Black History Month: Race and Climate Change

Depending on what you’ve seen on television or in the mainstream media, most people have an idea of New York City. It’s either a glamorous puzzle of skyscrapers, culture and fashion or a place of true grit. Dive even further into some neighborhoods that have a reputation and people have definitely formed opinions. Whenever people ask me where I grew up and I respond with the Bronx, New York, I often get a puzzled, but slightly embarrassed look staring back at me. “So then how did you get involved in this field?” they ask intrigued.

“I built my connection to natural places and green spaces in the Bronx”

Sometimes I am a little surprised by this reaction. Yes, the Bronx taught me many lessons and tough love about staying on the right path, but even more so, my most fond memories of the outdoors and green spaces are right in the Bronx, not in some distant natural space. I remember riding my bike for miles and miles through my tree-lined neighborhood, going from the park to my building, picking up a bag of candy from the bodega. I remember running around playing Tag and Manhunt, hiding behind hundred-year old trees. I remember catching lightning bugs as we cleaned up after grilling out at Pelham Bay Park all day. I remember countless baby showers and birthday parties at Bronx Park East where there was greenery as far as you could see. I remember trips and dates to the Bronx Zoo, and never knew how famous our little oasis was until I left the Bronx. During the summer, we planted ourselves at Orchard Beach if we couldn’t make it out to Long Island. And no beach day was complete without a trip to my favorite place in all of the Bronx- City Island. It’s like a little coastal New England, with boats docked at the marina and all of the seafood you can stand. My grandfather loved to go fishing there since it was so close to his house. Once my cousin and I got old enough, we would ride our bikes from our neighborhood all the way to City Island. These are the first memories I have of the outdoors. Long road trips to the Grand Canyon and the amazing national parks in the western part of the U.S. were not yet a part of my life. I built my connection to natural places and green spaces in the Bronx.

“We often try to sell people on nature, when we don’t have to”

Once I got involved in the conservation field, I quickly realized, we often try to sell people on nature, when we don’t have to. Many urbanized folks like myself have fond memories and connections with the outdoors, just not the ones you see on postcards. Growing up, I knew how important the outdoor places I frequented were. While they were nearby, they were definitely more rare than what I saw on the trip up to Bear Mountain on my way to summer camp. Because of development and urban stressors that result from high population density, I knew it was just as important to take action to conserve urban green spaces as well as our remote natural wonders. Some people may never get the chance to experience those far away places, however it does not mean they don’t understand the importance of conserving it or working to make sure it is here for years to come.

 

“One question that constantly comes up: how can we reach more people of color?”

Over the last several years, there has been a large spotlight on the actions the conservation community is taking to better serve urban areas and underserved communities. One question that constantly comes up: how can we reach more people of color?  This question is often followed by speculation that people have more important things to worry about, or people of color don’t have a strong connection or legacy to natural spaces. Yes, in urban areas of the US, there are higher populations of communities of color. Therefore these groups are often more exposed to some of the effects of living in urban areas- higher rates of air and water pollution, effects of climate change and sometimes, longer distances to large green spaces. Research has shown us that because of this, people of color and people living in urban areas are more likely to care about the environment and will want to take action to protect it because they face these adverse effects.

“I often wish people inquired about what motivated me to pursue this career instead of assuming someone like me would likely have no connection to this work”

It’s important that as environmental advocates, we respect these statistics and facts. We already have support for our work; it is up to us to ask, then listen; and help make connections easier and stronger and find solutions to address access barriers. As someone from an urban area working in this field, I often wish people inquired about what motivated me to pursue this career instead of assuming someone like me would likely have no connection to this work. For sure, it is slightly different from the usual story of growing up in the great outdoors. However, my passion to address environmental injustice and ensure that the next generation of young people in the Bronx can also visit Pelham Bay Park and go fishing at City Island is just as important of a connection as if I had grown up visiting the most remote, and adored natural places on this earth.

 

Tylar is the Urban Communications Coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Philadelphia, USA. Tylar was featured in Teen Vogue’s feature ‘8 Young Environmentalists on Why OUR Generation Has to Save the Planet’ which you can read here.

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