S. or from parts of Africa like Ethiopia, there is a rising need to discover ways to share their love of nature in meaningful ways in their blended families. Instantly I told him about the local Outdoor Afro group that leads outings to nearby nature areas. Participants can learn about these sites while getting a short lesson on the cultural contributions of African Americans. While they experience the outdoors through hiking or paddling in a nearby wilderness area, those who attend can also ground themselves in the narrative of how these places came to be. And once they become part of the story they may be more inclined to protect and preserve the land for future generations.

As the man and I spoke I was reminded of another public discussion I attended earlier in the week. DeRay McKesson, a leading activist in the Black Lives Matter movement, gave a talk about his new book On The Other Side of Freedom at the Orpheum Theatre. Moderated by Piper Kerman, author of the book Orange Is The New Black, the conversation focused on McKesson’s efforts to achieve racial equity in the treatment of African-Americans by police officers. Apart from the horrific statistics he sited on the failure to report acts of violence perpetrated against people of color by agents law enforcement I was impressed by his assessment of contemporary social activism. “We have talks like this all the time. There’s plenty of information out there,” McKesson said. “What we need to do now is give people the tools they need to do something with it.”

Piper Kerman with DeRay McKesson at the Orphem Theatre in Madison

I think we’re all long past knowing that there are vast disparities in how differently people are treated in the world today. The atrocities of the past have created a playing field so uneven that those born outside of the privileged class will constantly struggle to achieve even a semblance of equity. We know this. What remains to understand now is what we can do to indeed bend the long moral arch of the universe toward justice. What tools can we create and deploy to allow the individuals who attend these wonderful panel discussions to take what they have learned, these ideas, to become the change they most want to see in the world?

Two hundred and forty two years ago on this continent the tool we created was American Democracy. Sadly like a knife left too long in a kitchen draw it seems to have grown dull with lack of use. But we can still sharpen its edge by becoming a better informed and engaged electorate. It’s not enough just to turn up on Election Day. We have to be active participants in the communities in which we live. Constantly we must speak our truth to those we have chosen to lead. And we must hold accountable all who would put their own interests above those whom they have sworn to serve. It’s simply not enough to vote in November. Must remain eternally vigilant in the defense of those things we value most. In free exchange of ideas we stand as citizens of our democracy. Through the knowledge and information we receive  each of us is better equipped to make rational choices for the benefit of everyone. 

The notion that we should all have free and equitable access to public space is indeed the best idea that American democracy ever conceived. If we can expand that concept to include city streets, shopping centers, public schools and college campuses perhaps this tool can be made sharp enough to create lasting change for generations yet to come.

I hope to continue this discussion at the Adventure Film Festival on October 6, 2018. I’ll be presenting on the ETown stage with visionaries Jeremy Collins, Shannon Galpin, James Q Martin and Caroline Gleigh as part of the Make Your Own Legends Speakers Series. For details visit:

Hope to see you there!