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Connecting the dots: why black lives must matter to the environmental movement


Published on

07 - 12 - 2016

image of Audre Lorde with a joyous smile while canoeing on a lake

There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives. – Audre Lorde (photographed above)

In the days since the police shot and killed Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, we’ve seen the gamut of reactions on social media: from outpourings of sympathy, to grief and despair, to anger and rage, and more. As we’ve monitored the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds, we’ve also been reflecting on what role we at the Avarna Group have to play in this civil rights movement.

Here’s where we’ve landed. We dwell in the environmental and outdoor space, which is not devoid of power structures, privilege and oppression—all concepts at the forefront of civil rights. And we’ve been disappointed that (with a few exceptions) there has yet to be a galvanizing call from the environmental movement or outdoor recreation sector to take action beyond extending condolences. We wanted to take this opportunity to link our movement to #BlackLivesMatter in the hopes that we will step up and do more.

Don’t get me wrong. Some organizations in our space, like the Sierra Club and Outdoor Afro, have responded to the recent atrocities by explicitly connecting the dots between their mission and the Black Lives Matter movement and taking concrete action. But the entire movement has an opportunity and the responsibility to do more. In fact, the future of the environmental movement and outdoor recreation hinges on our proactive participation in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Here’s why:

  • If something is preventing a person from realizing their fundamental right to a healthy and safe environment (such as police brutality or environmental degradation) then we have a responsibility to work to remove the obstacle.
  • If you advocate for clean air for all, remember that means nothing when people can’t breathe.
  • If you are one of the many agencies and organizations advocating for safe and inclusive public lands, remember that people of color aren’t safe anywhere, let alone on public lands.
  • There is a history of brutality aimed at black folks in the outdoors; if we do not address that legacy, we are complicit in any violence against black and brown bodies.
  • Environmentalism as a movement has a history of racism; failing to listen to the needs and demands of racial justice groups means the environmental movement cannot move toward racial equity.
  • If you are depending on a largely black and brown voter base to secure the protection of lands you manage or conserve, ensuring protection of their basic civil rights is the first step toward showing that you care about their future.
  • If you lead trips in the outdoors for a largely white participant base and want to attract more people of color to your programs, it’s crucial to urge your current participants to break down barriers that are precluding their peers of color from participating in your programming.
  • If you are an organization that teaches leadership or teamwork in nature, remember that leadership means working effectively across cultures, understanding the experiences of people from different backgrounds, thinking critically about systems of power in society, and learning how to be an agent of change.
  • If you’re working in youth development where your mission is supporting the next generation, and you do not talk about #BlackLivesMatter, you are doing the youth a disservice because engaging in conversations around racism is essential to leadership in the next generation, especially within the environmental movement.

So now that we’ve connected some of the dots for you, we hope you will take action. Don’t just “say their names.” Do more. It is your responsibility as an individual and organization to articulate how you can support #BlackLivesMatter based on your unique identities, experiences, and spheres of influence. That said, here are some ways you can begin to take action.

  • Urge your employees to engage with organizations like Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and Campaign Zero
  • Give to black led racial justice organizations (here’s a list)
  • Start banking with a black led institution and hire black-owned businesses for as many services as possible
  • If you manage public lands, find ways to actively welcome people of color to visit and find healing in nature (e.g., support Outdoor Afro’s #HealingHikes)
  • Host a conversation with your staff about Black Lives Matters; create space for staff to express their thoughts and concerns.
  • Host a staff meeting to brainstorm how your organization can support Black Lives Matter in a meaningful way.
  • Share this blog post with white identified staff.
  • Ask local community organizations how your organization can support them.
  • Investigate and demand accountability in your local police department.
  • If you have the ear of legislators, knock down their doors to demand police accountability.