“What is a refuge?”
I am speaking to a group of 25 or so third graders at an elementary school in the Live Oak neighborhood of Santa Cruz, California. I am giving a presentation about wetland habitats and the animals that rely on them, to prepare them for a field trip to Neary Lagoon, a nearby urban park that describes itself as a refuge for wildlife.
Most of the students in this classroom are Latino. I am white.
It is February 2017. About 24 hours before this moment in which I am speaking to them, there was a Homeland Security raid in a nearby neighborhood, spreading terror like wildfire throughout the immigrant community in Santa Cruz. Later that day, I attended a city council meeting, where residents demanded that the councilmembers listen to the community’s voice on what had happened the morning before. I stood and listened to many heartbreaking stories of people woken up at 4:30AM, not knowing what was happening, not knowing where to go, and later being afraid to send their children to school, to go to work, to leave their homes, to stay at home.
I put up a definition on my PowerPoint: “a place of safety and protection.” I go through slides of different types of animals that find refuge at Neary Lagoon: mallards, turtles, herons, hawks. I am excited to have the opportunity to take these kids on a walk around the lagoon, each with a pair of binoculars, cultivating a sense of wonder for the wildlife that they will witness.
These kids are young, but not too young, I know, to recognize the shape of things around them. Things like power, privilege, racism. The so-called “sanctuary” status of our city did nothing to provide safety and protection in a moment of extreme need.
People sometimes ask me how long I have been an environmentalist. They are expecting me to describe a cathartic moment, one in which I experienced the magnificence of nature’s splendor or witnessed a particularly impactful moment of environmental devastation. They are looking to offer admiration that I have taken it upon myself to care about these issues.
I’m here to admit to you that my environmentalism arose from seeds of neo-colonialism, embedded and planted in me, without my awareness for a long time.
To start, let me put my privilege on the table. Like I said, I am white. I grew up in an upper-middle class family, in a clean, safe suburb with little to no pollution. In high school I had the opportunity to take an AP Environmental Science course. Both my parents are college-educated, and I was expected to go to college. My parents could afford to support me through school, where I studied forestry: because with my safety net, I was able to focus on my passion rather than worry about what path would quickly get me a well-paying job that would pay off my loans or support my family.
Since I never worried about having enough to eat, or experienced systemic racism on a daily basis, or lived in fear of hate crimes or violence, it was pretty easy to become an environmentalist, to be a voice for nature. Because all of my own needs were met, I worried about the natural world, which I perceived as voiceless. And people wanted to pat my back for it – because for me, unlike for some, caring for the environment is a choice, not a survival mechanism. Since I haven’t lived in the vicinity of a toxic power plant causing asthma and cancer in my neighborhood, since I’ve always had access to clean water, since my home will likely not be overtaken by sea level rise or hurricanes or wildfire, it is a choice to be an environmentalist.
This is certainly not to say that all environmentalists are privileged or white – their stories have just been elevated throughout history, while the stories of poor and non-white environmentalists, often intersectional environmental justice advocates, have been generally ignored.
By now, many of us have looked more closely at the racist and colonial origins of the wilderness movement in the United States. What can be said of modern American environmentalism which grew out of seeds of an elite, white, male-dominated movement to protect landscapes while simultaneously kicking Native Americans off of their land? What can be said of white environmentalists, who derive self-meaning and sometimes profit off of a life dedicated to protecting land and ecosystems that their very ancestors stole and systematically destroyed for profit?
What can be said of a city like Santa Cruz, a bastion of nature preservation and “green living,” that can’t figure out how to provide sanctuary for all of its own human inhabitants, a city that continues to criminalize the houseless and price people out of their homes?
What can be said of me?
Every time I scroll through the “Staff” page for a local environmental nonprofit, I see almost exclusively white faces. I can tell you that each and every one of these organizations most likely recognizes this as a problem, is ashamed of it, and may even have a “diversity plan.” I have been part of similar nonprofits that have continuously rewritten statements on intersectionality, solidarity, and the need for diversity in hopes of reconciling this. But it is not enough to just acknowledge that our struggles are interconnected. It is still not enough to “reach out” to other movements and causes and occasionally show up to their events and donate to their organizations. Especially when that “reaching out” is done with the intention of bringing more “Diversity” into their group, or getting more people involved in mainstream environmentalism. I hear this happening like a broken record. Organizations say to themselves, “Why are we all white? I guess we need to do a better job of reaching out to a more diverse audience.” What we should be asking ourselves is, “What does this say about the way we do our work, and why? What does it say about our very concept of environmentalism?” It’s not always about bringing people in to where we are, it’s about us stepping outside of our bubbles, stepping outside of our own sense of identify and meaning, and pushing ourselves to honestly and wholeheartedly confront, and then act upon, the realities of our existence, and our coexistence.
I do not feel that it is wrong for me to be an environmentalist. I am always going to have a deep love for nature and I’m always going to be concerned about environmental issues that affect both human and non-human life on earth. I definitely believe in the work that I’m doing, connecting kids to the urban nature all around them and giving them the skills and curiosity to become scientists someday. ALL kids should have that opportunity, and it’s wonderful to have a job that lets me be a part of that journey.
But intention matters, a whole lot. It’s about that core seed from which my positions and ideals sprout. As my values have changed, I have come to branch out and act more around social justice and the intersections of justice-based movements, to stand up for communities against all kinds of oppression, including but extending far beyond environmental destruction and climate change.
Lately though, I have come to realize that a simple re-alignment is not enough.
The entirety of my environmentalism, and maybe yours (if you’ve read this far) must be deconstructed, and re-built from the ground up. Or, to put it a different way: rather than growing a new branch off the same tree, plant a new seed, which at its core must be of using privilege, to the fullest extent possible, to stand with communities being harmed, oppressed, displaced, and silenced. Let that seed germinate, and a new kind of environmentalism may grow and sprout from there.
In Santa Cruz, this means working toward the de-criminalization of houselessness, and providing support for houseless people, and promoting affordable housing solutions. It means creating and maintaining a strong sanctuary city in the midst of intense state-sponsored terror and racism. It means calling out the ever-present hypocrisies when we see them: when wildlife is given more sanctuary than immigrants, when people are swept out of the river corridor in the name of “revitalization” but no one is giving them a viable place to go, when we continue to preserve open space but don’t build sustainable, affordable infrastructure in our city core.
This is my current and ongoing process. Fellow white environmentalists, will you join me?