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Writers on the Range: The complexity of color in the environmental movement

Ernie Atencio
Writers on the Range

This summer was a time of reckoning about race in every sector of American life, and many of us are scrambling to respond in appropriate ways — including the environmental movement I’m a part of.

We would like to forget, but the environmental movement has racist roots. One of the founders of the National Park Service was Madison Grant, whose eugenicist views inspired Hitler, and the conservation heroes, John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, both routinely disparaged Native Americans.

Trying to heal that legacy, environmental organizations for decades have talked about how to build diverse staffs, promote parks and public lands for everyone, and seriously address environmental issues in poor neighborhoods or communities of color.

Thirty years ago, the Albuquerque-based Southwest Organizing Project wrote a letter to the “Big 10” national environmental groups outlining all the ways the movement was failing communities of color and calling for change. It was an alert that some groups took seriously. Others issued a bland statement about diversity and inclusion on their websites. Since then, change has been slight and slow.

I share this observation after working in the environmental world for over 25 years, and before that as a park ranger and outdoor instructor. But as a Chicano from northern New Mexico, who grew up in a rough inner-city neighborhood in Denver, I am an anomaly.

I got into this work because I care about wild places, not as a diversity campaigner. But it’s hard to ignore. When I returned to New Mexico in the mid-‘90s to take a job with a river group in Taos, I may have been the only Chicano in the entire state working as a full-time environmental advocate. Some called me the “Chicano poster child.”

As an executive director or on staff with other organizations, I was similarly the “only” or the “first.” The same was true during my years rangering and teaching. I stick with it because I care, and I continue working for change from inside the mainstream. I relish the privilege of access to the public commons of national parks and wilderness areas and outdoor recreation, even as I recognize that many Americans of color do not have that access.

Trust me; it’s harder than it looks being the only brown face in the room or even on a trail. Being the first to break this or that barrier, and always having to explain to someone what it’s like can get tiring.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve been asked to represent Chicano perspectives, or even all people of color, in a meeting. But it often ends up feeling like a half-hearted PC gesture for appearance sake or to satisfy a funder. Attitudes are fixed and systems in place, and once I walk out of the room I think my words are usually forgotten and it’s back to business as usual.

Despite years of experience and knowledge, a few years ago I was fired from a job with one of those big national organizations because I was “not a good fit.” For whatever best intentions this group may have had, I believe they wanted the credibility of a local ethnic face, but in the end the person behind it who did not think or act like them was a threat to the order.

It’s been a life of straddling worlds, hiding part of who I really am to try to fit in and often feeling like an outsider — and I’m not the only one.

At the same time, I sometimes feel a nagging sense of survivor’s guilt because I escaped a rough life on the streets, and am not out there in solidarity, protesting for change and getting tear-gassed and arrested. I was roughed-up by cops enough in my youth that I don’t need any more, but that does not assuage this internal conflict.

But whether you are black, brown or white, the exceptional privilege of being part of a big green group and having access to the sanity of outdoor spaces carries a responsibility to help change the status quo, to speak up for those who are not part of the mainstream dialog, to advocate for equitable access to the outdoors, and yes, to rattle a few cages.

Even though the evolution has been agonizingly slow, it seems that finally, some mainstream organizations are willing to listen and learn. This seems to be a moment of change — may the momentum last.

Ernie Atencio is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is an anthropologist, writer and a native of northern New Mexico living near Taos.


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