Taking Nature Black (TNB)! It’s a direct, bold expression that has become the name for an annual conference held by the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS). February 27th, 2020 saw the third conference held by ANS, and was an excellent way of celebrating Black History Month. I was thrilled to be present at this conference and it was one of the most profound and enlightening days I have ever experienced! With over 35 speakers advocating for topics such as climate change, green careers, environmental joy, youth involvement, wealth, and equity; I left with so many quotes that I could write a book. I am ashamed to say that this is the first time I have heard the phrases ‘environmental injustice’ & ‘environmental racism.’ I guess I was subconsciously aware of the former, but environmental racism was completely new to me.

Mustafa Santiago Ali speaks to the crowd at Taking Nature Black. (Photo by Don Baker)

“Industries deliberately pollute communities of color,” explains BeKura Shabaz with the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative. Climate change was the kickoff topic by the opening panel, and by no means were they shy about the injustices African Americans face when it comes to the environment we all share. Mustafa Santiago Ali, who is the Vice President for Climate, Community and Environmental Justice for the National Wildlife Federation, presented some data figures to paint a picture of the inequity and inequality that African Americans are facing. He said, “More people die from air pollution every year than gun violence and car crashes, mostly Black and Latino folks,” and later, “We have the opportunity to change lives,” I can’t describe the empowerment I felt, being in the presence of these panelists. I’m extremely motivated to get involved but more importantly, I’m eager to educate myself on all of the issues that I have been oblivious to. It’s disappointing, knowing how ignorant I’ve been up until this point, but I am happy that I can’t say the same for one of the youngest panelists, Jerome Foster II. At 17, Foster is an author and founder of The Climate Reporter and One Million of Us, a movement mobilizing one million young people to register and vote in the 2020 Presidential Election. “It’s important that we pay attention to indigenous people and young people, whose future will be directly impacted by the climate crisis,” says Foster in a speech after accepting the TNB Youth Environmental Champion award. “2019 was the year of climate awareness, and 2020 has to be the year of climate action!” It’s astonishing when young leaders are so fearless and outspoken. Evidently everyone else felt the same power in this young man’s words as he received a standing ovation. The energy in the room was incredible!

An attendee of the sunrise meditation and walk in the woods connects with nature. (Photo by Cheriss May)

Every panelist was special, bringing something different to the discussion of being Black in nature. The unfortunate reality is that terms like nature, the environment, climate, green spaces, etc., aren’t typically related to what it means to be Black. Maisie Hughes, owner of Design Virtue and co-founder of The Urban Studio, began her talk shouting, “I’m a Tree Hugger!” She says that she likes to start with that personal fact to connect with other tree huggers in the room. I get how that can break the ice and peel away the layers of social and racial differences that exist simply because people look different. “I’m not supposed to be a tree hugger…I ended up in a field where there are no black people…I’m a weirdo, and we should create more weirdos.” I tend to feel the same way. Even in my own circle of friends and beyond to friends of friends, I am the only person that is in an environmental profession, and I’m almost certainly considered a weirdo because of it. It’s not because this field is weird, it just isn’t something that most modern Blacks have exposure to. I’m obsessed with nature, but I just uncovered my passion for this field 6 years ago at the age of 27, long after my college years. Ironically, a project lead by a previous TNB panelist with the National Aquarium, Curtis Bennett, is a huge part of how I fell in love with this field. When I think about how much joy and fulfillment nature gives me, I can only wish that I uncovered this passion earlier on in life.

Attendees hold hands. (Photo by Don Baker)

Thanks to panelists like Symone Johnson, who is the B-WET Program Coordinator at the National Aquarium, children in Baltimore are getting exposure to green careers via several educational programs. Johnson explained how amazing it is when the kids in her programs look at her and realize that they too can get involved in these cool activities that normally wouldn’t be done by African American people. “That’s you with that shark?! That’s real?!” she quotes a kid from her group, who were amazed with the pictures they were seeing. As a father of two children, I know how exciting it is to see kids enthusiastic about your work.! Getting kids and our youth interested in the natural world helps facilitate future stewards. Panelist Dennis Chestnut is a lifetime resident of Ward 7 in Washington, D.C., and a current board member for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

As the founding Executive Director of Groundwork Anacostia River DC (GWARDC), Chestnut has decades of youth engagement and advocacy under his belt. The programs offered by organizations like GWARDC manifest passion and instill appreciation for community development. Neighbor of Chestnut, is a park steward with the Ward 8 Woods Conservancy, Robert Carpenter. “We’ve got about 80 tons, and there’s still more to be done,” Carpenter recalls about work they have done to remove dumped trash along steep slopes in Ward 8. He made it clear to the audience how much he likes his community, which is the motivation for the amount of work he has done to clean it up. Like Carpenter, there is another young adult making a big difference in his community, panelist Ronnie Webb. Webb is the President and Co-Founder of The Green Scheme, whose Code Green program gets kids in Wards 7 & 8 excited about gardening. It’s refreshing to see people close to my age like Webb and Carpenter making an impact in their communities, especially when the work trickles down to our youth.

Alliance Board Member, Dennis Chestnut, speaks to attendees. (Photo by Don Baker)

The TNB experience was rich and rewarding, sparking my interest in economic sustainability and making me aware of the environmental injustices happening here in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. It is unfortunate that we live in a time where environmental racism and injustices even exist. At 6:30 am on the day of the conference, a small group gathered at Woodend Sanctuary & Mansion for a meditation led by Rabiah Nur, an indigenous healer and activist. We stood facing the sun, absorbing its energy and watching it rise over the top of distant buildings, peeking in-between a large cloud mass.  After dwelling on it, that sun that we all see is one of the most important aspects of our lives. Its power and importance doesn’t discriminate between the many colors of the human race. It goes beyond us as a species, having that same importance for other animals, plants, and trees; for nature as a whole. As Mustafa Santiago Ali put, “We might have arrived on different ships but we are all in the same boat.” Again, it’s unfortunate that we have gotten here, where environmental racism and injustices are prevalent between us. However, I am positive that the TNB movement will put more awareness on these issues and continue to fuel younger generations in the process.

(Photo by Tim Hudspeth)

A big thanks to ANS Executive Director Lisa Alexander, and to Caroline Brewer, the Director of Marketing and Communications at ANS, and chairwoman for the TNB conference.