Outside opportunity: Reconnecting people of color to nature

By Kari Blood For the Gazette
March 14, 2020

Kestrel Land Trust recently produced a video designed to inspire people to conserve and care for forests and farms in the Pioneer Valley. In sunlit outdoor scenes, we see teen girls laughing together at the Mount Holyoke summit, a farmer walking his fields, and an older woman with her husband enjoying the picturesque Fort River Trail at the Conte Refuge from her wheelchair.

These images resonated with hundreds of the land trust’s followers on Facebook and Instagram. Yet a question from one supporter stood out: Why doesn’t this video reflect more ethnic diversity? Three young Latina girls are in the video, happily scrambling on the rocks at the summit of the Mount Holyoke Range, but all of the other faces are white.

The video shows a variety of ages, genders and physical abilities — a fair snapshot of the people we see most often outside enjoying the land. That’s the problem. If you were to watch land conservation videos from across the country, you would see a similar picture. The reality is that most land trusts face the same challenge: Their staff, board, members and the visitors to their properties tend to be mostly middle- and upper-income, and white.

Jorge Jimenez, left, and Jorge Gonzalez, then both seniors at Holyoke High School’s Dean Campus, had the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors last May at Eagle Eye Institute’s MountainStar Forest in Peru, up in the Berkshires, thanks to a collaboration between the Eagle Eye Institute and Kestrel Land Trust. Kestrel Land Trust

There are complex factors that contribute to this reality, some of which date back hundreds of years to our nation’s founding, from systemic racism and economic injustices to the separation of Native peoples from their land. Even now, diverse communities can face barriers to accessing public lands ranging from a lack of transportation options, to not owning outdoor gear, to a cultural fear of wild places.

Racism, too, can be a factor in outdoor spaces, just as it can be everywhere else.

The challenges of diversity and inclusion won’t be solved simply by placing nonwhite faces in videos to show a more diverse population enjoying nature.

Land trusts across the nation have recognized that they have a responsibility to rural, suburban and urban communities alike, to people from all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. People from every community have a right to benefit from the forests, farms and waterways being conserved for the sake of local food, health, climate and biodiversity. Land trusts are working to ensure that conserved land is not just a luxury for some, but an accessible necessity for all.

Making this case shouldn’t be difficult: National surveys continually show that voters of color are generally more concerned about issues such as climate change, water quality, land and wildlife than are white voters overall.

One of the approaches that land trusts are taking to meet this challenge is called community conservation. The national Land Trust Alliance explains it this way:

“[It] starts with people. It begins when the land trust listens to many different voices in its community and then uses its strengths to meet the needs expressed by the community. It connects people to the land and to each other. And while it strengthens the community, the community strengthens the land trust.”

An exciting example of this approach are the emerging partnerships between social service groups and land trusts to achieve common goals. The Eagle Eye Institute is a nonprofit whose mission is to empower urban people, especially youth of color from low-income communities, to play an active role in caring for the environment.

Eagle Eye has been partnering with Kestrel Land Trust for the past several years to provide opportunities for teens in Holyoke — who are mostly Puerto Rican — to connect with nature and build confidence and life skills.

“It is hard to capture in words how powerfully our partnership with Eagle Eye has contributed to our school culture,” said Stephen Mahoney, executive principal of Holyoke High School. “Bringing students who live in the heart of the Pioneer Valley to outdoor spaces they would likely never encounter … has opened for them a new way of seeing the world.”

At the same time, Mahoney said, “Learning how the land is stewarded by organizations like Kestrel Land Trust has given more urgency and agency to our students’ growing sense of themselves as citizen leaders.”

Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Literacy Project and the Care Center in Holyoke have also partnered with Kestrel to bring the benefits of getting out into nature to urban young people.

Students from Marjory Zaik’s Care Center class from Holyoke — Yariely, left, Serenity and Genesis — learned about nature photography at the Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge in Hadley on a visit last June. The program was coordinated by Kestrel Land Trust with photographer Michael Zide. Kestrtel Land Trust

Land trusts are also making connections to more diverse populations through local food and farming. For example, thanks to a creative collaboration of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, the land trust and the city of Northampton, a recently conserved field has become the site of a pilot cooperative farm in Hatfield where immigrant families from Central America are growing and selling vegetables for themselves.

They named their new farm “Riquezas del Campo,” meaning Richness of the Land. As farm member Patti Lopez explained, “On this land we want to grow our own crops for our community. This will be land for us as Latinos, who come from other places. This will also be an opportunity to teach our children to love the Earth. So that they can see how from tiny seeds, something big can grow.”

Other land trusts in our region have established similar partnerships, such as the statewide Trustees of Reservations leasing conserved farmland to the nonprofit Nuestras Raices in Holyoke. There are so many more opportunities to bring together people of different communities to conserve, care for and connect to land.

What’s needed is an authentic effort to learn about the range of perspectives that people from diverse communities have about nature, and create space for their voices and knowledge to be included in the collective effort to protect our environment. The future of the land in the Pioneer Valley and the well-being of our planet depends on it.

Kari Blood is communications and outreach manager for Kestrel Land Trust. Learn more about the work of land trusts at landtrustalliance.org/what-you-can-do.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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