Black History Month Feature: Carolyn Finney & Black Representation in the Outdoors

IDEA, Outdoors
In recognition of Black History Month, CMBG’s IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access) Committee wanted to take the opportunity to honor the traditions, skills, and knowledge Black Americans have brought to our field. Each week, one of our members will offer a blog post featuring the Black horticulturists, farmers, gardeners, and botanists who have inspired them.
This week, we welcome CMBG’s Interpretation and Exhibits Educator, Sarah Callan. Sarah studied entomology and botany as an undergraduate and has a great love for bees and other social insects like ants, beetles, and roaches. She has kept bees in Massachusetts and in western Uganda, which helped start her honey collection from around the world.

This week, I wanted to share the work of Carolyn Finney. Finney is an author, storyteller, and cultural geographer who studied the underrepresentation of African Americans in nature, outdoor recreation, and the environment in her book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans and the Great Outdoors. Finney calls on her own personal experiences as well as extensive interviews, analysis of art and media, and important works in environmental history, cultural studies, feminist and critical race theory, and geography to explore the African American environmental relationship in the United States. Central to that relationship is that Black people in the outdoors, past and present, have been rendered invisible in many ways.

I first encountered this book in 2019 at The Land Institute’s Prairie Festival where Finney was scheduled to speak but unfortunately could not make it due to inclement weather. While I missed her talk, I found her book in the festival’s pop-up bookstore and purchased it, hoping to get a taste of what she might have shared. While her research has always been relevant and important, this topic has never been more critical. Finney recognized this in a recent virtual talk at The New York Botanical Garden, noting that we as a country are at a moment of “convergence.” (Listen to the talk here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzOzzpNap14.) With the global spread of COVID-19, people have increased the amount of time spent outdoors in nature. At the same time, we saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and an increased awareness and response to the violence experienced by Black Americans through the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among so many others. With this confluence of events, our ability and willingness to have conversations about race and the environment cannot wait any longer.

One of the things Finney highlights in her book is the importance of representation. She states that “the power of representation lies in its ability to shape today’s reality through the reality of the past.” The way we as a society remember and tell stories about the past affects our ability to relate to each other and our environment in the present. The histories that environmental organizations interpret and commemorate often tell a limited, white-centralized narrative—erasing through selective storytelling the contributions of Black Americans.

The damage doesn’t end there, though. Per Finney, “representations of the great outdoors can intentionally or unintentionally feed stereotypes of who is engaged with the environment and who is not. […] This inhibits the ability of environmental organizations to develop opportunities and practices that recognize, attract, and support African-Americans participating in environmental activities.” Representation is powerful because it not only shows what exists now, but allows us to visualize and imagine what we can become. The lack of Black representation in outdoor-related media and environmental education not only renders Black environmentalists invisible, but it also prevents others from expanding their own identity to include a relationship with the outdoors.

Environmental organizations often question why their staff or audience lack diversity. As Finney succinctly puts it, “When you don’t see yourself, the message is, ‘you are not invited.’”

To that end, in addition to sharing Carolyn Finney’s book this week, I’d also love to highlight some amazing environmental organizations increasing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) representation: Outdoor Afro, Melanin Base Camp, and Soul Trak Outdoors. Through actions and images, these organizations combat the underrepresentation of Black faces and voices in nature and the environmental community. They also help reduce the barriers preventing people from experiencing the outdoors—often the actual and perceived danger of simply existing while Black in public spaces.

If you want to read more about Finney or watch her talks, a number of them are available online. She also has many virtual events forthcoming. Check out her website at www.carolynfinney.com to explore more of her work and find out where you can see her next.

In her book, Finney notes that, “There is a need for greater recognition of the existing network of black environmentalists and an ongoing acknowledgment of black stories that aren’t only told within the usual framework of the white context/gaze featured only during Black History month.” The irony of this does not go unnoted, but hopefully serves as a reminder that as a predominantly white organization in the environmental sector, we can do better at listening to and amplifying Black voices in the environmental community at all times of the year. I look forward to holding myself accountable, as an individual and as a member of the environmental community, to that commitment.