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Forging Inclusion and Access in Environmental Protection

A few of the nation’s most influential environmentalists spoke to The Washington Informer to discuss Earth Day, continuing efforts to end racial and environmental injustice, and new innovations in making the world healthier.

WI: Many in the DMV, being surrounded by concrete and fences, tend to overlook the expanse of natural beauty throughout the region. What are some of the programs that Audubon Naturalist Society offer to engage with young people and make them aware of their surroundings?

Caroline Brewer, Chair of the Taking Nature Black Conference and Director of Marketing and Communications: I would suggest that it’s a function of the fact that we all spend so much more of our lives indoors. An environmental observer calls Americans today an “indoor species.” Whatever lack of awareness and appreciate there is, undoubtedly, is a function of a society that is overwhelmed with connection to electronic devices — computers, smartphones, and televisions. It’s a function of the fact that schools are more heavily focused on testing than on teaching and learning in ways that give young people hands-on experiences and opportunities to explore outdoors.

I’m a former classroom teacher and my urban students were always eager and grateful to get outdoors and explore the natural world. The Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) understands this hunger that young people have to engage with nature and has been feeding it for more than 50 years. In fact, when ANS first moved into its current headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in 1969, children from DC Public Schools were some of the first to visit and explore the nature sanctuary.

The Taking Nature Black Conference, designed to give African Americans in the environmental field a space to share ideas, network and support one another, saw close to 700 participants at a recent gathering. (Photo by Don Baker)
The Taking Nature Black Conference, designed to give African Americans in the environmental field a space to share ideas, network and support one another, saw close to 700 participants at a recent gathering. (Photo by Don Baker)

Since then, we have grown our environmental education efforts to include sending science and nature educators to schools in DC, Maryland, and Virginia to provide year-round, hands-on science and environmental education. In addition, we provide 10 weeks of nature summer camp at our sanctuary and children from the DMV visit our Chevy Chase and Loudon County, Virginia sanctuaries for field trips through our meadows, forests, and gardens. Some 14,000 children learn about birds, bees, mammals, trees, wildflowers, how to grow vegetables, fruit, herbs, separate recycling and compost and just about everything in between. Students from elementary to high school learn about water chemistry and aquatic life in our streams and rivers through our programs. We also have a nature preschool and with the opportunities now afforded for internships and networking to college students through Taking Nature Black and Naturally Latinos, some of the most comprehensive and career-inspiring environmental education available to young people in this region is provided by our organization.

WI: How has the region been impacted by climate change and what are some of the specific platforms and measures undertaken by Audubon Naturalist Society to address those issues?

Eliza Cava, Audubon Naturalist Society Director of Conservation: The Audubon Naturalist Society has long worked on the policies (or lack of policies) that drive the climate crisis. For decades, we have fought highway proposals that promote greater consumption of fossil fuels. The transportation sector is America’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Which is why we have opposed Gov. Hogan’s proposed expansion of I-495 and I-270, and we advocate, instead, for better investments in our mass transit system. And, knowing how important it is to manage the flooding that more major storms bring to both human systems (like our clean drinking water) and natural habitats (like our stream valleys), ANS has been one of the region’s leading advocates in favor of better stormwater management through green infrastructure. Green infrastructure simply means planting more trees, shrubs, and native plants and flowers in our neighborhoods — and in places where there’s a lot of concrete and pavement, to soak up rainwater and limit damage from flooding. Every time we pave, we pollute, and we make it easier for our communities to suffer from severe flooding, such as we have seen in nearby Ellicott City, and in major urban areas such as Houston, Texas.

In addition to our advocacy, we educate and train people to be better stewards for the climate. We promote “7 Actions for 7 Generations” to address the Climate Crisis, empowering people to step lightly, eat more plants, take care of the land, reduce their waste stream, participate in community science programs, follow the lead of our enlightened young people like our Taking Nature Black Environmental Youth Champion Jerome Foster II, and up their political IQ and VOTE.

WI: A number of years ago, the District’s mayor began working to clean up walking paths and nature trails in all Wards to promote family-centered good health and the existence of the trails. Do you believe that D.C.’s trails are still largely hidden in plain view?

Ari Eisenstadt, DC Conservation Advocate: Significant work has been done by our environmental partners and nature-oriented organizations to connect trails all over the city, and this is definitely bearing fruit in terms of accessibility. However, there is still much work to be done to provide trail connections from Wards 7 and 8 to the rest of the city, particularly because there are few safe connections across the Anacostia River. There are some rather contentious plans in the works for bridges and trails across the river. Depending on the eventual outcome, these may help provide additional access. Trails in Rock Creek Park, Oxon Run Parkway, Kingman and Heritage Islands, and the Anacostia River Trail do get tons of community use, and many of the speakers at Taking Nature Black, such as 2020 Regional Environmental Champion Akiima Price, are working hard to increase the connections between people and their local parks. There are still some gaps left between the presence of trails and green space and their use, particularly in Shepherd Parkway. This almost 200-acre site is entirely wooded and owned by the National Park Service, but still has no interior trails. There is a redevelopment plan in the works, which could outfit the park with trails, depending on community feedback. Some people have expressed safety concerns about frequenting heavily wooded parks, however, which is a major obstacle to more use of the District’s parkland. Another serious concern among the environmental community is the presence of invasive plants (plants that can take over an area, choking the life out of the native plants that feed and sustain wildlife, and are difficult to remove and control), particularly vines, which threaten the survival of much of the city’s wooded parkland, and create visibility barriers along trails that make them less accessible.

WI: In February, the Taking Nature Black conference underscored many of the issues surrounding the intersectionality of environmental and criminal justice, including the intentional polluting of Black and Brown neighborhoods. Why do you think there are few, if any, criminal enforcement of dumping and polluting, given its damage proves both human and environmental?

Cava: One answer is that environmental enforcement is often driven by requests — and a community that is wary of over-policing of its people may be less likely to request policing about dumping and other harms.

Another piece is that even when requests are made for environmental enforcement, there could be a resource disparity. For example, in Maryland, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) has ultimate responsibility for a lot of environmental enforcement, but they delegate much of that to the local counties and other jurisdictions. MDE does not have enough staff to respond to many enforcement requests. If the local jurisdiction is also understaffed because they have a relatively lower tax base, they will be less able to respond.

Industries have always made the claim that they are job creators and contributors to tax bases, so many local governments are wary of enforcing fines or other punitive measures on them and instead work towards education or voluntary compliance. The EPA should be the backstop of this and require more enforcement, but especially under this federal administration, those backstops are being blasted away. Since so many polluting companies are disproportionately sited in Black and Brown communities (due to disparities in land values, zoning, and structural racism in the political system and land use patterns), those communities end up bearing the brunt of the slow pace of improvement. So the kind of enforcement system in place can make all the difference on the level and consistency of enforcement.

WI: Some Black and brown environmental advocates expressed anger and sadness at the way they had been either ignored or dismissed at national environmental conferences, despite being disproportionately impacted by air pollution, housing toxins and resulting diseases. Is there a prescribed manner for demanding space at statewide and national tables on environmental issues?

Brewer: Most African American environmentalists have been angered and saddened by their work experiences in the movement. Some, indeed, were grateful that the Taking Nature Black Conference is a conference for them and designed by them, a space where they are free to express their views on the black experience in nature.

As to pressing for a space at other tables, that’s not where our planning committee is coming from. We have operated with an understanding that as representatives of environmental organizations, and as leaders of our own, are equal to leaders and representatives of others. In fact, there are three key principles of the 17 principles of Environmental Justice, adopted in October 1991by the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit that have been guiding principles of our work with the conference, although not written anywhere, except our in our minds and hearts.

Those principles are:

1) Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction.

5) Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.

7) Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.

WI: Explain a bit about how you become involved with environmental advocacy and what your endgame looks like both locally and globally?

Brewer: I was born an environmental advocate. I grew up as an outside child, loving the environment, appreciating the sun, the moon, the rain, flowers, trees, birds, and even the spectacular buzzing dance of the bees. I love to walk, run, and hike, sit near a stream and listen to water rush over the rocks. My favorite place to be in all the world is in sight of the ocean. I find it instantly and profoundly calming and beautiful.

My professional background is in journalism and communications. Three years ago, I got the chance to become an official advocate for the environment as the director of marketing and communications for ANS and as chair of the Taking Nature Black Conference. I want to recognize Kelli Holsendolph, my predecessor, for founding the conference in 2016, and giving us such a powerful concept and legacy to build on. Working with nature educators, conservationists, gardeners, farmers, birders, scientists, riverkeepers, and other aquatic specialists, I have learned so much. And yet, I will, sadly, not live long enough to know all that I would love to know about this exquisite natural world that is a priceless gift to humanity. So, it’s my joy and privilege to take in as much as I can each day.

Our endgame, locally and globally, is to elevate awareness of the historical, unique and substantial contributions of African Americans and Latinos (through our Naturally Latinos Conference) and other people of color to the environment. And to have fun doing it. I’m delighted that we this happening year day after day. Our endgame, locally and globally, also is to curtail the threats of climate change to people and wildlife. We are working with our staff, members, supporters, environmental partners in this region and with leaders around the world make progress. For the sake of all the natural wonders, including humanity, we must keep marching on.

WI: As we commemorate 50 years of Earth Day advocacy this year, how would you rate the overall push for clean water, air, and sustainability? What do you believe is left to do?

Brewer: Even before the first Earth Day, ANS was in the vanguard of the sustainability movement. Our legacy of advocacy stretches back 123 years, and it was the work of our former board member, Rachel Carson, that inspired President Robert F. Kennedy to establish the Environmental Protection Agency. Under the EPA, America became a role model for the rest of the world for protecting the environment. The establishment of Earth Day, shortly thereafter, was an invitation to the wider world, to children and local communities, to take their place as leaders in protecting the planet.

Sadly, over the last three years of the Trump administration, we’ve seen devastating rollbacks in policies that made us the envy of much of the world. Worse, decades of progress on cleaner air, water, more sustainable land are now being rapidly undermined. It could take decades to reverse the damage and some of the damage might be permanent.

The good news is that the environmental movement that is visible to the public is more diverse than the general public has ever known. People of color are innovating in every sphere of environmental science. Young people are as well, and, of course, agitating loudly and consistently for more dramatic changes in policies. Yet, we are not satisfied. There is still a tremendous amount of work to do. Our lives and livelihoods are at stake. Everything we hold dear about nature is at stake. We are excited about new and growing energy and understanding about the threat to the planet and are working as quickly, comprehensively, and intelligently as we know how with everyone who is willing to join us. The Taking Nature Black conference has grown since 2016 from 100 participants to 500 and, more important, those who have attended are eager for progress. We are thrilled to be their partners at this time in human history.

For additional information on Audubon Naturalist Society and Taking Nature Black, go to anshome.org and anshome.org/taking-nature-black.

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