Geographer Carolyn Finney

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The Berkeley geographer explores issues that would open doors to greater participation in environmental and conservation concerns.

Carolyn Finney is committed to questioning conventional wisdom. An assistant professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley, her research includes seeking ways to broaden the understanding of African Americans and environment interactions. She also serves on a number of national boards, including Orion magazine. Finney initially pursued an acting career, but a backpacking trip around the world and living in Nepal changed her course. After a 15-year absence, she completed a BA and MA in international development and her doctorate in geography. In her first book, Black Faces, White Spaces, she examines ways in which nature and the environment are racialized in America.


Tavis: A recent survey commissioned by the National Parks Service showed that only 7% of visitors to the park system are African Americans, Latinos also under-represented.

Dr. Carolyn Finney, an assistant professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley, explores this disconnect in an important new book titled “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors,” which combines environmental history with cultural and race studies to give us a critical insight into why this has occurred and what we can do about changing it. Dr. Finney, it’s an honor to have you on this program.

Carolyn Finney: And it’s an honor to be here. Thank you so much.

Tavis: Let me start by asking why these numbers for Blacks and Latinos at the National Parks Service, at least, are so abysmal.

Finney: Oh, my gosh. Well, we could talk about this from a whole lot of different angles, right? So the first thing I want to say is that numbers don’t tell you everything, right? Numbers are a very particular way of quantifying something – so we don’t see Black and Latino people at the parks. That doesn’t mean that Black people don’t have relationship with the environment.

I think there’s a number of different reasons for this. I think part of it is historical. I talk about how we look at the issue of slavery and segregation and redlining and racial profiling and all the way within which Black people have been kind of marginalized in the larger story about who this country is and who gets to participating and building that story.

The parks are part of that story, right? The parks are actually essential to that narrative, right, in terms of creating these natural spaces that we could show to the rest of the world to say this is who we are as Americans. But Black people didn’t actually get to participate, have access, to be part of that creation of those parks back in the beginning. So part of it for me is history around that.

Part of it has to do with who we see in the media, you know. What images are we seeing? When we see anything having to do with the parks and, more broadly, the environment, who do we see? Who don’t we see? And when we do Black or Brown people doing something, what are they doing in relationship to the environment?

When I think about issues of leadership, who gets to make decisions about how these spaces should be used, who gets to engage in the parks? Who do we see when we go to these spaces? Who are the rangers? Who are the people who are the superintendents?

I think a lot about the interpretation, the stories, that we tell of these places, and this is changing and improving. So I want to be really careful not to diminish the work that some folks are doing out there to really expand the story of who we are.

But I also want to say, based on so many people I talk to around the country who have amazing stories, Black people, about their relationship to the environment and their ideas and their creativity, we don’t hear a lot about those stories.

So part of that gets translated into Black people aren’t engaged with the environment, Black people don’t care. And I actually want to cut that myth off there ’cause I said that’s not true at all.

Tavis: Let me throw a curve ball at you…

Finney: Yeah, please.

Tavis: Which you now just started to, I think, address. But let me throw the curve anyway, which is why this even matters. If Black people and Brown people decide they don’t want to go to the park, then who cares? Why does it matter?

Finney: Well, okay. So part of it for me it’s beyond just going to the parks. I started this project – it was a personal project. I talk about my parents who took care of an estate about half an hour outside of New York City. They took care of that estate for 50 years. They weren’t the owners of that estate. It belonged to a very wealthy Jewish family.

I grew up on that estate and, after 50 years, they had to leave that estate. My parents got old. They couldn’t care for it anymore. They now live in a home back in Virginia and they miss that estate. My father’s been depressed for a good, I would say, 10 years about missing that land.

It got me thinking about issues of ownership like whose ownership and experience counts? That estate got bought up by a new owner. He decided to have a conservation easement placed on that land. What that means is that land in perpetuity can’t have any new buildings on it, which is wonderful.

A letter went out to all the neighbors – it’s a very wealthy white neighborhood that this estate is in – thanking that owner for his conservation mindedness. And when I read a copy of that letter, I’m looking in there and I’m not seeing anything thanking my parents who actually cared for that land 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 50 years.

And it started me thinking about all the people in this country who care for land, who work on land, who are engaged with natural resources, who we don’t hear about and we have a history of that. That’s for me why it matters. It also matters because people talk about the changing demographics in this country, and that’s been coming for some time.

When we think about environmental sustainability, if we do not have everybody on board, it’s going to matter because these are the people that are going to be running the country, that are going to be running these organizations, that are going to be running the parks, who are going to be telling the story. We got to have everybody’s story onboard. So for me, yeah, that’s why it matters.

Tavis: One of the things that’s fascinating for me, to your earlier point, that numbers don’t always tell the full complexity of the story.

Finney: That’s right.

Tavis: I used to, and still do from time to time, but I used to work out in a park here in Los Angeles. These numbers never resonated with me, the numbers suggesting that Blacks and Browns don’t use the parks because all I saw was Latinos and Negros at the park all the time.

Finney: Right [laugh].

Tavis: And one of the reasons why I saw them there, I came to appreciate and understand, is because it’s the last open space that Black and Brown people of a certain income level can afford to use. So the reason why you may not see Black and Brown folk at the national parks, it takes money to get there.

But the local parks in cities and towns all across this country, I find, you know, here in L.A. and places I’ve been – ’cause I like to run outdoors – I find that Blacks and Browns do use these spaces ’cause they can’t afford to do much of anything else.

So that raises another question, raises two questions, one, to what extent is poverty connected to this issue, number one. And number two, they may not be using the national parks, but am I right about the fact that around the country we are using these spaces that are available to all of us?

Finney: Yes. So I want to answer the second question first.

Tavis: Yes, sure.

Finney: Yes. I would say that you are right. I never went to a national park until I was in my late 30s, but I had a relationship to being in the outdoors. I was a girl scout. My dad worked outdoors every day. We went to the local state park for picnics or the local beach with other families and my cousins. That’s how we hung out. We didn’t need to go to the national parks to have an actual relationship with the environment.

So part of it is the people who are in the position of power in terms of deciding what the “correct” relationship to have to the natural environment can’t see us there doing the things that we do, whether we’re having barbecues or we’re fishing or we’re just hanging out doing whatever it is we do. We’re often not seen even though we’ve always been there.

I think the issue of poverty is connected partially for the reason that you say, that to go to places like the Grand Canyon if you don’t live right down the street from the Grand Canyon, it takes money…

Tavis: It ain’t easy getting to Mt. Rushmore [laugh].

Finney: That’s right. It ain’t easy getting to Mt. Rushmore, exactly, or any of these other big beautiful national parks, these big beautiful spaces. So part of it is about how much money you have in your pocket. But I want to also say part of it is also about infrastructure.

So I lived in Miami for a year and I lived in relationship about an hour away from the Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. To get to any of those places, if you lived in Miami, you need a car, right? And a lot of people, a lot of working class folks, don’t have a car. There was also very little public transportation.

So, yes, part of it is about poverty. But we live in a larger system and a larger set of structures, so part of it is also about the cities and the states that we live in and their concern and care for all of us that live here.

Tavis: Well, the link between poverty and transportation is well documented. I mean, people who are in poverty tend not to have access to transportation.

Finney: Yes, but I want to also emphasize again it doesn’t mean we actually don’t have a relationship with nature or the environment because you just said we all do. Like my belief is we all have a story, we all have a connection, but those stories aren’t always valued or put front and center.

Tavis: Well, part of the other story, let’s just tell the truth or be politically incorrect. I can handle that and, obviously, you can, given that you did the research. Part of this is about the fact that we have always had a connection to the land.

Finney: Yes.

Tavis: But for many of us, that land has been stripped from us, taken away from us.

Finney: Right.

Tavis: You can talk Red folk and Black folk and Brown folk. I mean, so the very people that we’re talking about who don’t use these natural spaces, who we want to suggest don’t have a relationship to the environment, one, that’s not true. But number two, let’s just tell the truth. Somebody abridged that relationship by stealing what they did own at one point.

Finney: Yes. You said it just that way. I talk about whether it’s the 400,000 acres of land that were originally given to freed enslaved Africans and then taken away, whether it’s all the native people that had to be removed from land in order for the Homestead Act to make sense and then give it to European immigrants so that they could have their own plot of land…

Tavis: Black farmers are now almost invisible.

Finney: Yeah. This is part of the legacy of who we are and our issues of land and ownership and connection. One of the things that’s most – my father’s going to watch this and, Dad, I apologize, but I have to say this – that I know that what’s most difficult for my father is that he has no land to hand down to his children and he talks about this all the time.

And even though over and over again, I say, “But what you’ve given myself and my brothers is so far above and beyond,” but it is imbedded in his mind that land is everything and being able to hand that down is a really important part of being able to extend not only African American culture, but also to keep the family connected.

Tavis: How do we address this? And I’m asking a question that has two parts to it. When I say how do we address it, I mean the structures, the body politic, the system, those people. And then how do we address this issue, that is, those of us who are, for whatever reasons, being disconnected from these spaces?

Finney: Yes. Part of it is, I think we have to continually show up in these spaces and be true to who we are and tell our story. We built support. We have community. We have people out there. We learn how to – I tell people you have to be willing to take a risk, a risk to gain. And understand that, if you come forward and you’re challenging the powers that be, you’re saying, hey, this isn’t working for all of us anymore, this has to change.

And I want to say that I actually have empathy for the powers that be because, in the end of the day, they’re people and they’re afraid of losing relevancy and losing power. But at the end of the day, we all have to be at the table. The thing that I always say is, “Black people, we have agency” and what I mean by that is we can make choices.

We aren’t always able to make the same choices as everyone else, but no one is taking away my agency and my ability to make up my mind about who I am, how I want to be in the space and how I want to tell my story. This is something that we can continually do. And we have to be willing to take risks to challenge that, you know.

One of the things, I talked to a young Black woman at one of the historical Black colleges in Tennessee. One of the things she said to me was, “You know, I’m so frustrated with my Black brothers and sisters because I’m recycling and doing these kinds of things that are considered environmental and they’ll tell me, oh, that’s a white thing to do.”

No one is telling us to think that way. It’s at those places that are difficult that I feel like I understand and empathize with, but we have to change that game and maybe recognize that, yeah, you know what? Our grandmothers were recycling way before it got popular. We have to find a way to make a connection to these stories and who we are.

Tavis: I think you’re right about that. My time is about up. I think you’re right about that, but I also think that there’s a burden that the environmental movement bears.

Finney: Absolutely.

Tavis: That they, quite frankly, are failing at. And I get in trouble every time I say it, but it’s the truth. They are failing at their outreach to these broader communities and they’re comfortable with the leadership that they do have, and that’s part of the problem, number one.

The other problem is that, quite frankly, not enough people care about the environmental racism that too many people of color are subjected to. So nobody cares that, you know, Black and Brown people live next to toxic dumps and nobody cares that one in three children in Harlem has asthma.

Those issues seem not to matter, but anyway, I digress. It’s a fascinating conversation and I’m glad you’re in this space doing the work. The book by Professor Carolyn Finney is called “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors,” and I might add, and others.

But it’s a wonderful piece of work that will challenge you to reexamine the assumptions you have about this topic, and I’m honored to have had you on the program.

Finney: I’m honored to be here. Thank you so much.

Tavis: Thank you for your time.

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Last modified: August 18, 2014 at 12:34 pm