In 'Belonging' Black environmentalists show off their favorite local parks A new photography project from the Audubon Naturalist Society centers Black environmentalists communing with their favorite natural locales.
From NPR station

WAMU

In 'Belonging' Black environmentalists show off their favorite local parks

In 'Belonging' Black environmentalists show off their favorite local parks

Tykee James, president of the D.C. Audubon Society, at Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens in Northeast D.C. Myron Fields/Audubon Naturalist Society hide caption

toggle caption
Myron Fields/Audubon Naturalist Society

In honor of Earth Day, the Audubon Naturalist Society has released a photography project called "Belonging," a response to the fact that people of color are woefully underrepresented in the environmental movement. The images show Black D.C.-area environmentalists, scientists, and others in some of their favorite natural spots around the D.C. region, from Seneca Regional Park in Great Falls, to Anacostia Park in the District, to Sligo Creek in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The project was spearheaded by Caroline Brewer, who runs the Audubon Naturalist Society's annual Taking Nature Black conference. Brewer says the idea for "Belonging" began about five years ago, when she started with the environmental organization, and was looking for images to promote events and other programs. "I noticed a tremendous lack of diversity, a tremendous lack of people of color," Brewer says.

Article continues below

The initial plan was to photograph 20 people, but over time the project expanded to include 40 people from various professions and walks of life in 22 different parks and natural areas around the region.

Together, the images of Black people at home in nature show "a truth that a lot of people have not been exposed to," says Brewer. "On one hand it seems ridiculous to have to say, 'Of course, Black people like to hike, of course, Black people like to garden, of course, Black people like to bird.' But we don't see that story represented in much of American media, so we know that it's a story that needs to be told."

The project, funded in part by the U.S. Forest Service, is presented as a free downloadable e-book, and all the images are available to peruse online. DCist spoke to a few of the people featured in the project about their lives, their connection to nature and what "Belonging" means to them. Here are excerpts of those interviews, edited for length and clarity.

Entomologist Samuel Ramsey on Kingman Island in D.C.'s Anacostia River. Benjamin Israel/Audubon Naturalist Society hide caption

toggle caption
Benjamin Israel/Audubon Naturalist Society

Samuel Ramsey, Washington, D.C.

I'm an entomologist with the United States Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Laboratory. I absolutely love insects. I spend the vast majority of my time, both at work and off work, learning about them, better understanding how we can keep their populations healthy and just generally geeking out.

I actually developed this excitement about insects in sort of a roundabout kind of way. I didn't start out being interested in them. I was terrified of them. I was having nightmares about them on a regular basis. I didn't want to go outside for recess — I was a seven-year-old kid with a pretty gigantic phobia. My parents, being just very taken with reading and learning, they told me that people fear what they don't understand. So they got me a library card and just kind of parked me in the insect section of the library for an entire summer. After that, I was super excited about insects. I thought they were the most fascinating thing that I'd ever stepped on, and I wanted to pretty much proselytize to anybody who would listen about how cool these creatures are.

Being a Black entomologist — I've actually used this analogy once before, and it really it really gets at how I feel when I go to a national meeting. When I go to these national meetings for entomology, I feel like someone knocked over a salt shaker, and if you look really closely at it, you see just a tiny little speck of pepper in the middle of all of that salt. That's me. In entomology, I am one of very, very, very few African Americans. There have been people who have come up to me and told me directly, "You don't look like an entomologist. You don't look like what we think of when we think of an entomologist."

It's tough. It's difficult. I understand why there aren't as many African-Americans in these fields, because as you're pioneering through it, there is momentum against you.

Alfie Chambers, CEO of Temple X Schools, at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area in Baltimore County. Benjamin Israel/Audubon Naturalist Society hide caption

toggle caption
Benjamin Israel/Audubon Naturalist Society

Alfie Chambers and Matilda Machioli-Chambers, Baltimore, Md.

I take to the woods because it's honestly something I've done since I was a kid. The woods offer this sort of peace and tranquility and ability to go and clear my mind, and also to be able to dream and to think about the next steps and what I could do.

People who are a part of the diaspora, where there's a lot of terror constantly on our psyches and on our bodies, going into a space that we were pushed out of because of the history of slavery and all of the horrors that were happening in the woods — going back there without fear, and going there to seek refuge, I think it's really important.

I take my daughter there because she's 2, and I remember the impacts that playing in the woods or being near a stream had on me as a kid, and I want to impart that in her before she gets swept away with all the technology.

Karen Wilson-Ama'Echefu, a cultural historian, singer, and storyteller, at Fort Slocum Park in Northwest D.C. Benjamin Israel/Audubon Naturalist Society hide caption

toggle caption
Benjamin Israel/Audubon Naturalist Society

Karen Wilson-Ama'Echefu, Washington, D.C.

I am a singer, storyteller, a scholar of interdisciplinary African diasporic cultural and intellectual history. I am an urban child. I come from New York City. I'm a Harlem kid.

I come from people who have known the natural world intimately, but in the Great Migration, at the beginning of the 20th century and into the middle of the 20th century, African American people were moving out of the southeastern United States and into urban centers, looking for the American dream. And so I knew somewhere in my life, there was supposed to be some kind of country. But it was not my experience at that point.

Because I'd been listening to the narrative that has been pumped into our ears and our hearts that, you know, "Black people are urban, and they they're not supposed to deserve to be anywhere near anything green or growing" — I didn't know that I should, could, would ever seek out a relationship with things that grow.

I am in this "Belonging" project because I am understanding more and more deeply my place in relationship to land. It is a sacred thing. It's a spiritual thing. We all belong. We all are created to be embraced in nature. We all should be in the natural world. And the natural world should be in all of us.

Lydia Lawrence, Fairfax NAACP environmental and climate justice chair and Potomac Riverkeeper Network JEDI chair, at Seneca Regional Park in Great Falls. Myron Fields/Audubon Naturalist Society hide caption

toggle caption
Myron Fields/Audubon Naturalist Society

Lydia Lawrence, Herndon, Va.

I actually grew up in Northern Virginia my whole life, and I have always grown up outside and playing in the woods, and the creek, and running through storm drains with my brother and other neighborhood kids. The outdoors has always been a part of my life — going hiking was an inexpensive form of family recreation.

There is a peace and a freedom in being outside, I feel like I'm not in the real world. I just feel like I am disconnected — in a very positive and good way, disconnected from the rat race — but more connected than ever with myself.

Black people have a long, long history with the outdoors — back before we were even taken from our homeland of Africa and forcibly brought over to this continent. We had a connection with nature and the outdoors. And even in that time since being over here, that connection has persisted.

But we're not the ones featured on outdoor magazines. Even today, it's somehow "forward-thinking" and "progressive" to put a Black person in an article on outdoor recreation, or to center our narrative. It's so "progressive" in 2022, when we've been there — we've been there for a long time. We just haven't been included in that narrative. I think this is a very, very important step to reclaiming that narrative that has actually always been ours.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

Questions or comments about the story?

WAMU values your feedback.

From NPR station

WAMU