Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

The Cornell Botanical Gardens cultivate learning alongside plants.

February 28, 2021

Class of 1945 Lecture Covers Racial Equity in Environmentalism

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On Feb. 26, Dr. Carolyn Finney spoke on Black Americans’ historical connections to outdoor spaces for the Cornell Botanic Garden’s virtual Class of 1945 Lecture, an annual series on environmentalism.

Drawing sociological and historical research from her bestselling book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, Finney discussed the historical barriers that still keep Black and Indigenous Americans from engaging in natural spaces, including segregation and the lack of recognition for land workers throughout time.

To mitigate these problems, she emphasized community discussion, acknowledgement of Indigenous land history and increased visibility for Black environmentalists.

The CBG, the Ithaca Children’s Garden and The Learning Farm in Ithaca organized the event collaboratively. Titled “2020 Vision, A Black Walden Pond and Other Musings,” panelists included the CBG director of education Sonja Skelly, founder and director of The Learning Farm Christa Nunez and ICG director Erin Marteal.

Following the event, Finney took part in a private discussion between Ithacan environmentalists and community leaders, where members of the event’s sponsor organizations listened in and reflected on how to increase equitable practices, according to Nunez.

“I think community discussions like that, even if they’re in small groups, can really enhance people’s understanding, and more of a call to action,” said David Stilwell, representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

At the main event, Finney questioned the definition of “public land” and the harmful ways that environmentalists may conserve land without conserving its history, especially that of Black and Indigenous people who have lived and worked there.

“Land is never just about land,” Finney said. “It is about political power. It is about legacy.”

Finney recounted her years growing up on a 12 acre New York estate that her parents maintained for a white family. She noted the personal significance of the space and her parents’ sorrow when ownership changed and they had to leave it.  

The Westchester Land Trust recently notified Finney of a conservation easement on the property, but it failed to acknowledge her parents’ years of residence and work there.

“At the end of the day, what drives me is that this work is personal,” Finney said. “It is personal. It is political. It is intimate at every step.”

To prevent erasure in environmentalism and encourage Black Americans to get involved in green movements, Finney advocated for better media representation, individual reflection and structural change from environmental organizations. 

She also spoke on historical transparency, emphasizing the correction of false narratives so that everyone feels welcome in natural environments.

“There’s been blood in the soil of this country for the last 450 years,” Finney said. She called for more authentic, nuanced narratives around American land, from which environmentalists and green organizations can create more inclusive spaces.

Marteal told The Sun that Finney’s book and lecture has already helped the ICG increase their inclusion efforts. “Over the years, it’s come to our attention that not everyone feels safe in outdoor spaces, and Carolyn Finney’s book really helps us understand the historical perspective of why that is,” she said.

The ICG, in partnership with The Learning Farm, is currently working on an awareness initiative called “The Environmental Leaders of Color Project,” in which  Tompkins County youth groups are asked to identify and research a BIPOC environmental leader. The groups are writing short biographies, and the ICG is making banners to display at the Garden –– Marteal hopes to finalize the project in May.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has also been working to increase environmental equity. “The agency as a whole is going through a deep reflection right now about looking at ourselves and who we are while we’re representing the public’s interest,” Stilwell said.

He helped to fund the banner project with the ICG and The Learning Farm, which he hopes will inspire children. “Those children would see people that look like them as they’re walking through and could see a place for them as part of that environmental aspect,” he said.

Nunez appreciated Finney’s lecture and the work that can follow. She expressed that The Learning Farm has always focused on equity in natural world spaces, and she hopes to expand that effort to other individuals and organizations in Tompkins County.

“As Black and brown people try to access, try to steward, try to gain a footing in supporting environmental work in this community, there are a lot of obstacles that are still in place to keep people out,” Nunez said. She cited failures to recognize Indigenous land, racialized wage differentials and the rise of commercial farming as problems that still need to be overcome.

Still, Nunez expressed hope for the future. Like Finney, she emphasized the collaborative nature of increasing equity and the importance of continuing discussion.

“The more we all dig into this work and want to support the community in real ways, by making its spaces more intrinsically welcoming from the inside out, the more effective we’ll be together for the community,” she said.