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Everyone’s Earth

"Standing in the tension of our differences” toward a more inclusive environmental experience

Fall 2016 | By Meghan Lepisto

In the audience exchange that followed one of Carolyn Finney’s recent presentations about the underrepresentation of African Americans in environmentalism, a man spoke up to suggest that, yes, inclusion is important, but the urgent need is to address climate change in order to save humanity.

“He was talking about those two things as if they are separate,” Finney recalls.“I always find that interesting.”

Carolyn Finney
Carolyn Finney. Photo
credit Lynnly Lebowitz.

She says focusing solely on environmental challenges without incorporating efforts around diversity and inclusion is misguided.

“Then the issue of inclusion becomes ghettoized in a larger conversation about how we evolve as human beings in this ecosystem,” Finney explains. “The idea that we can actually do one thing without the other, I find really problematic.”

Finney shared these remarks as a keynote speaker at the 10th annual Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference in April. An assistant professor of geography at the University of Kentucky and a leading scholar on diversity and the environment, she reflected on how people of color have not only been discriminated against during seminal moments in conservation, but are often largely invisible from conversations about the environment – at the expense of advancing more holistic solutions.

“People who’ve had to deal with the issue of resilience their entire life, and have been so incredibly creative about it, may really have something to offer us,” she said. “They’re often leading the way.”

Through her research, speaking and writing, Finney aims to build cultural competency in environmental organizations and institutions, and increase awareness of how privilege shapes who gets to speak to environmental issues and determine policy and action.

The complexity of this relationship between people and the environment, and the effect of different cultural and historical perspectives, extends back to milestones like the founding of the U.S. National Park Service she says.

toward a more inclusive environmental experience
Focusing solely on environmental challenges without incorporating efforts around diversity and inclusion is misguided, says Carolyn Finney, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky and leading scholar on diversity and the environment.

As she stood before an iconic photo of conservationist John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite National Park – taken during the pair’s three-night camping trip in 1903 that inspired increased federal protection of Yosemite and the creation of several new national parks – Finney explored details not captured by the camera.

“The idea of protecting these wildernesses, it’s a powerful moment; I don’t deny that. But I also think about what else was going on in 1903,” Finney told the audience. “Enslaved Africans had just been freed a few years before and were languishing under Jim Crow segregation, meaning that when Muir and Roosevelt were talking about extending into those spaces, I’ve been wondering how many black people could be there and feel safe.”

“It’s hard for me not to think about the American Indians that were also removed from that land to make those park spaces possible ‘for everyone and for the greatest good,’” she continued. “I’m really challenged with what’s that supposed to mean, and who are we talking about when we say that?”

Reconciling the racial biases documented in Muir’s writings is also difficult for people of color like herself, Finney noted.

“People who’ve had to
deal with the issue of
resilience their entire life,
and have been so incredibly
creative about it, may really
have something to offer us.
They’re often leading the way.”

“How do we hold that complexity, of a man who can have that kind of brilliant idea about the wilderness, but also think that black people were lazy and that native people weren’t as good as white people?” she asked.

“That’s problematic, and I think this has always been there in the mainstream environmental movement, but it’s difficult to address,”she continued.“What does it mean for someone who looks like me in this country, when we talk about environment and some of these universal stories, and where I fit in?”

Finney said the challenge is to move forward in a way that acknowledges these deeply embedded memories and allows everyone to be visible and part of the solution. This will require “learning different literacies” around people’s experiences and adopting a relationship of reciprocity, with decisions made together. For example, Finney serves on a U.S. National Parks Advisory Board that is assisting the National Park Service in engaging in relations of reciprocity with diverse communities.

“How do we change the practice of how we show up when we talk about standing in the tension of our differences?” Finney asked. “This is a moment of convergence. How do we stand in this moment better than we have before?”

An afternoon panel discussion at the Earth Day conference continued the conversation around broadening the environmental experience and ensuring that people from all communities have opportunities to engage. Three Nelson Institute alumni were part of that discussion, and highlights from their presentations follow.



Ph.D. Land Resources '91

John Francis

After witnessing an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 1971, John Francis stopped using motorized vehicles. Several months later, he took a vow of silence. His non-motorized lifestyle lasted 22 years, and his silence 17.

During that time, Francis walked across the United States and earned three degrees. He later sailed and walked the Caribbean and then walked the length of South America.

Francis is the founder of Planetwalk, a nonprofit environmental education organization that sponsors walks nationally and internationally, and the author of two books, Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence and The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World.

Francis: Walking, I believe, is the best way to experience the environment, letting it shape us into the human beings that we are and need to be in order to survive our- selves and what’s going on in our environment.

How we treat each other is really our first opportunity to treat the environment in a sustainable way, or even under- stand or get a handle on it. Sustainability is our relationship to each other – how we live together and how we treat one another.

“It seems we’ve been
forgetting the other
part of environment.
That’s us.”

Environment, for me, became about human rights and civil rights, economic equity, gender equality, and all the ways that we are related to each other. That didn’t mean that saving the trees, endangered species, and climate change, and all those things, were not very, very important; they all are and remain so. But it seems we’ve been forgetting the other part of environment. That’s us.

My class last year walked from Marion, Indiana, to the border of Illinois. Lots of tragic things happened historically in Marion that have to do with race and privilege, and we have to deal with that. The community there, they’re still dealing with that.

A lot can be learned from just being on foot walking through the environment. That experience is what I would like to bring to students whether they’re age 2 or 22, 62 or 72. That was our oldest student, 72.

The Walking Campus [a Planetwalk program] becomes a resource for the community that we walk through. It invites the community to become part of our campus and we learn, we teach, we learn, we teach.


Amy Kesling

Environmental Studies Certificate '09

Amy Kesling

Amy Kesling’s commitment to environmental and social sustainability led her to the Madison-based nonprofit organization Sustain Dane where, since 2010, she has helped lead many programs including, most recently, Step Up: Equity Matters.

Kesling and three others founded Step Up in 2014 to help businesses increase workforce diversity and create company cultures that embrace inclusiveness. The program includes a series of workshops, monthly book club, community coffee conversations, and collaborations with local organizations doing similar work.

Kesling: As an organization at Sustain Dane and for me personally, we started talking about what do we mean when we say sustainability, and are we really just talking about the environment? We’ve started operating under the model where a stronger economy, just society and healthy planet are interconnected and interdependent systems. If we are letting any one of these areas suffer, the whole system suffers.

I went to the YWCA Racial Justice Summit and saw how connected the environmental movement and racial justice movement were. Things like how do we know we aren’t just preaching to the choir; if people only knew what was really going on, I’m sure we could get them to act more; and all of us are doing different things – how could we better connect our efforts? It became clear to me that if we do some things together, maybe both movements could be stronger.

That winter we had our first Step Up initiative and our first step was to get community input.We wanted to make sure we were hosting events and trainings that were relevant.

"I think one of the keys
is to look internally at
our own organizations.
At Sustain Dane, we
started meeting with
other environmental
groups to solve these
issues together." 

The Green 2.0 Report gives the state of diversity in the environmental movement. Overall, the U.S. population is about 36 percent people of color. The environmental sector – nonprofits, government and foundations – is about 16 percent. Nationwide, the same study showed that people of color tend to support environmental protection at a higher rate than white people do.

I think one of the keys is to look internally at our own organizations. At Sustain Dane, we started meeting with other environmental groups to solve these issues together. We’ve had over 100 people come to workshops and meetings, with 40 different environmental groups locally represented, and it’s still growing.

We partner with outside presenters because we don’t have all the answers and we want to work with everyone to figure this out. I’m constantly learning, Sustain Dane is constantly learning; we are trying to create spaces where all of us can learn together.

In a recent workshop, students from the Edgewood Sustainability Leadership program shared their own journeys in equity and diversity. That was a powerful reminder of the language we use, the narrative of people of color, and grant language versus community language – the idea that when you are writing grants and explaining what your organization does, you’re identifying a problem to solve. But when you’re out in the community, don’t identify someone by the statistics that you heard about their race or income level or gender. That’s not helpful; that’s not how we get to know people.


Diane Schwartz

M.S. Land Resources '90

Diane Schwartz

Diane Schwartz is passionate about the outdoors and sharing that passion with children and their families (and with readers at her blog,, which aims to increase health and wellness, pro- mote learning, and create community through outdoor opportunities).

For several years she organized outdoor experiences for children in grades K-5 at the Goodman Community Center in Madison. In 2012, she met Pastor Everett Mitchell and began leading trips from his largely African American church, Christ the Solid Rock, on Madison’s east side. This opened her eyes to social justice issues and strengthened her resolve to provide culturally relevant outdoor experiences for youth and their families.

Schwartz: When I attended Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church at the invitation of Pastor Mitchell, this was the first time in Madison when I was the minority in the room. That was very humbling and challenging, because it forced me to look at things differently than I had before. And I learned.

I got into this work because of the achievement gap and opportunity gap, but that’s essentially deficit thinking; we tend to treat people differently if we think they don’t have enough. And that, I believe, is one of the reasons we have such a large achievement gap, because we don’t treat people like they’re already whole. So we have a town full of well-meaning people who may actually be causing more harm because of this.

"Speak to outdoor retailers
and encourage them to
diversify their literature.
Ask how your organization
can expand or include diverse
voices. Support existing
programs. Volunteer. And
most importantly, step out
of your comfort zone."

I don’t want to be one of those people. I surround myself with people who tell me when I’m using language that isn’t asset- based. Also, I’ve allied myself with the Justified Anger initiative, a Madison coalition. That keeps my work grounded as a white person.

On a recent outing, I had this picture of the Buffalo Soldiers. As a young boy was walking back, grumbling about being thirsty and he didn’t want to walk, I showed him the picture and said, “You know, there was this group of African American men who helped build our national parks, and you’re helping to build this park.” We were planting trees this day. It helped him perk up and he left the day saying,“I’m really glad I came.”

Our youth of color need to see themselves in other people. I can’t do that, so I have to rely on history. I can point to things to show them that this is not unusual for people of color to be outside. And there are lots of organizations out there, like Outdoor Afro. We don’t need to reinvent anything; we just need to re-spark the connection.

Speak to outdoor retailers and encourage them to diversify their literature. Ask how your organization can expand or include diverse voices. Support existing programs. Volunteer. And most importantly, step out of your comfort zone.


A Nelson priority

Amidst broader conversations around inclusivity and social justice at UW-Madison, in March the Nelson Institute hosted a Race and the Environment Symposium, examining disparities in how Americans understand and interact with the environment and other themes from Carolyn Finney’s book Black Faces, White Spaces.

Lauret Savoy
Lauret Savoy

A public lecture by scholar and writer Lauret Savoy will continue the symposium series this fall. A professor of environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College, Savoy views the racialized history of humanity through the geological and physical traces it has left on Earth, for example in the names and borders imposed on it. Her latest book is the critically acclaimed Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape.

Savoy will speak Nov. 3 at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.



Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors
By Carolyn Finney

Black faces white spaces

Black Faces, White Spaces examines how the environment has been understood, commodified and represented by both white and black Americans, and asks the question: Why are African Americans so under-represented when it comes to interest in nature, outdoor recreation and environmentalism?

Finney argues that the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow and racial violence have shaped cultural understandings of the “great outdoors” and determined who should and can have access to natural spaces. She also high- lights the work of African Americans who are opening doors to greater participation in environmental and conservation concerns.

The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors
By James Edward Mills

The Adventure Gap

The nation’s wild places belong to all Americans, but minority populations are much less likely to seek recreation, adventure and solace in wilderness spaces. Bridging this “adventure gap” requires role models who can inspire the uninitiated, Mills argues. He chronicles the stories of several outdoor adventurers, including those who led the first all-African American summit attempt on Denali, the highest point in North America.

Mills also helped document this Denali expedition in the award-winning film An American Ascent, a screening of which the Nelson Institute hosted in April.

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