Guest Post | Our Wild and Civil Rights

Rue Mapp is the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, an award-winning national network that supports connections between African Americans and the natural world. This blog was originally posted on Outdoor Afro’s website. Save The Bay, Outdoor Afro, and Golden Gate Audubon will be hosting volunteer events at the MLK Jr. Shoreline in Oakland to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday January 19, 2015. 

Frank and Audrey Peterman
Frank Peterman, conservationist and civil rights activist, with his wife Audrey.

Frank Peterman, a conservationist and civil rights activist, was in his twenties during the 1960s. He recalls a great and daily sense of urgency about civil rights issues versus that of environmental concerns. For him, the March on Washington, alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis, was a galvanizing event that called for equitable access to jobs and quality of life for blacks in America and an end to institutionally protected physical brutality. “As a part of the NAACP to advance the Civil Rights Act, we did not discuss the Wilderness Act,” Peterman says, “and we were not invited to participate in their caucus.” He goes on to share that even though the momentum of each act was politically symbiotic, those driving the wilderness protection agenda may not have included African Americans deliberately as a key impetus of the Wilderness Act was about protecting the wild from the spoilage of human impact versus creating equitable access to it. From his perspective, “the Wilderness Act was about the protecting the wild, not people.”

While it does not appear that the Wilderness Act and Civil Rights Act shared a public platform back then, some believe an opportunity was missed to bring the acts more pointedly together that might have altered the course and progression of these respective movements today. Dr. Carolyn Finney, Assistant Professor at the University of California was a young child during the civil rights era, and while she personally remembers few specific events of the era, like most African American children of her generation, she grew up with the movement’s tales and heroes evergreen on the family tongue. “Civil rights? Yes, I always knew what that was about!”

In her book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, she plots out the interwoven chronology of social and political events that lead up to the civil rights and wilderness act. Even though linked by a common timeline, Dr. Finney believes that the wilderness preservation movement—and the environmental movement, more broadly—missed a golden opportunity to address race that might have helped put conservation on a path toward greater harmony between people and nature, and especially between African Americans and the natural wild. “The conservation movement has traditionally prided itself on a concept of nature as pure,” she says, “which for some, can also be translated to mean whiteness.” She contends that had the Wilderness Act considered the human experience in nature, the traditional conservation movement might not struggle with understanding the connection between its work and that of civil rights—making it better equipped to engage with issues related to diversity and inclusion.

In the collaborative efforts around the country to re-invent African American connections to the environment—my organization, Outdoor Afro, is one of them—it is often essential to address fears that linger about the wild. These fears are not only about potential contact with wildlife: there are still perceptions among black folks that one might be susceptible to violence in the cover of the wild. Because of this pervasive thinking, some of the sturdiest urban brothers and sisters are less likely to warm to the idea of wandering alone in the woods to this day. Within the memory of a living generation, many recall the world in which the plaintive refrain of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit rang true:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

While Jim Crow-style terror in nature is no longer a common occurrence, the legacy of institutionalized exclusion of black people from recreational areas persists. The result of years of discrimination is that, for many people, the experience of being outdoors can feel more like an effort to conquer a fear than enjoyment for its own sake. And, still too often, many black and brown folks face unwelcoming (or over-welcoming) stares, questions, and attitudes while recreating in wild spaces that spell discomfort in places that should be a safe respite from the pace of urban life. This is why we find that so many African Americans from urban areas choose backyard wilderness close to home, surrounded by a reflection of familiar faces and defensible cityscapes versus venturing alone into a remote wilderness area far from home.

Shelton Johnson has been a park ranger with the National Park Service in Yellowstone National Park for nearly two decades. His work has flourished on the topic of making the parks more relevant and welcoming for everyone, especially for African Americans. Illustrating both real and composite narratives of the Buffalo Soldier in his guest interpretation talks and in his book Gloryland, Johnson maintains that access to parks in our wild places is ultimately about freedom and provides a platform today to continue the work of civil rights. “The Buffalo Soldiers were sons of slaves, who were compelled to join the military to earn respect and find purpose within the close memory of slavery,” he says. While these soldiers were charged with stewarding land distant from their African roots, Johnson suggests that it proved to be a gateway for belonging and a sense of “owning” in America.

This is the same possibility available to African Americans today in our National Parks. “We are not truly home here in America, unless we engage with the earth to re-connect with the Africans we once were – the hunters, gatherers, horticulturalists – earth bound people,” says Johnson. “So visiting the biome of Yellowstone might also mean a chance to reclaim what it means to be Yoruba, Mandingo – or African American. Whatever you call yourself, it matters little, because it is all the same people, the same earth.”

While the sixties may have been tumultuous, what emerged was a country that dreamed big, had every reason to hope, and found agreement to protect and envision a future for people and resources seen as most vulnerable. In today’s divisive political climate these same actions seem unfathomable, yet remind us of what is possible when we pull together.

We know the work is far from done, but we can pause to celebrate wild lands and the movement to protect them while also respecting the still-sharp memories and historic tensions between people in the wild. With a vision of healing, Outdoor Afro and many other organizations are helping people re-invent connections to natural places both near and far through a variety of peer led activities. One experience at a time, we can replace old fears and reservations about the wilderness with joy, curiosity, and wonder for all ages in our lands.

While the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act may not have been originally conceived out of a common network, we have a chance now to make their real connections come alive today, recognizing the delicate and essential links between people and the wild all around for the betterment of everyone.

Where shall we go together in nature from here?

— Rue Mapp, Founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro

Notes from the Field | Room to grow in our Oakland nursery

MLK Nursery

This spring, Save The Bay’s habitat restoration team set out to make some improvements to our native plant nursery at Garretson Point in Oakland’s MLK Jr. Shoreline. The nursery has been providing volunteers opportunities to learn about native plant horticulture and produce plants to restore the transition zone of the shoreline since 2004. More than 60,000 plants have been grown and planted in the park to improve shoreline habitat for wildlife in San Leandro Bay, otherwise surrounded completed by industry and urban development right up to the water’s edge.

After 10 years of plant production, we decided it was time to make some improvements. Starting in May, STB staff set out to replace many of the old, dilapidated benches with new, hand constructed benches, as well as new, slightly taller irrigation to accommodate larger plant sizes. The second goal of the project was to improve the use of space and increase the capacity of the nursery to provide more plant material for increasing large restoration projects. After two months of weekly construction days, the nursery now holds 60% more plant material than before and the plants are happier than ever in their new home!

Save The Bay’s native plant nurseries provide enriching opportunities for adults and youth to learn about the native plants that grow along the edge of the Bay. Join us on the first and second Wednesday of every month in Oakland and Palo Alto to learn how to grow native plants and meet others that want to enjoy and steward the beautiful ecology of our home. Visit our website and sign up for a nursery program today!

Happy summer and I look forward to growing with you at the nursery!

— Doug Serrill, Nursery Manager

Notes from the Field: Poppies Springing out of Dormancy

CA Poppies
Spring has sprung and so has the California poppy.

It’s hard to deny that spring has arrived in California. Our coastal areas and foothills are lighting up with the floral blues of miniature lupine (Lupinus bicolor), the vivid purples of blue-eyed grass (sisyrinchium bellum), the glowing oranges of sticky monkey flower (mimulus aurantiacus) and our state flower, the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Though the scientific name of the California poppy may be nearly impossible to pronounce — it gets its namesake from Livonian naturalist Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz — this doesn’t stop us from celebrating the beauty and resiliency of this iconic flower.

On April 6th, 70 Save The Bay volunteers gathered at Eden Landing in Hayward and the MLK shoreline in Oakland to celebrate California Poppy Day by participating in a public community-based restoration program. Though the California poppy is just one of roughly 30 native plants we propagate and install at wetland restoration sites around the Bay, it is certainly one of my personal favorites. Not only is the California poppy quite beautiful, it is also extremely hardy, making it a prime species for use in wetland restoration.

The California poppy is native to the west coast of North America, ranging from Washington state down through Baja California, and as far inland as Texas. Pollinated by beetles as well as introduced European bees, the poppy can exhibit the lifecycle of both an annual (living for one growing season) or perennial (living for multiple growing seasons) flowering plant. The poppy acts as an annual when in harsh, dry living conditions or during drought years, while it can function as a perennial when in more favorable conditions. This flexibility makes the California poppy a wonderful drought escaper, as it can remain in an area in dormant seed form until adequate moisture is available.

Though our restoration sites are a great place to see California poppies in bloom, true poppy enthusiasts recognize the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve as the Holy Grail of poppy populations. Located in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles, this state park’s rolling hills explode with acres of poppy fields every spring. Want to get to know the poppy a little better? Come join us for a restoration program?

Guest Post | Planting the Future

Planting the Future
Students help restore San Francisco Bay during a planting program with Save The Bay.

Jose Gonzalez recently experienced one of Save The Bay’s Restoration Education Programs. These observations were originally posted on his blog, Green Chicano.

A cool San Francisco Bay morning is warming up on a marshy shore of the Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline, part of the East Bay Regional Park District.

A couple of joggers and walkers are on the trail as birds flutter about in the bushes and gulls and geese fly overhead.

Soon enough I hear some voices in the distance, distinguishable to me in much the same way birders can tune in to specific bird calls. “It’s a class of 4th or 5th graders”, I thought to myself.

Led by their teacher, they come up the trail and are greeted by staff from Save The Bay, a regional organization committed to the protection of the San Francisco Bay.

The students are here to do some habitat restoration, but first it is time for introductions and some warm up activities.

Looking at the group of 5th graders, the majority of them are Latino—I can hear their various comments to each other in Spanish though they understand and readily respond to questions in English about marsh habitats, sharks, and food webs.

This is the future”, I think to myself, highlighted by three key demographic statements. Since 2010, the majority of school children in California schools are Latino. Furthermore, undergraduate applications to the University of California system were dominated by Latinos for the first time while this year may close with Latinos being the largest single ethnic group in the state.

As the saying goes, “the future is now.”

After some introductions and a “marsh march”, the students make their way to a section marked by flags. A Save The Bay staff member demonstrates the process for planting native plant species.

The kids are eager, still full of energy even after playing an active game to calm and focus them.

But they take to the task with much enthusiasm. Most of the boys run off to several sections while many of the girls calmly and methodically replicate the process of planting: dig the hole, tap the plant out of its casing, line it with the ground, add dirt, add mulch, add water and yell “plant check” for validation of a job well done. Then it is on to planting the next sapling.

The work the students are doing is important for several reasons.

First of all, restoring marshes provides direct habitat to many species that rely on the bay wetlands as a home and migration stops. In restoring the marshes, it also helps bay communities with potential flooding, not to mention the enhanced recreational aspects of having access to beautiful parkland and functioning habitats for wildlife. All of this in the face of marshes at risk from climate change.

But the process also helps connect the students directly with the land and outdoors in proactive ways. And it is heartening to see a group of Latino students so actively engaged.

Earlier in the day I struck up a conversation in Spanish with a parent volunteer. “All but one of them knows Spanish” she said. “And the teachers, though not Latino, know Spanish as well.”

It’s interesting because I think they thought they were going to pick up trash, but I like that they can come out here and learn about this place.”

I thought about that comment later on as the kids were antsy to start planting and one girl asked if she could just pick up trash—a helpful task, but it is good that kids get to engage with the environment hand- on beyond just litter cleanup, and to engage with it beyond as a lecture or presentation piece. I am reminded of how the writer Richard Louv put it: let them climb trees.

I introduced myself to several students. I noticed that in speaking Spanish to them, their demeanor would change at times—hard to exactly say but it seemed a bit more respectful—con respeto”. Throughout the morning I noticed some of the boys I checked in with would look around to see if I was watching. I would give them a nod, con respeto.

As I left I asked one student what was something that stuck with him about the activities. He responded “how we filled up part of the bay to make houses for people”.

And what do you thing about that?” I asked.

Well, people need houses, but animals too.”

The saplings the kids were planting are the future for a healthy marsh habitat—sorely needed homes for the animals. But so too are these kids the sorely needed future—a future that is here now taking care of the natural environment, engaging in its conservation—con respeto.

Jose Gonzalez is an educator with classroom and outdoor experience across all age levels, from elementary to college. Currently he is a Butler-Koshland Fellow with Radio Bilingue and serves as an adjunct faculty member with the National Hispanic University in their Teacher Education Department. He is interested in the intersection of Latinos and environmental conservation issues. Follow him on Twitter @green_chicano @JoseBilingue, see his postings at http://greenchicano.wordpress.com/ and www.greenchicano.com

 

Volunteer Spotlight | Meet Amanda Ackerman

Amanda Ackerman
Amanda recently came out to work with us at the MLK Shoreline.

Meet Amanda Ackerman, an Environmental Engineer from Berkeley.

How many times have you volunteered with Save The Bay?
6 times: 1 Coastal Cleanup Day, 2 sheet mulching projects, 2 nursery days, and 1 planting

Do you have a favorite site or experience?
I love planting and working at the MLK Jr. Shoreline.

How did you get involved with Save The Bay?
I started on the Coastal Cleanup Day and kept on coming.

What is the best thing about volunteering with Save The Bay?
Knowledgeable and friendly staff, and seeing the impact you make in a day.

What other activities or hobbies do you enjoy?
Short hikes in the East Bay Regional Parks and urban farming.

What is your favorite thing about San Francisco Bay Area?
The close proximity between city and wilderness/parks. I have all the benefits of a city and can easily visit a park, no matter where I am in the Bay Area.

What is one thing you do each day to protect the environment?
Reduce waste where possible, and use public transit when it’s reasonable.

What is your first/fondest memory of San Francisco Bay?
The first time I was in the Bay Area I visited Muir Woods. If you can visit really early in the morning you can beat the crowd and see more wildlife/birds. The trees are huge and magical.

Anything else you want to tell us?
I love Save The Bay and how they merge education and allow the volunteers to get dirty and make a difference. I also appreciate the policy work they do.

You can join us all throughout the Bay for a planting, mulching, or nursery event. Sign up here