Ken Brower: the environmentalist talks diversity in outdoor spaces.


Ken Brower at Point Reyes

I didn’t know much about Ken Brower until a recent connection made possible by Robert Hanna, great great grandson of John Muir. I did know that he is an environmentalist, that he has written several books on the environment(my current read)Hetch Hetchy:Undoing a Great American Mistake ,and he is the the eldest son of prominent environmentalist David Brower. That was it. And then I met him. We communicated first through emails, then by phone, and then, and most importantly, in person.

We met at Point Reyes and walked along one of the local trails. We talked about my work, his work, his life, and his thoughts. We also talked about his father and his environmental efforts. Then we talked about the subject which led to our meeting: diversity and inclusion in the outdoors

What I got from our meeting was more than I was prepared for. I’d always thought of the “environmentalist” type as being overbearing, strong in their convictions, and unwavering; he was not at all like that. He was very open to hearing my thoughts, he listened, and he didn’t try to force his opinion on me. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall there being a single point that he was adamant about.

I really wanted to get his take on matters of diversity and inclusion in the outdoors and within environmental agencies, which is what we spent the majority of our time together discussing. He allowed me the opportunity to pose a few questions…Here are his thoughts.

How do you feel lack of diversity in the outdoor arena, effects overall efforts to protect the environment?

We need people of all types and persuasions in the movement to protect the environment.  Right now, we’re losing the battle; we need all the troops we can get.  People of color should be at the forefront, as they are always the first to suffer from environmental degradation.  Their voices–the voices of experience–are crucial.  As European-Americans become an ever-smaller minority in America, the importance of diversity in the environmental movement grows in inverse proportion.  Because that’s where the numbers will increasingly be.

But my main regret about the lack of diversity outdoors has less to do with efforts to protect the environment than with simple equity.  The natural world is fundamental to all of us; it’s a fundamental right.  Our species evolved as hunter-gatherers in the wilderness of Mother Africa. Wild nature is where we humans come from; it’s where all our instincts and behaviors formed.  Long before the invention of agriculture, we had evolved into just who we are today.  We were shaped in nature.

If you are Hmong American, or Guatemalan American, or African American before the Great Migration, then your people had a very close and very recent connection with nature. If today, in cities, you are unable to find your way out into nature, then you are cut off from your roots.  You are separated from roots deeper than any of those tribal or ethnic markers that we tend to identify as our identities.  You are cut off from a more essential identity.

What is the greatest barrier for conventional outdoor organizations, in reaching audiences of color? ( lack of concern, lack of know how)

I feel strongly that every time we ask this question, we also must turn it around: What is the greatest barrier to people of color in reaching outdoor organizations?  It’s a two-way street.  It does no good for outdoors organizations to reach out to people of color if people of color are not interested.  There is much talk of minorities being excluded from organizations fighting for nature.  I don’t see it.  Once it was true, surely, but no longer.  I have worked with, and for, several environmental organizations, and all are deeply troubled by the lack of diversity in the movement.  All of them understand that diversity is going to be vital if their work is to succeed.

I am a white man who married African American women. (Two of them!  But serially–not at the same time!)  My children came out dark.  Forty-something years ago, I ran for the board of the S.F. Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club on the principle that we needed more diversity.  The Bay Chapter, almost entirely Caucasian, liked the diversification idea. They elected me!  My problem was in recruiting people of color.  I struck out even with my in-laws.  There is no mystery as to why this was.  African Americans in the 1960s had other priorities.  My first wife, Marion, was secretary for the Black Veterans of Merritt College in Oakland, one of the student groups that morphed into the Black Panther Party. THAT is the sort of thing that was going on in those days. This was the time of Selma and voting rights institutional racism and police violence and German shepherds and water cannons.  A time not unlike today.  My guess is that the closer our society moves toward racial equity; the more time people of color will have for environmentalism.

What are your thoughts on the new administration soon to take office, regarding environmental efforts?

Donald Trump is an unprecedented threat to the republic, to American democracy, and an unprecedented effort will be required to stop him.  The best hope I see is to go to the example of Dr. King in civil rights and the other organizers of the protests against the Vietnam War (which ended the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.)  Great masses of citizens mobilized in the streets.  If any recent development is encouraging, it is what is happening at Standing Rock. There is tremendous power in gathering in a cause and standing firm.  If Trump, being the racist, misogynist, xenophobic, climate-change-denying, know-nothing warmonger and demagogue he is, can’t unite people of color, women, religious minorities, environmentalists, pacifists, and decent Americans of all other stripes, then it will never happen.

Mr. Brower’s final thoughts.

We need to unite. The environmental movement suffers from too much internal bickering.  Environmental justice advocates tend to grow impatient with the old guard of tree-huggers, and vice versa.  Foodie environmentalists often diss wilderness advocates.  Enthusiasts for urban parks and those for national parks tend to think that their own special interest is the true and correct path.  In fact, it’s all the same movement.  To succeed we need to advance full speed down all these paths.


5 thoughts on “Ken Brower: the environmentalist talks diversity in outdoor spaces.

  1. Pingback: Diversity in the Wilderness | A Dialogue Between Us

  2. I see posts about the lack of diversity in the outdoors on Facebook from time to time, and many of the white commenters seem to take great offense to the subject’s being raised. They say that there is nothing stopping people of color from hiking, camping, etc. if they want to and that whites shouldn’t be made to feel guilty that people of color choose not to get out there. I’m one who does like to hike and camp and visit national parks, and in the areas where there aren’t too many black people, I feel out of place. I carry on though. *shrug*

  3. “My guess is that the closer our society moves toward racial equity; the more time people of color will have for environmentalism.”

    I appreciate his honest thoughts, insights, theories in regards to why it may be a struggle for folks of color to get in on the environmental action. I suspect this statement he made above may hold a grain of truth- perhaps people of color may view hiking or outdoors camping as luxury, as a lesser priority, as something at odds with dealing with civil rights causes. Whereas, in reality, being rooted to the earth we all came out of can be healing and offer lots of personal insights and mystery that may inspire us to act, evolve and nurture our talents, our souls and voices which in turn can inspire that in those we touch.

    All I know is I would go insane and be a constantly angry, wounded, hurtful person if I didn’t take myself on hikes to reflect and notice what’s around me. To clean up the beach a bit or watch the birds fly in unison into the horizon above the sea. As a city kid, I longed for a safe space, away from traffic and congestion. From neurotic worries and hustle and bustle. I am so grateful I now live near lots of great trails by the water.

    Being in Nature is/ should be for everyone. It is not a luxury. Just like spiritual practices like yoga, healthy, organic eating and whatever else has Been appropriated and colonized by The uber-affluent, in the US, mostly white people.

  4. I wonder about that comment “It’s a two-way street.” Here I am, fresh out of college and ready to go! But no one is calling back (and I have been applying since October 2016). I majored in Environmental Science at Humboldt State and I was worried about this. These organizations say they are ready for change and diversity, but as I watch classmate after classmate get hired, it makes me doubt how true that is. I was already having environmental ethics issues with my professors, I wonder if it will be the same with my future bosses. At the same time, its a struggle because who wants their skin color to be the only reason they get hired. Considered a career change but I want to contribute to the movement and will carry on. Talk like “It’s a two-way street” with this subject seems very one sided.

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