Race, Equity, and Nature
“We should be out here…The birds don’t care what color you are.”
These are the words of Christian Cooper, spoken not long after he was reported to police for allegedly threatening behavior while birdwatching in Central Park. His crime? Cooper, who is black, reminded a woman, who is white, that her dog needed to be leashed in a sensitive area of the park. He then filmed her refusal to do so, both to protect himself from false accusation and to document yet another person defying the clearly posted rule.
At best, the encounter was a painful indignity for Cooper, but it could have been much worse. Had the police arrived and tensions escalated, he could have suffered the tragic fate of George Floyd, Eric Garner, and far too many before them. The Monadnock Conservancy believes that now, more than ever, all people are entitled to the comfort and relief of the outdoors. No one should fear humiliation, arrest, or physical harm when seeking connection with nature. And we stand with the black community and the thousands proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, because environmental protection without social justice is incomplete.
I’ve expressed sentiments like Cooper’s often — “The outdoors belong to everyone” — yet somehow those words ring hollow now. The outdoors should belong to everyone, but clearly they don’t, not if a person of color cannot walk in a park without being the target of baseless suspicion. I don’t know what it’s like to be Christian Cooper or anyone else who feels unwelcome due to differences like race, appearance, or identity. My skin color, white, along with countless other privileges stemming from it, gives me a free pass to the outdoors and nearly everywhere else.
This isn’t fair. We can no longer remain silent. We can no longer pretend that racism and other forms of systemic exclusion are not our problem in the Monadnock region simply because we lack the racial diversity of New York City or Minneapolis. Racism IS a problem here. It is woven into the fabric of our culture, even if we cannot see it. It is the reason why a person of color may not feel welcome venturing to a trailhead or even through some of our towns.
Racism is but one of many obstacles to true, equitable inclusion in access to nature. Increasingly, nature has become a luxury of the few. Someone lacking reliable transportation can’t even get to the woods in the first place. Someone working multiple jobs may have no leisure time to hit the trail. Someone who was never introduced to hiking as a kid by a caring adult may have no idea how to start. And many people, especially persons of color, may feel unsafe seeking one of our region’s many remote trailhead parking areas, far from a main road.
I wish I could say I knew how to fix all this. I don’t. But I can tell you that the Conservancy is committed to being part of the solution. We believe it begins with listening, and listening especially to those who have not previously been given a voice. We did just that last fall, when members of our board and staff held one-on-one meetings with more than 30 community members representing diverse constituencies, from clergy to social workers. The question we asked was simple: what needs and opportunities do you see in your community? This approach, called community conservation, is about doing conservation that is responsive to the whole community, not just the traditional allies. The answers opened our eyes to the hopes, fears, and struggles of our neighbors, and they gave us new ideas of how land and nature could help. We have much more learning to do, but it’s a start.
What we have accomplished, together, over the past 30 years to protect the Monadnock region’s irreplaceable landscapes is truly astounding. Now, let’s keep working together to protect even more, and to ensure that those places may truly belong to everyone.