Taking Nature Black

The following is part of the Moving Forward Initiative blog series.

By Allison Puglisi 
Ph.D. Candidate, American Studies, Harvard University


On February 28, 2018—the last day of Black History Month—Mustafa Santiago Ali took the floor at the Taking Nature Black conference in Maryland. He had an unusual question for the audience: “By a show of hands, in the last sixty seconds, how many folks have taken a breath of air? Hold your hand up if you’ve taken a breath of air.”

The audience, laughing, raised their hands.

“When we breathe in,” said Ali, “we expect to be receiving something positive to our bodies.” He listed a number of cities with severe air pollution and told the group, “we have far too many communities across our country who are still battling every day for a breath of fresh air.”

Ali, Senior Vice President of Climate, Environmental Justice, & Community Revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus, was one of 21 speakers at Taking Nature Black. The one-day conference, which is in its second year, is hosted by the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) at their headquarters in Chevy Chase, MD. This year, the conference filled to capacity just three weeks after registration opened. More than 200 people attended—double the number at the first conference in 2016. https://www.anshome.org/2017/11/taking-nature-black-2016  

The conference featured performers, professors, riverkeepers, engineers, inventors, lawyers, public officials, and consultants—all of whom work on environmental issues. Speakers discussed the environmental problems facing communities of color, and what today’s environmentalists can learn from black farmers and conservationists in history. They challenged the idea that urban communities lack nature or wildlife, andencouraged conference-goers to look close to home for interactions with nature.

The conference also addressed environmental activism and careers. Speakers discussed how to make racial justice a more central part of environmentalism, shared experiences from the workforce, and offered strategies to impact the political process—as well as build “green” careers. https://anshome.org/2018/01/tnb-topics-2018/

Perhaps most importantly, Taking Nature Black brought together a group of people often excluded from the environmental movement. Caroline Brewer, conference chair and Director of Marketing and Communications for the ANS, says Taking Nature Black is an “opportunity to share and celebrate African American contributions to the environment. Rarely do you see African Americans represented, and yet we have this long-standing history.”

That history spans farming, conservation, environmental activism, and many other traditions.

After centuries of being forced to cultivate land under slavery, and being exploited as sharecroppers, many African Americans bought land and continued farming on their own terms. To this day, farming remains a tool for African Americans to sustain their communities and preserve their family histories. Over the last several decades, hundreds of thousands of black farmers have lost their land to scams, government discrimination, and development. Farmers who still own land are working to keep it amid rising costs.

This is what “taking nature black” means to Joseph James. James is founder and president of Agri-Tech Producers, a company that remediates polluted soil by growing special biocrops. Preserving black landownership is particularly important to James, whose company is based in South Carolina. As an innovator and entrepreneur, he has been active in political discussions about land, agriculture, and energy. At Taking Nature Black, he spoke on a panel about engaging elected officials.

In addition to farming and agriculture, African Americans have been crucial to environmental activism. In the 1910s, the National Association for Colored Women (NACW) led public awareness campaigns on health issues like garbage disposal and insect-borne diseases. Later on, at the height of the Jim Crow era, black Americans fought to access the parks, beaches, and swimming pools that so many white nature enthusiasts already enjoyed. Many pools did not allow black swimmers at all, but some allowed them on designated days. At the end of the day, they would empty and refill the pool with new water before reopening it to white patrons.

After civil rights activists won integration and ended practices like these, many of them turned their attention to the problem of oil, chemicals, and toxic waste. They demanded, and continue to demand, that waste dumps and other hazards be removed from minority communities.

As these moments show, African Americans have long advocated for the environment: through civil rights organizations, religious institutions, and family farms. On the other hand, mainstream environmental groups did not always address African Americans’ needs or include them as full participants. Rather than confront that difficult history, some still assume African Americans have no interest in the outdoors—or concern for the earth.

“Taking Nature Black disrupts that perception,” says Karen Driscoll, who spoke at this year’s conference. Driscoll is a Senior Associate at the Raben Group and also works with Green 2.0, an initiative to strengthen diversity at environmental NGOs, foundations, and government agencies. At Taking Nature Black this February, Driscoll joined two other panelists for a discussion about diversity, equity, and inclusion in environmentalism. For Driscoll, diversity is about more than filling a room with people: “It means making a commitment to do your work differently,” she said.

The ANS and organizations like it are part of this changing landscape. The ANS was originally founded in Washington, D.C. in 1897 for the conservation of birds. Today, it also serves the needs and interests of the Washington, D.C. area by providing environmental education.

As environmental organizations address their pasts and work to increase diversity, their members and partners interrogate the meaning of the word “diversity.” Brewer suggests that although people often think of diversity in raw numbers, numbers mean less if minorities are expected to simply “blend in.”

This year’s conference was not about blending in. It was an opportunity to confront racist histories, reclaim forgotten legacies, and bring together future leaders.


For your Consideration:

  • Do a quick web search for “green jobs,” or glance at the short bios of this year’s Taking Nature Black speakers (https://www.neefusa.org/taking-nature-black ). What do you find? What do these careers have in common?
  • On its conference page, the Audubon Naturalist Society writes, “Diversity and inclusion are actually two very different concepts, but their impacts in the workplace and the larger society are more profound when the two are implemented together. In fact, diversity is essentially meaningless without inclusion.” What do you think? How are diversity and inclusion different?

Farming as a Political Act: The Connection between African-Americans and Land - Part 2

Blog by Ashley McNeil, Communications Assistant

For centuries, the connection between African-Americans and agriculture was tainted by the institution of slavery and the exploitative labor systems that continued in the years following the abolition of slavery. Even as African-Americans gained the right to own land, there were - and continue to be - institutional policies and practices that work against black farmers and land owners. In the modern day, however, farming has become a way for African-Americans to reclaim a piece of history and promote community health and healing. In this two-part series, we will explore what it means to be a black farmer. We will discuss history (Part I), as well as the modern black farming movement (Part II), by uncovering stories of heritage, lost and reclaimed. 


PART II: Back to the Land 

Modern Farmer
Engineer-turned-farmer Chris Newman left fast-paced Washington, D.C. for the quiet hills of Charlottesville, VA. In D.C., long hours and fast food halted his quest for a healthier life; he wanted to get outside and move around. Now, living on his farm in the country, he is healthier, eats dairy products again, and enjoys rising with the sun. Newman and his wife raise pigs, ducks, and chickens.

“Because I grow all this stuff, I tend to eat it. I don’t eat at Popeye’s anymore. I think it’s disgusting. I used to love Popeye’s. Now I can’t eat that crap,” Newman said.

The transition from engineering to farming was more a political act than for personal gain. Newman hopes to encourage other people of color to become farmers. He advocates for sustainable farm practices that enable access to healthy food for all communities. His main goal is to fix the system to be more inclusive: farming is more than 90 percent white and the second whitest job in the country. Visibility of African-Americans in this field is somewhat nonexistent.

“You go into Whole Foods around here, you don’t see black people; you go to farmers markets, don’t see that many black people; you go to farms, don’t see any black people.”

Newman suggests money and continued racism are the pitfall of inclusivity in farming. Newman’s produce is expensive: eggs sell for $5 a dozen. This price tag comes from the fact that his farm is completely organic, chemical, and preservative free. His animals fertilize the soil: the healthiest way to grow crops. Newman is quick to acknowledge his food is not affordable or accessible for everyone. In the United States, accessing fresh, healthy food can be particularly challenging for people living in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Lack of access to healthy food limits overall physical health. According to author Alan Yu, “African Americans are one and a half times as likely to be obese than white people, and they eat fewer vegetables than other racial groups.”

In this new profession, Newman has experienced racism and prejudice first hand. The cops were called on him when he delivered food to customers, and when he pulled over in a white neighborhood to eat his lunch. As he puts it, this is just part of  farming while black. Even so, Newman continues to address the lack of diversity among farmers by hiring interns, prioritizing the recruitment of women and people of color from underrepresented communities.

“It’s about recognizing that there are barriers there for them that there aren’t for other people and that we need that lift, because the world is not our oyster,” he said.

Newman’s hard work paid off: last year his farm broke even. He hopes his story will be an example to people of color that they too can succeed in an industry that has previously taken not only their land, but their connection to the land.


Next Generation
Many black people have strayed from farming because of the legacy of land grabbing and forced labor. In an interview with VICE Impact, Walker Marsh, founder of Tha Flower Factory, a Baltimore initiative to grow local herbs and flowers, stated, “I used to equate land work to slavery. But the first day I started farming, I realized this was not slavery at all. When you can go out and create something, that’s true freedom to me.”

Marsh is one of many black farmers who have new joy in farming and use this work to diversify and reclaim a practice once corrupted with injustice.

According to black famers and activists alike, the revitalization of farming in the African-American community lies in the hands of youth. In partnership with the Chrysler Foundation, the National Black Farmers Association grants scholarships to encourage young people to get involved in farming.

“You don’t see black farmers,” said Marsh. “We don’t know what a black farmer looks like. When I was a kid, I pictured an old white dude with a pitchfork on a tractor. But now that I’ve been doing it, I’ve met black farmers I look up to.”

Representation and visibility are key to improving the number of African-American farmers. Local farmers Xavier Brown, Boe Luther, and Wallace Kirby, founders of Hustlaz to Harvesters, offer the formerly incarcerated a way out of poverty by introducing them to urban agriculture careers through the Dix Street community garden in Washington, D.C. The farm was created through the urban agricultural initiative Soilful City. Thirty-two garden beds serve the predominantly African-American community of Clay Terrace, home to 70,000 people. Like most low-income African-American communities, access to healthy, fresh produce was limited: there’s only one large grocery store. Most of these communities are food deserts. Through the garden, the community was rebuilt. Connection to healthy produce and cultural heritage were regained.

 “Afro-ecology is reorientation of our connection to the land, an organizing principle, and the way we express our culture while we grow food and grow healthy people.” – Xavier Brown



Community Farming 
A number of Corps engage in urban farming or have created community gardens to provide healthy produce to communities in need and train a young, more diverse generation of farmers.

Green City Force
Since 2012, Green City Force has worked with New York City Housing Authority to bring urban farming to low income communities. The Farms at NYCHA program is part of Building Healthy Communities (BHC), a city-wide partnership focused on improving health outcomes in 12 neighborhoods throughout the city. The farms, which are located on NYCHA properties, are designed to bring organic produce to food deserts and promote sustainable living in public housing communities. Their presence is intended to encourage residents to engage in local green spaces and start important conversations about food and environmental justice. The Corpsmembers who grow the food and maintain the gardens are also all NYCHA residents. Through the program, they gain valuable leadership and job skills.

Covering a total of five acres, the NYCHA farms have transformed formerly underutilized areas in low-income communities into lush green spaces that encourage active living and healthy eating. The farms project a spirit of togetherness; fruits and vegetables are distributed to public housing residents in exchange for volunteer time or household compost; over 20,000 residents benefit from this program.

Civic Works
Civic Works’ Real Food Farm initiative works towards a just and sustainable food system by improving access to food, providing education, and developing an economically viable and economically responsible local agriculture sector. Corpsmembers at Civic Works help transform abandoned lots throughout the city of Baltimore into community gardens and green spaces. They also grown local fresh food by managing an eight-acre farm at Clifton Park. Food access in the city is improved through the Corps’ Mobile Farmers Market, a converted delivery truck that sells fresh fruit and vegetables at community gathering locations, like schools and libraries. Since 2009, over 60,000 of food has been grown and over 3,000 people have been educated about gardening, sustainable agriculture and healthy eating.

Los Angeles Conservation Corps
From 2013 – 2017, the Little Green Fingers program, made possible through a grant from First 5 LA, sought to address the growing obesity epidemic in Los Angeles County by providing access to fresh fruit and vegetables to young at-risk children in low-income communities that are also considered “food deserts.” The goal was to help children and their families lead healthier lives and maintain healthier weights.

The LA Conservation Corps and partner organizations worked closely with the community to plan a garden. They considered everything from its layout, to amenities in the garden, to what crops to grow. Families applied to join the garden and played an active role in its construction.

Once constructed, Corpsmembers handled the final details – like ensuring the irrigation system worked, installing fencing, and constructing children’s play equipment – before handing over care of the garden to the community; many garden’s are still run by communities today.


For African-Americans, reclaiming connection to the land is, in fact, a political act. Instead of walking away from farming, and its history of hatred and discrimination, today’s community of African-American farmers recognize the past, and realize the importance of participating in building a future agricultural system that is inclusive, empowering, and capable of making healthy food more sustainable and accessible.


All sources cited in this piece can be found in the Moving Forward Initiative Resource Library.

For your consideration

  1. The vast majority of farm owners are white. What steps should be taken to generate more diversity and inclusivity in farming? How do we move forward?
    • ​In what ways (if any) do you believe our agricultural system might be affected if farm ownership were more diverse?
  2. Newman states “farming while black” can be difficult. Why do you think there is a stigma around black farmers?
    • ​Does unconscious bias play a role?
  3. In the last few years, community farming in low-income communities has boomed. What benefits could community farming bring to any community, not just low-income neighborhoods?



Farming as a Political Act: The Connection between African-Americans and Land

Blog by Ashley McNeil, Communications Assistant

For centuries, the connection between African-Americans and agriculture was tainted by the institution of slavery and the exploitative labor systems that continued in the years following the abolition of slavery. Even as African-Americans gained the right to own land, there were - and continue to be - institutional policies and practices that work against black farmers and land owners. In the modern day, however, farming has become a way for African-Americans to reclaim a piece of history and promote community health and healing. In this two-part series, we will explore what it means to be a black farmer. We will discuss history (Part I), as well as the modern black farming movement (Part II), by uncovering stories of heritage, lost and reclaimed. 

Part I: A Legacy of Loss and Exploitation

Would you believe me if I told you that farming is a political act for African-Americans?

As said by Leah Penniman, a farmer and activist, “You can’t go through hundreds of years of enslavement and sharecropping and tenant farming and convict leasing and not have that trauma get imprinted into your DNA and your cultural history.”

Penniman, Co-Director of Soul Fire Farm in Upstate New York, is a prominent figure in the conversation about diversifying the farming community and reconnecting people to the land. Through accepting food stamps and supporting customers who can’t pay every week, Soul Fire Farm developed a progressive system to feed hundreds in the community. In addition, Penniman offers workshops focused on basic farming skills, healing people and the land, and understanding the history between black people and farming in the United States. The act of farming, as well as teaching and understanding the history of black farmers, is a source of liberation.

“We are in a moment where Black and Brown people are ready to reclaim our right to belong to the Earth and ready to reclaim our place and agency in the food system.” – Leah Penniman, pictured right


History of Exploitation

Farming for African-Americans is tainted with a history of racism and discrimination. During the centuries of enslavement, African-Americans harvested cash crops like tobacco, cotton, and sugar. In addition to their labor, the knowledge of enslaved Africans was also exploited. According to Judith Carney, author of Black Rice, the enslaved people who worked on rice plantations in South Carolina helped create one of the most profitable economies of the 18th century. European settlers, who did not know how to grow rice or millet, could not have achieved this on their own; they relied on the skills of enslaved persons, who brought knowledge of these grains from Africa. Other popular crops brought from Africa to the U.S. include coffee, watermelon, black-eyed peas, and okra.

Post-enslavement, black farmers continued to face injustices, beginning with the failed promise of, “forty acres and a mule,” the federal government’s attempt to distribute land to freed African-Americans.

The idea behind “forty acres and a mule” started during the Civil War, when blacks cultivated land abandoned by whites throughout the South. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln ordered 20,000 acres of abandoned Confederate land be sold to freedmen in 20-acre parcels. Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, expanded the parcel to 40 acres and agreed to loan army mules to freedmen. By 1865, 40,000 formerly enslaved persons lived on 400,000 acres of coastal land in South Carolina and Georgia. There were indications Congress would expand this program when they authorized the Freedmen’s Bureau to divide additional confiscated lands into small parcels to sell to African-Americans and loyal Southern whites. However, President Andrew Johnson intervened, ordering most of the confiscated land be returned to its former owners, despite how the land had already been settled by African-Americans.

This was the first of many practices crippling African-Americans’ access to land. The Southern Homestead Act, which created a program to help poor tenant farmers and share-croppers acquire land, offered land prices that were still too expensive for most freedmen. Additionally, the development of Black Codes, restrictive laws that forced African Americans into oppressive labor contracts and servant positions, greatly limited hopes of economic prosperity.

For African-Americans who did not own land, the practices of sharecropping and tenant farming were essentially another form of slavery. In sharecropping, landowners (who were primarily white) assigned families land to farm in exchange for food, shelter, clothing, and farming equipment. When the land was harvested, and goods sold, owners deducted a “furnishing” tax for room and board, giving the meager amount of remaining cash to the African-American farmers. By 1930, there were 1,831,470 tenant farmers in the South.

Despite the laws and systems working against them, African-Americans had accrued some 15 million acres of land by the 1920’s. Most of this land was in the South in “low lands” – areas by rivers and swamps that had been abandoned or deemed undesirable by whites. Much of this land was used for farming: at the time, 925,000 farms in the U.S. were black-owned. For generations, however, this number has dwindled. Land has been taken, sold illegally or deviously schemed from black property owners.


Land Grab

“If we don’t have our land, we don’t have our family. This is the battle we’re in now.”
- Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation


Roosevelt Simmons (pictured right) of South Carolina is one of many victims of land grabbing. Simmons’ family owned 54 acres on Johns Island for more than three generations, but part of the property was sold last year. The sad reality is that Simmons had been trying to get a title for his land since 1999; the parcel was previously owned by his grandmother and had been in her name. Although he worked with numerous lawyers and spent thousands of dollars immersed in legal battles, the property was sold, without his consent, due to arguments that a “false heir” had claimed it. Offered a mere $50,000 for his share of the land, Simmons continues to fight to get his property back.

According to Barney Blakeney of the Charleston Chronicle, stories like Mr. Simmons’ are common.

“…the impressive number of Black farmers and rural landowners would drastically decrease over the 20th century. During that century, some 600,000 Black farmers were forced off their lands. The Nation reported that by 1975, only 45,000 Black-owned farmers remained,” said Blakeney.

For many years, black farmers protested and filed suit over these discriminatory practices. In 1999, 40,000 farmers filed a discrimination lawsuit against the federal government, claiming denial of loans. Overtime, the government recognized these injustices. In 2010, President Obama signed into law a settlement that would repay $1.2 billion to about 18,000 farmers; payments of $62,500 began in 2013. This was the second time black farmers received payments from the government. In 1999, several farmers received funding from a class-action lawsuit over claims of discrimination by federal officials who denied them loans and aid because of their ethnicity.* 

In parts of South Carolina, where Mr. Simmons is from, a main force driving African-Americans off their land hasn’t necessarily been the denial of loans, but the development of coastal properties.

Gullah/Geechee, descendants of West African slaves, work to preserve their cultural practices to this day. Brought to the coast of Georgia and South Carolina in the 1700s, the Gullah/Geechee worked on rice fields, cotton fields, and indigo plantations on fertile lands in a similar climate to their homeland. Post-enslavement, they settled in remote villages, forming strong communal ties and a rich history.

Not long ago, the Gullah people inhabited all of Hilton Head Island. The Gullah people thrived in isolation, free of the Jim Crow South. Economic prosperity was finally attained, but, throughout the 1950s – 1990s, the development of high-priced waterfront properties displaced many Gullah people, threatening their history and culture. Some families lost their land due to high taxes, but, according to Leah Douglas of The Nation, many in the community lost their property for a variety of other reasons, including land partition sales, auctions and forced sales by developers, or schemes by partial owners to convince majority-owners to sell the property for a fraction of its value. There was a time where the Gullah accounted for 90 percent of the population across Hilton Head, compared to just 10 percent today.

“The property that we owned was prime property,” says Alex Brown, a Gullah native and chair of the island’s planning commission. “Over time, it’s been sold and traded and stolen.”

Landgrabbers fail to realize that the loss of land is far more than just an exchange of property. Cultural heritage, family legacies, and generational economic opportunity are taken.

*The National Action Network and National Black Farmers Association continue to fight against unfair loans, land grabbing, and other discriminatory practices in agriculture.


Parker Family

My family have been the target of land grabbing attempts as well. Over the last 175 years, my family has owned 35 acres of land in King George, Virginia. My great-great grandparents purchased the property with the intention to live on and work the land. The land is currently owned by my grandfather and his four siblings (who are all alive – ages 85 to 90). For generations, my family has raised children, produce, and countless memories there, but we have also been met with turmoil. I remember as a child, my grandfather talked about how developers offered to buy the land at a price that undercut the value of it, hoping he would fall for a scam. Because of this, my family has been proactive in paying taxes and having accurate titles on the land, just in case we are met with questions of ownership or fraud, like Mr. Simmons.

Whether he’s tending to the yard or talking with neighbors, my grandfather still spends most of his time outdoors. Although we don’t live on a farm, every summer he builds a garden in our backyard. He plants sweet potatoes, corn, kale, tomatoes, bell peppers, watermelon, cantaloupe, squash, you name it. He loves getting his hands dirty and watching the fruits of his labor come to life. I often wondered why he enjoyed spending so much time outdoors, but I now see the connection. His time working, living, and cultivating his family’s land brought him great joy. His early connection to land and nature has continued throughout his life. This connection could one day be lost. We are currently in talks to sell our land. My grandfather and his siblings are getting older and taxes on our property continue to rise. Selling a piece of family history is devastating, but ultimately might be necessary.

While activists like Penniman use farming as a political act to reclaim connection to the land that was once lost, land ownership for my grandfather and Mr. Simmons is a connection to family lineage. Without both, each story becomes a fragment of history and time.



All sources cited in this piece can be found in the Moving Forward Initiative Resource Library.
Photos are linked to their source. 


For your consideration

As you read this blog, here are some questions for you to consider:

  1. African-Americans have played an enormous role in building our country’s agricultural system. How can we recognize these contributions? Where do we begin?
  2. The agricultural system, and society as a whole, continue to harbor racism. How do we promote one’s agency in a racist system?
  3. In what ways might the false promise of “forty acres and a mule” continue to hinder black farmers? How might farming – or society in general – be different in this country had a program like forty acres and a mule succeeded in giving freed African-Americans land and a livelihood? 
  4. Regarding the 2010 settlement in which the U.S. government agreed to pay $1.2 billion to 18,000 farmers who sought justice for discriminatory practices at the Department of Agriculture:
    1. Do you believe the $1.2 billion payout helped or hindered this community of farmers?
    2. Do you believe the farmers should have received land instead of money?
    3. Why weren’t farmers given the option to choose land or money?
  5. How can the practice of land grabbing be prohibited in the future? Is this something that can’t be fixed?
  6. In about forty years’ time, Hilton Head witnessed the erasure of a culture. How do we reconcile with these circumstances? Should the Gullah community receive some sort of payout as well?
  7. When we visit a new place, we might not fully understand or appreciate the history of its people and cultures. How can we better educate society about the ways in which cultures are tied to land and place?
  8. Do you have any familial ties to land? What would you do if you were faced with selling your property? Would you try to keep it, or would you sell?

Points for further research and consideration:

  • Do some research on the Freedmen’s Bureau. What was its significance for African-Americans after the Civil War? What role did it play in land distribution?
  • The blog discusses “forty acres and a mule.”  Early after the Civil War, land confiscated from Confederates was distributed to freedmen. President Andrew Johnson intervened and ordered that the vast majority of this land be returned to its former owners. Compare this to the Homestead Act of 1866, which was designed to give sharecroppers and other poor families access to land, but failed due to high prices that kept land ownership out of reach for many of the people the program was designed to help. What are your thoughts on both polices/programs? What are the underlying reasons why these programs didn’t work? What could have been done differently to make them succeed?
  • George Washington Carver is widely known as the Peanut Farmer, but his agricultural contributions are enormous, including his research into Crop Rotation and the “biological regeneration of the soil through the Nitrogen Cycle.” Dr. Carver looked to address the stripping of the soil as a result of cotton planting. Take a look at this article and note some of his other contributions: https://www.farmproject.org/blog/2017/2/4/hikqys8igvv0bo368aco3mrb1rv7d1
  • Research the role of other black inventors in America’s agricultural advances, including the contributions of Frederick McKinley Jones, who patented the refrigerated truck in 1940, which allowed for the shipping of produce over long distances. See what you can find and discover for yourself the “hidden history” of black inventors and farmers.
  • The Gullah/Geechee people have been featured in mainstream culture. For example, many of you may remember the Nickelodeon show, “Gullah Gullah Island.”  Additionally, the Gullah/Geechee’s rich history was chronicled in the 1991 film, “Daughters of the Dust.”  Beyond these mainstream cultural artifacts, what else can you find out about the Gullah people of today?



Moving Forward Initiative - A Letter From our Project Director: May 9, 2018

An update and reflection on the Moving Forward Initiative from Capri St. Vil, Project Director for the Moving Forward Initiative and Director of Education and Workforce Development at The Corps Network.


Last year, The Corps Network (TCN) launched its Moving Forward Initiative, which is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  The primary purpose of this initiative is to expand career exposure and increase employment in conservation and resource management for young adults of color. To move in this direction, TCN will explore unconscious bias and structural racism within our own organization, our member Corps, and America’s land management agencies.

As a foundation for this work, we have developed a series of blogs, that can be viewed on our website. To date, these blogs have focused on what I call “facing history.” Through these blogs we hope to present historical information, giving all of us the opportunity to explore and better understand the “why” behind the lack of diversity in the conservation and environmental fields. 

The next set of blogs in this series, which will be presented later this month, will focus on critical race theory.  Critical Race Theory is a “theoretical framework in the social sciences that uses critical theory to examine society and culture as they relate to categorizations of race, law and power.”[1] For this exploration, we will be supported by several academics and experts in the field. 

When looking at the concept of race through a critical race theory lens, it is necessary to understand that race is a socially constructed concept and not one that is biologically grounded and natural.  However, even though scientists have determined that race does not exist, this does not, nor has it stopped society from using racial distinctions to define and divide us. These racial distinctions have been supported by different institutions, including the media. To better understand the social construction of race, our first guest blogger, Dr. Shantella Sherman, whose area of study is Eugenics, will focus on a statement by National Geographic in its recent issue on race (The “Race Issue,” April 2018). National Geographic began the article with this bold statement, "For Decades, Our Coverage was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.”

As someone who taught media/cultural studies for nine years at Seattle Central Community College and at Antioch University Seattle, I am aware of the role that the media plays in constructing and naturalizing our conceptions of race. I am drawn to the words of Dr. John Edwin Mason, a University of Virginia professor who studies the histories of Africa and Photography, who made the following statement when National Geographic asked him to examine their works.

“Through most of its history, National Geographic, in words and images, reproduced a racial hierarchy with brown and black people at the bottom, and white people at the top.”

There was a complete absence of urban, educated Africans in the magazine’s pages... Black people were presented as static, primitive and non-technological, often unclothed or presented as savages... And that image, which persisted until the 1970s, shaped how the magazine’s readers — largely white and middle class — perceived black people.[2]

We define the Moving Forward Initiative as a journey, and we have looked for support from various individuals and organizations on this journey, with one of them being “Equity in the Center,” who recently released their report, “Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture.” In using their words, “Equity in the Center works to shift mindsets, practices, and systems within the social sector to increase racial equity. We envision a future where nonprofit and philanthropic organizations advance race equity internally while centering it in their work externally.”

In addition to partnering with Equity in the Center, we have sought the assistance of a facilitator for the Moving Forward Initiative, Juanita C. Brown, who will lead our discussions on FLEEP (an internal social media and messaging platform), as well as assist us with conference calls, virtual meetings, and webinars. We will also continue working with The People’s Institute for Survival Beyond and offering opportunities for our Members and constituents to attend PISAB’s “Undoing Racism” workshops.

I invite you to join us on this journey.  In the coming weeks, you will hear more from me about these and other forthcoming aspects of the MFI, and I apologize to all of you for my silence to date. I will end with this statement from National Geographic in setting the stage for this continued work, “We hope you will join us in this exploration of race, beginning this month and continuing throughout the year. Sometimes these stories, like parts of our own history, are not easy to read. But as Michele Norris writes in this issue, ‘It’s hard for an individual—or a country—to evolve past discomfort if the source of the anxiety is only discussed in hushed tones.’”

Let’s begin the journey. I hope you will join us.


Thank you.

Capri St. Vil
Director of Education and Workforce Development
Project Director for the Moving Forward Initiative

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_race_theory

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/13/business/media/national-geographic-race.html


Protecting the Monarch Through Public Education

Video by The Corps Network, featuring fun facts about monarchs collected from Outreach & Education Corpsmembers, both past and present.

Internship program through Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa gives young science professionals a chance to interact with the public and help the monarch butterfly

Monarch butterflies are in decline. A 2018 population report, which counts monarchs overwintering in Mexico, showed a 14.77 percent decrease from the previous year. Much of this can be attributed to habitat loss, pesticide application, and other human activities. One important way to stem this loss is through providing public education and good information. The Monarch Joint Venture (MJV) is designed to do just that.

Housed at the University of Minnesota, the MJV is an information clearinghouse on monarch conservation. Representing a collective of 80 partners across the United States, ranging from local nature centers to federal agencies, the MJV seeks to align conservation efforts and ensure citizen scientists and professionals alike have access to the best data and practices.

However, to supplement the outreach efforts of their eight-person staff, the MJV partnered with Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa (CCMI), a program that engages young adults in hands-on environmental service. With funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and support from The Corps Network, the MJV and CCMI created the year-long Outreach and Education Corpsmember position in 2015. This program gives young professionals the opportunity to immerse themselves in conservation science and make an impact on the public.

Why is monarch conservation important? We asked Cora Lund Preston, the first Outreach and Education Corpsmember.

“Monarchs are an ambassador for all other pollinators,” she said. “Their beauty, incredible migration and dramatic decline have become a rallying cry for pollinator conservation across North America. Creating habitat for monarchs also benefits honeybees, native bees, other pollinators, and even other wildlife.”

One responsibility for the Outreach and Education Corpsmember is to present about monarchs at fairs, conferences, school events, and other gatherings. Cora, who now works as the MJV Communications Specialist, remembers nervously rehearsing her lines on the hour-long drive to her first presentation. Though she had conservation experience, monarchs were a completely new topic for her. As it turned out, Cora had nothing to worry about. The group was eager to learn about the monarch lifecycle and how to plant milkweed and nectar flowers.

Having a background in insect biology is certainly not a requirement for the Corpsmember position. Aislyn Keyes, the current Corpsmember, recently received her degree in marine biology.

“It’s so important to try things that are outside of your immediate field,” said Aislyn. “Resource management can be a hard field in which to find secure positions, especially if you only look at specific jobs. Each type of job offers unique skillsets that complement each other. The more well-rounded you are, the better!”

Another responsibility for the Outreach and Education Corpsmember is to create and distribute resources. During her time with the MJV, Cora led the creation of Parks For Monarchs, a guide for land managers. Shelby Kilibarda, the Corpsmember for the 2016 – 2017 season, who now works for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, developed the Monarch Highway Map, which depicts how monarchs migrate to Mexico along the I-35 corridor. Aislyn created a Monarch Conservation Efforts Map that shows conservation activities happening across the continent.

However, it’s those interactions with the public that are incredibly important.

“One particularly memorable experience for me was at the Minneapolis Monarch Festival in September,” said Aislyn. “I was taking a group of families to release a tagged monarch. I asked all the kids to form a circle and put their hands in. The parents stood around watching as I placed the monarch in their children’s hands. The monarch sat for a brief moment and everyone admired it in silence. When it took off, [everyone’s] eyes lit up in excitement. It was so special to see the impact such a small organism can have on people.”

Facts about Monarchs shared by Monarch Joint Venture Outreach and Education Corpsmembers:

Did you know?

  • Monarchs grow 2,000 times their size in the 10-15 days they spend as caterpillars. That’s like a human baby growing to the size of an elephant in two weeks.
  • The chrysalis doesn’t form around monarch caterpillars. Instead, the caterpillar’s exoskeleton splits down its back and the chrysalis is revealed underneath.
  • Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed (there are over 100 species of milkweed in the United States), but adult monarchs eat nectar from a wide variety of flowers.
  • In the late summer and fall, adult monarchs that live east of the Rocky Mountains will migrate up to 2,000 miles forested mountaintops in Central Mexico, where they have never been before. Monarchs that live west of the Rockies, however, migrate to groves of trees along the Pacific Coast in California.


African American Connections to Green Spaces in Chicago During the Great Migration: A Conversation with Dr. Brian McCammack

The Corps Network’s Moving Forward Initiative – supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation – seeks to address bias and structural racism in the conservation workforce and help increase the employment of young adults of color in public lands management and conservation-related careers.

As part of this initiative, we aim to provide information to help people develop a foundation to understand the history, policies, practices and societal dynamics that have shaped our country and the conservation field. 

Brian McCammack is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Lake Forest College in Illinois. He is the author of, among other works, Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago. We spoke to Dr. McCammack about his research into the intersection of environment and race in the Midwest during the “first wave” of the Great Migration.


What was the Great Migration?

The first wave of the Great Migration, which my research focuses on, is dated to roughly between 1915 and 1940; the quarter-century or so between World Wars I and II. This is a time when you have 1.5 million African Americans leaving the South for the urban North and settling in cities like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, etc.

This movement is driven by racial oppression in the South, the tenant farming system, the rise of Jim Crow, disenfranchisement. There are also the labor demands of WWI in the North, the hope of making a better life, finding better jobs, and having at least more of a semblance of equality.

Chicago in particular, along with New York, are the two epicenters of the Great Migration. Chicago’s African American population grew extraordinarily during this period. Between 1910 and 1940, the African American population more than sextupled. Before the Great Migration, only 44,000 African Americans lived in Chicago; by 1940, on the eve of WWII, you have more than a quarter-of-a-million. This dramatically changes not just the demographics of the city, but the culture. You also begin to see, in really stark ways, the beginning of segregation patterns.

Part of what my research aims to do is push back on this notion that the kinds of environments where African Americans found themselves and were able to visit in the city were exclusively tenement houses and unhealthy environments. That really becomes too much of the story and discounts the ways African Americans found slices of the outdoors, both inside and outside the city.


From Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal

Can you talk about African American enrollment in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Chicago area?

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) is created during the 1930s. An interesting thing about that for me is that during the Great Migration – and I’m painting with very broad strokes – you see African Americans leaving manual labor jobs that are directly connected to the soil, whether you’re talking about tenant farming or extraction industries in the South. They’re leaving a lifestyle of knowing the land through labor. Then, when they move north, African Americans are, by and large, getting jobs in factories. In many cases, migrants are leaving the South expressly to get away from knowing nature through labor, because tenant farming was an exploitative relationship. Industrial jobs in the North are arguably just as exploitative, but they do pay better and there is slightly more of a chance for advancement.

When the CCC forms, tens of thousands of young black men – who either themselves migrated out of the South when they were young children, or whose parents migrated out of the South to escape outdoor manual labor – are now going back to the land.

So that chapter of my book explores what it means for African Americans in the North, in the midst of the Great Migration, to go back to the land and know it through labor rather than through leisure, which, increasingly during the Great Migration, is how many African Americans come to experience and seek out nature. The CCC is an outlier – a callback to a relationship with nature that thousands of African Americans had left behind in the South.


Considering many of these young men or their parents had escaped exploitative labor on the land in the South, how would young African American men have perceived the CCC? Was it seen as a good opportunity?

A big draw was the dollar-a-day wages. They’re making thirty bucks a month. In the midst of the Depression, the chance to be able to support your family was huge.

In Chicago, you have up to about half the employable African American population out of work. People are literally going hungry. They’re being evicted from their homes. You have people sleeping in the parks in Chicago. There’s a PBS documentary about the CCC, and you see that many enrollees look back fondly on the Corps because you’re getting three meals a day, clothes, new shoes. All of that is beneficial.

And many enrollees liked the labor outdoors. I would imagine just as many probably didn’t like it, no different than any population doing hard manual labor outdoors in all the elements.

The wages, the food, the clothes, and you’re helping out your family and getting job training. The training white enrollees received, based on my research, is generally better. There were more opportunities for advancement in the CCC for white enrollees. But, for all enrollees, there were classes you could take after your day in the field. There were also sports the CCC, promoted to boost morale.

There definitely were some positive aspects of the CCC. However, some of my work focuses on thinking about the ramifications of how the CCC was segregated, even in the North. In this period, we have white officers who are commanding segregated CCC companies. And while several sources, including the Chicago Defender, the biggest black newspaper in the country, say the segregated African American camps near Chicago were some of the best in the country, a lot of black Chicagoans and other black Illinois residents are going to camps in downstate Illinois or elsewhere in the Midwest, where white officers are frequently, and I think rightfully, accused of racial bias and racial intimidation.

So, getting back to the Great Migration, there is this real tension between how moving to places like Chicago gave African Americans a way to assert themselves and find a greater measure of equality than they were able to find in the South. And oftentimes with the CCC, you have these white officers who are treating black enrollees as if they were sharecroppers. The tension is in the feeling that these young men, these products of the Great Migration, have taken a step backwards by enrolling in the CCC, despite all the benefits.


From livingnewdeal.org

What do you feel is the legacy of the CCC for African American enrollees? 

I think it does, at least temporarily, lead to an increased connection to nature. However, after WWII, you have an even greater wave of migrants to cities like Chicago. This second migration really dwarfs the first wave and leads to intensified segregation and a further restriction of opportunities for African Americans in urban centers to really connect to nature. So, I think there’s this window in the 30’s when African American enrollees – and there’s roughly a quarter of a million nationwide – who are connecting to nature, and I think hold that with them for the rest of their lives. But, the material reality of what comes after this period is the creation of barriers to maintaining that connection to nature.

The biggest CCC project I write about is north of Chicago – building what’s called the Skokie Lagoons – taking all this marshland and basically digging it out and trying to create lakes connected by channels so there’s flood control and you can develop the land around it. This space also becomes a leisure retreat for those who live nearby. The sad reality is that this is on the far North Side of the city, which is almost entirely white. This is the kind of segregation that I’m talking about, that pretty much restricts African Americans to the South Side of the city, far from all these places where enrollees worked. The products of their labor are actually enjoyed by middle class whites.

For enrollees, I think the story is one of personal connection to nature during that period when they’re in the CCC, but there are these broader structural forces that, once these enrollees exit the program, really prevent them from maintaining those connections. Even if they’d enjoyed their time in the CCC, even if they found it productive from the standpoint of connecting to nature, it becomes harder and harder to do that in the post-WWII era.

As far as job opportunities, you can’t discount the training in the CCC and the way it helped African American enrollees learn skills they could actually apply. However, it’s also worth noting that African Americans were likely to stay in the CCC longer. They’d stay for six months, then re-up for another six months, or even stay longer. Especially during the Depression, it was harder for them to find jobs due to racial discrimination. Last hired, first fired. Even when the economy starts picking up in the late ‘30s, the white working class is the first to benefit. The African American working class – the kinds of young men that are in the Civilian Conservation Corps – really don’t see the fruits of that until industrial production ramps up with WWII.


Can you talk about green spaces that African Americans sought out or created for themselves as they moved North? For those who settled in cities, what were the opportunities to get outdoors?

I think one of the biggest reasons connecting with green spaces was so important for migrants was because it was intertwined with connections to Southern folk culture. Being able to connect with the environment is a way to connect with the rural lifestyle you left behind. A lot of migrants didn’t necessarily want to leave the South; they were essentially forced to leave because of the racially oppressive and violent policies afflicted upon them.

The sad story is that they find racial oppression in the North, it’s just different. The majority of migrants in the Great Migration aren’t living in suburban environments. They are, by and large, restricted to the more cramped, rundown and unsanitary portions of the city. So, if they’re connecting to green spaces, chances are it wasn’t privately owned green spaces. Most of the working-class migrants coming to Chicago don’t have a yard, don’t have room or time to cultivate a garden. There certainly were black Chicagoans who did that, but I think that was more of an exception. So, if they’re seeking aspects of nature, they’re doing so in public spaces. They’re becoming modern urban dwellers, seeking out green spaces just like every other working class modern urban dweller seeks out nature in city parks, in the beaches, in the forest preserves around the city. And, if you have little bit more money, going on vacation at a rural resort.

A lot of black Chicagoans, especially those who were more well-off, went to resorts. The most well-known one that I write about is in Idlewild, MI. Several hours away from the city, a self-segregated African American resort colony springs up, and this is only the most notable of them. This is happening all over the country on various scales.

The predominant story, however, is that these urban dwellers would, maybe on a Sunday – the one day off they have each week – go with their family and friends to a city park and just hang out. One of the things I write about is playing music – ukuleles and things like that – on the tennis courts in Washington Park, a massive 371-acre Frederick Law Olmstead-designed park that’s built in the late 19th century, when African Americans didn’t live anywhere near it. But as the “black belt” on the south side of Chicago expands further, it ends up abutting this huge park. By the 1930s, it becomes a de-facto black park.


So Chicago’s parks were at least informally segregated?

Yes, I think that would be the best way to put it. “De-facto segregated.” There weren’t necessarily signs posted. However, to give you an example, look at Jackson Park Beach on the South Side of the city. African Americans began using the lakefront and continued to push south as the black belt expanded. They’re going to beaches that are closest to where they live and work. Well, the white folks who lived in Hyde Park and elsewhere and were using Jackson Park Beach – and there’s no official explanation for how this came to be – but there was a fence erected on the north end of Jackson Park Beach and it was just generally known that African Americans were only to use the north end of that beach and whites reserved the longer, sandier, better portion of the beach for themselves. If an African American ventured to the southern portion of the beach, they were risking violence. This is how the race riot started in the city in 1919. A young African American boy – 17 years old – unwittingly floats too far south into what whites were trying to protect as a whites-only beach. A stone is thrown at him and he drowns, and it touches off this race riot.

So yes, parks were not officially segregated, but, if you were to interview folks who grew up in Chicago in the ‘30s and ‘40s, they’ll say you just knew you couldn’t go to the white recreation areas. And that line keeps shifting over time. Washington Park was a white park up to the 1920s. Then there’s this decade of transition and, by the ‘30s, whites basically abandon their use of Washington Park.


One thing we want to examine is why the environmental movement looks how it does today. Why has it lacked diversity? From your perspective, do you see any historical context for why the conservation movement and our land management agencies are predominantly white?

That’s sort of my next project, actually. Figuring out how environmentalism stayed white is basically the argument of my second book – it’s still in its infancy.

I think there are a lot of reasons. The Civilian Conservation Corps gives you one indication. I think a lot of white enrollees look back fondly on their time in the CCC, and I think that’s true for many black enrollees, but that vastly different labor context that we talked about taints that connection to the environment.

In the period right after the Civilian Conservation Corps, you have mass suburbanization, white flight from city centers, and hundreds of thousands of additional African American migrants pouring into city centers. Opportunities to connect to nature, whether you’re talking about city parks or forest preserves, or even the wilder spaces where CCC companies worked, they become more restricted because of suburbanization and these structural barriers that are erected in the post-WWII era.

If you look at the decade after that, when the environmental movement is coming about in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s mainly a middle class white movement. One thing I’ve talked about and written about before is the Black Panthers talking about environmental justice issues: pollution in the cities, inadequate garbage removal, disease, and other issues that afflict their communities in the ‘60s. They’re talking about stuff that the Clean Air Act helps resolve. However, by the time you get all that legislation on the books in the early ‘70s and the environmental movement becomes institutionalized and more of a lobbying and litigation movement rather than a grassroots movement, it begins to wholeheartedly ignore African Americans and issues that concern people of color in favor of promoting rural and wild spaces.

And that’s how you get the environmental justice movement springing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. You have people of color saying the environmental movement and conservationists are not representing our interests. And it’s only in the past decade or two that I think environmental groups have made a conscious effort to diversify their ranks, to address issues that matter to people of color, to get more people of color into the national parks. There’s still a long, long way to go.

The story I tell about the 1920s and ‘30s is the beginning of institutional barriers that prevent African Americans and other people of color from accessing nature. The barriers that come up in that post-WWII era dwarf the ones I write about in the 1920s and ‘30s. This is a story of mass suburbanization, redlining, residential segregation, disinvestment in communities of color and the lack of opportunities afforded them. All of that has an impact on the ability of African American families to maintain connections to nature. I think we’re still dealing with that legacy today.


Can you elaborate on what some of those barriers were that came up in post-WWII era that would’ve separated African Americans further from opportunities to enjoy green spaces?

The vast majority of African Americans who migrate to places like Chicago settle in city centers and the white tax base flees in droves. You have massive disinvestment in cities in this post-WWII era, and that has a tangible effect on places like Washington Park. Just walking into Washington Park, you can tell it doesn’t receive the kind of maintenance it needs. This is something I touch on briefly in the epilogue of my book, but all of those social problems that come along with disinvestments in communities – drugs, violence, gangs – that’s not confined just to city streets. That spills into park spaces and makes them uninviting places to go. All the issues that afflict black communities during what historians call the “urban crisis” in the ‘60s and ‘70s – that has a tangible impact on the experience of green spaces in the city. Parks became places that weren’t safe to let your kids run around.

The same sort of thing happens in a place like Idlewild, which was a retreat for middle and upper class African Americans. With the collapse of formal segregation barriers in many places in the post-WWII era, African Americans have no reason to maintain their own segregated resort any more. So you see a disinvestment in Idlewild. The resort is sort of in a remote, not exactly picturesque part of Michigan. If you could be on a nicer lake, or right on the coast of Lake Michigan, why wouldn’t you want to be there? However, this place where African Americans had traditionally connected with nature disappears. So that’s just one example of a way that African Americans’ connections with nature are severed in the post-WWII era.


For your consideration:

  • To this day, people of color are underrepresented among visitors to parks and other green spaces. What steps can be taken to make parks more accessible and inclusive?  
  • In your community, do you see any “de facto segregation” of parks or other outdoor spaces?
    • If yes, what are some reasons this might be happening? Is this de facto segregation problematic and, if so, what steps can be taken to integrate outdoor spaces?
    • If no, in what ways do you believe outdoor spaces in your community have been able to maintain visitation and use by diverse populations?
  • During our intervirew, Dr. McCammack discussed how there was tension among Chicagoans about the “proper” way to utilize green spaces. Some people looked down on new comers to the city who used the park for Southern folk traditions, like outdoor baptisms. In your experience, have you seen tension among different park visitors? Do you believe these tensions ever fall along racial, ethnic, or class lines? Have you ever been made to feel like you were using an outdoor space “improperly”?
  • Dr. McCammack discusses how one reason why the mainstream environmental movement has remained predominantly white is because the movement has traditionally ignored issues that are relevant to communities of color. What environmental issues concern you most? Do you feel like these issues get adequate attention? What are some reasons why these issues may or may not receive attention? 
  • For Corps: Do you make it a priority to engage in green spaces that can be enjoyed by all members of a community? Do your Corpsmembers serve in spaces that they can readily access during their free time? Would your Corpsmembers feel comfortable recreating in all the spaces where they serve?