5 Questions With the Woman Keynoting a POC-Only Environmental Gathering

By Yessenia Funes Jun 29, 2017

The inaugural People of the Global Majority in the Outdoors, Nature and Environment (PGM ONE) Summit kicked off yesterday (June 28) in Berkeley, California. It ends today (June 29).

The first of its kind, the summit is an environmental convening only for people of color. White people aren’t supposed to attend the conference, according to event organizers, which has caused a degree of controversy.

Glenn Nelson, a Japanese man who founded media venture The Trail Posse, which covers the outdoors with a spin on race and diversity, took issue with the summit’s exclusivity and won’t be attending. He wrote, in an online post, that he “cannot in good conscience attend an event that excludes anyone.”

So he won’t be there, but others will, including Latino educator and advocate José González, Green 2.0 Executive Director Whitney Tome and Angela Park, a consultant, researcher and writer who worked under the Clinton-Gore White House.

Last night, keynote speaker Carolyn Finney discussed the various opportunites for people of color to improve the environmental sector. Finney is a geography professor at the University of Kentucky, as well as a member of the U.S. National Parks Advisory Board. She examines systems of power and how they selectively push narratives.

Finney spoke to Colorlines before taking the stage at PGM ONE. Meet her, below.

How did you get started in environmental work with a racial lens?
In the 1950s, my parents moved to Westchester County, New York from the South to care for the estate of the Tishmans. They were a wealthy Jewish family that owned Rockefeller Center and other New York City property.

They needed a couple to live on this property, be the chauffeur, the housekeeper. So that’s where I grew up. We were the only family of color, so I thought a lot about issues of ownership, privilege, race and class.

In the 1990s, the property owners died. My family had to move off the land even though they’d spent 50 years caring for it.

They instantly became invisible—invisible in terms of the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears they had put into this land. This got me thinking about the many other “invisible” folks: those who grow our food, take care of our land and, therefore, us.

Dominant groups are still resistant to the idea that many of these individuals have leadership potential and may have an even better idea than the people already at the table. So I made the decision to go back to school and found myself getting the next degree and the next degree. I wanted to study issues of difference and of race. The piece on the environment came in because, for me, we can’t talk about human beings without talking about non-human life. 

I went into academia not so I can be a so-called “academic.” I don’t call myself that. When I went back to school, I returned to become an “activist” or “advocate,” if that’s what you want to call it. I think about people like my parents; they’re the kind of people I want to connect with and reach.

It’s the core of who I am as a person, as an African American, as someone who came from a working-class background. 

What should people know about this intersection between race and the environment? 
It’s interesting to me that when we’re talking about race in this country, be it media or politics, we have a way of understanding and articulating it. But it becomes a little more confusing if I say, “What about a park? Or a walk in the woods?”

Jim Crow did not say you could not drink at this water fountain but are allowed to hang out at this national park. It didn’t differentiate. The environmental organizations that grew up out of that time were, in part, informed by what was going on in the rest of the United States around issues of race and difference. 

My understanding of the mainstream environmental movement as it was founded in this country was, in part, looking at the preservation and conservation of certain outdoor spaces. This wasn’t a bad thing, but I have to point to the fact that when national parks were founded, American Indians were living on that land. Many are still fighting for the right to be back on the land their ancestors lived.

How can that be unrelated to an environmental issue? 

What does this summit offer?
It’s bold and risky—in a great way. There’s something about a space that’s not for everybody that allows us to have a different conversation, a conversation I never have. This is the first time I’m speaking at something like this.

When I speak to an environmental group that is predominantly White and issues of race come up, it’s different. People come up to me afterward to tell me they didn’t understand an issue until I shed some light on it. And that’s great to see their awareness shift, but at PGM ONE, I won’t have to explain anything. I can come into the conversation differently. 


What’s the urgency to address this given other issues people of color in the U.S. face?
We’re seeing more clearly than in any other time how we’ve impacted non-human nature: We’re losing more species than in any other time in history. It’s global. Think about climate change and the impacts that has on us: Where do we go from here?

We’re struggling over how to address anything. We can’t even agree that this stuff is happening.

The urgency is that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We’re still trying to address a lot of the same questions on power, privilege and access. Those are new old problems.

But it ultimately comes down to whose point of view matters.

How do we address this, then?
We’ve got to sit down and rethink the entire infrastructure of environmental organizations. They need more people of color in leadership positions, but they also need some dismantling, some rethinking without losing the history of who these organizations are.

You don’t hire a few people of color and solve things; you have to consider that maybe we need to do things differently. Many still operate with outdated mission statements. 

It’s important to be bold and make mistakes in this field. Because we’re human. And we’re not alone. We can figure this out so long as we make better relationships—within and outside our community—to help us get there. 

Watch Finney’s keynote below or on Facebook here