By Fantasia Williams.
During my summer as an Environmental Fellow, I had the opportunity to take part in an equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) history and culture project for one of the largest conservation organizations in North America. This project made it clear that while the global field of environmental conservation is making headway in areas such as wildlife preservation and the reduction of carbon emissions, efforts to increase EDI in the field are not happening as fervently. Combining the concepts of cultural conservation and the conventional environmental conservation movement could prove to entice audiences that are often excluded from the latter. Communities of color have consistently held knowledge of the lands they occupied and actively participated in environmental preservation efforts. This holds true all around the world, from the Buganda people of Uganda whose spirituality respected nature and the needs of future generations, encouraged the restriction of hunting—to tribes and indigenous peoples across North America, like the Pawnee, who believe everything, including humans and the earth, is connected.
While historically, this knowledge has been rejected because of cultural inequalities and its disagreement with the rhetoric of the mainstream mostly white middle-class environmental sustainability movement, there is currently a shift in attitude and people are beginning to recognize the importance of celebrating the two simultaneously. When you walk around Beidler Forest in South Carolina, in addition to learning about the world’s largest virgin cypress-tupelo swamp forest, you can learn about the Maroons who used to call the area home. In the words of Millicent Brown, a historian at Claflin University, “When you think of the forest, you don’t think of African Americans, so to have people out here talking about the Maroons—it’s important.” Representation matters. Accessibility to juxtapositions such as this one can encourage a positive relationship with nature and impact the composition of the next generation of environmental activist.
We are living in a time in history where cultural tourism is reaching new heights. Besides exposing people to new viewpoints and sharing stories of the past, there is an opportunity to empower people who are typically disproportionately affected by environmental burdens. Everyone’s story deserves to be heard. To combat the environmental issues facing the world today culturally diverse worldviews and alternate ways of knowing will prove to be just as important as genetic and biological diversity in providing solutions.