Christian Cooper’s experience while birding in Central Park has been described as one of the dominoes in the
past week of tragedy and protests in the United States. (Photos: Brittainy Newman/The New York Times)

As conservationists in America, we have to acknowledge recent events in this nation. We need to recognize the deeply embedded biases in our society that have led to them. And we need to place our work in that context. 

It is so directly relevant to everything we care about. After all, the first domino of the past week, as Trevor Noah so compelling described, happened in a park. One of the nations’s most storied parks. To a man there solely to treasure nature. To watch migrating birds. A black man.

Most of us now know the experience of Christian Cooper, a birder in Central Park. Many are writing about this event, but few more personally than J. Drew Lanham, a life-long birder, author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair With Nature, and Clemson University professor: “I want black lives to matter to the point where whatever we legally do —jogging, watching birds, sleeping in our beds, breathing or otherwise just being human—we won’t be blown apart by someone using the privilege of impunity against us because of the color of our skin.”

There have been far more tragic dominoes falling in the week since, all of which point to the infinite uncounted ones that came before. George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. And dozens upon dozens of other African Americans who did not survive. Plus, the grossly disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color. As human beings and Americans, that must speak to us. 

As conservationists, who treasure the outdoors and seek to connect people with it, how can it possibly be acceptable that the act of going for a simple walk in the neighborhood can cause mental anguish or worse? The profound symbolism of Christian Cooper’s less than deadly experience in a treasured park should light a fire under our conservation community. 

So what do we do? A group of prominent outdoor experts and advocates outlined Five Ways to Make the Outdoors More Inclusive. The actions are broadly applicable. The Chesapeake Bay Trust, Chesapeake Bay Funders Network, and Choose Clean Water Coalition developed a diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) guide recommending how organizations working on environmental issues and the funders who support them, can increase DEIJ within their organizations. The Chesapeake Bay Program is developing a draft DEIJ Statement and DEIJ strategy to grow racial and ethnic diversity in the program, help partners develop as DEIJ leaders, and provide tools to assess progress goals. 

As individuals, as organizations, and as the conservation community, we should be asking ourselves a series of questions. Here’s a partial list, in no particular order:

  • How are we working to build long-term partnerships with organizations led by and serving communities of color and other underrepresented populations?
  • How are we working with communities of color and lower income neighborhoods to provide ample quality parks and trails for access to recreation and nature?
  • How are we working with communities of color and other underrepresented communities to conserve sites, lands, and landscapes important to those communities?
  • How can our region’s renowned land conservation programs help right past environmental and cultural inequities to communities of color and the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • How are we empowering new voices and perspectives from communities not traditionally included in our land conservation work?
  • How are we working to ensure our own organizations’ leadership, staffs, and volunteers better reflect the diversity of people within the region?
  • How are we ensuring the stories we tell and represent through our public lands are the full stories, inclusive of people of color, women and the LGBTQ+ community?
  • What steps are we taking to actively engage and welcome communities of color at our parks, refuges and other public lands?
  • How are we making all of the above not a priority, but a highest priority? 

There is good work going on toward these ends. But not enough. To help shine a light on this, we’d like to profile some of that work in the weeks and months ahead. Please send us a quick email on the work you–or an organization you know of–are doing to foster diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in and through the land conservation community. 

Let’s end on an uplifting note. Sparked by the Central Park incident, a group of black birders, explorers, and scientists got together to start #BlackBirdersWeek which launched Sunday on social media and continues through June 5. Sheridan Alford, one of the cofounders, was interviewed in High Country News in the context of the George Floyd murder and national protests: 

“People need a break from a lot of the hurt that they’re feeling. … I think providing this uplifting and celebratory week will give people that break that they need to mentally gather themselves as a lot of these racially charged and very heated discussions are being had all across the country. You need the heat, but you also need something to offset that sometimes. I feel like that’s what Birders Week will provide.” 

Check out the #BlackBirdersWeek feed on here on Twitter. It’s pretty special.

Lightning Update is a regular communication of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership. Any opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of the Partnership or member organizations.
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Support for the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership is provided by:
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USDA Forest Service
Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources
Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Virginia Outdoors Foundation
US Fish & Wildlife Service
Chesapeake Conservancy

The Chesapeake Conservation Partnership is co-convened by: