Carolyn Finney is a professor of geography, a former actress, and author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, where she explores why African Americans have been marginalized regarding the outdoors and environmental issues. She has hiked through Nepal and previously served on an advisory board for the National Park Service. She is currently in residence as the Franklin Environmental Center Professor of Practice at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Finney is the keynote speaker at Thursday’s Camden Environmental Summit, presented by the Camden Collaborative Initiative, a partnership created to improve the environment and quality of life of Camden residents. Below is a Q&A with Finney that has been edited for length.
In your book, you pull from your own unique background when discussing the relationship between African Americans and the environment.
My dad came back from the Korean War and like a lot of black people in the 1950s, my parents moved north for better opportunities. They ended up taking a job as caretakers on an estate owned by a very wealthy family about 30 minutes outside of New York City. It’s a 12-acre estate with a small fish pond, vegetable garden, fruit trees, and a decent landscape. My parents lived in the gardener’s cottage. The owners came up on weekends and holidays. This was a very wealthy, white neighborhood. We were the only family of color in that neighborhood well into the ’90s.
How was that experience?
For me and my brothers, it was like living in a park. It’s where I learned to swim and bike and be outside. It’s a really stunning piece of property [now owned by a conservation trust]. But being the only black family, we didn’t go unnoticed. I remember being stopped by police when I was right around the corner from the house coming home from school. They wanted to know why I was going to that house and asked if I worked there. Looking back as an adult, I realize it was more like, “What are you doing here? The only way you could possibly be here, you must be working here.”
You say that African Americans had a reluctant relationship with the outdoors in the past.
We often think of beautiful outdoor spaces as being somewhat benign in conversations about race and power and privilege. But when Jim Crow laws were in place in this country, it wasn’t only applied to restaurants and movie theaters. It also applied to beaches and other outdoor spaces. Look at the history of environmentalism and you have Henry David Thoreau who went to live in the woods. Well, that’s because he felt safe enough to do that. And you look at representations. I used to buy Outdoor magazine and didn’t see anyone like me.
If you attend conferences held by mainstream environmental groups, you see few black faces. Those groups have begun reaching out to people of color in recent years with mixed success. What are you witnessing?
The mainstream environmental groups, you know, still have predominantly white leadership. There are a lot of groups and organizations that are really tackling, grappling with the idea of what is diversity and how should it look. The mission statements of many of these organizations were written 50 or 80 years ago. I wouldn’t have been allowed to be in those organizations. I wouldn’t have been invited.
That means that while the crux of those mission statements were well-meaning, they also didn’t consider the experience of a lot of other people. I’d ask those groups, how willing are you to sit down and grapple with that? It might mean you have to reprogram your mission statement or consider a different leadership model, or that you have to give something up. I find it really hard to get people to give up power that they already have.
Privilege doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It just means you’re not thinking about those things. We all have privileges. And whiteness isn’t a bad thing. I want to be clear about that. Nobody can do anything about their skin color. This is not about making white people feel bad, which isn’t even helpful. But it is about being accountable.
You say that African Americans value the environment, though that’s been largely out of the public eye.
I’ve been reflecting on that a little bit. So one of the points of growth for me is that African Americans have always been really involved. African Americans have been big voting blocs in terms of environmental issues in this country. And there are folks like Rue Mapp, the founder of Outdoor Afro, a national organization to get African Americans and other families into the outdoors. She’s been doing this for 10 years, long before I came along. You’ve got Audrey and Frank Peterman, an African American couple [who run Legacy on the Land] who are probably the biggest proponents of protecting the national parks.
But you see successes?
I think there’s some momentum. I speak to a lot of these groups. I work with outdoor retailers. So you’re getting a wide swath of people realizing African Americans need to be represented. It’s pretty exciting. I just finished a podcast with hunters in Bozeman, Montana. The podcast is really popular with hunters and they read the book and they wanted to have the conversation. One of the podcasters said, ‘You know, I’m a white guy, I’m 33 years old. I really want you to know, I wanted everyone to be treated right.’
What do you see as the benefits for African Americans to get outdoors?
I don’t think that African Americans get anything special or extra, any more than any other culture in the U.S. I think this is where we are all similar as human beings, in terms of what we need to live with. African Americans will get the same thing as everyone else by going outdoors, the mental, the physical and the spiritual benefits.