Celebrate Earth Day by Making Access to Green Nature Less White
From the April 14 issue of the GWS Trendium
The connection between nature and wellness is undisputed. But for complex—and too often insidious—reasons, people of color have been deprived of nature and the great outdoors. Thankfully, a record number of activist organizations are working to make access to nature a universal right.
Connecting People of Color with Nature: The Powerful Wellness Medicine
Thursday, April 22, is the 51st Earth Day, where people across the world recognize the power of nature and commit to action against environmental disaster. This year, the Global Wellness Summit is working to change a disaster that deserves more attention: how people of color have been systemically barred from one of the simplest things and the most powerful of medicines—nature.
In the Summit’s 2021 trend “Adding Color to Wellness,” author Tonia Callender, a research fellow at the Global Wellness Institute and a Black woman living in the US, explains—through hard data and profound personal experience—the deep racial inequalities in access to green spaces and the hostile experiences that Black and brown people can face when they do head outdoors.
Changing Long-Standing Myths
In racism’s always insidious logic, somehow this is “their” problem: There’s been a long-standing myth that people of color just aren’t nature-lovers. And there’s the persistent myth that Black and brown people care less about environmental issues, when studies, like a recent one from Yale, show the opposite is true.
The problem is pernicious and deeply rooted in history. Black people, for centuries, were violently displaced from their native lands by European colonialism and slavery. Later, racial segregation and discriminatory housing policies ensured that people of color have radically less access to green space and parks. There is a mountain of stats. A recent report from the Center for American Progress found that Black people (68%) are almost three times more likely than whites to live in “nature deprived” areas; in the UK, only a quarter of Black people spend any time in the countryside and they make up only 1% of visitors to national parks.
The Painful Truths of Systemic Racism and Access to Nature
In 2020, we witnessed the tragedies that can happen when Black people decide to go outdoors: the killing of runner Ahmaud Arbery just for taking a jog in his neighborhood in Georgia and the threatening of Christian Cooper by a white woman for being a Black birdwatcher in NYC’s Central Park. Callender, in her trend, brings it all painfully home, explaining how she sent her son to a local park to relieve his pandemic anxieties, but he immediately returned home after a ranger followed and harassed him, asking why he was there. She notes that what was so distressing was, “I didn’t sense any anger in my son’s voice, only sad resignation.” White people take for granted their access to—and feeling of safety in—natural spaces, unable to grasp just how scary something so human and simple can be for people who aren’t white.
Depriving People of Color from Health and Wellness
Systemically depriving people of color access to nature means systemically depriving them of health and wellness. There is so much evidence that nature is medicine, including studies that show that natural spaces lower heart rates, reduce stress, and prevent depression. And living in urban, nature-free environments means Black and brown people experience a far greater “pollution burden.”
However, a new group of activists and organizations are tackling nature injustice, getting Black and brown people safely outdoors together—whether hiking or surfing. Outdoor Afro, in 42 US cities, is connecting thousands of Black people to nature experiences and conservation, while Steppers UK is just one UK group getting urban people of color hiking. There are suddenly so many examples, including Diversify Outdoors, Black Outdoors, Soul Trak Outdoors, Melanin Base Camp and Black Girls Run. After centuries of discrimination, they’re adding “color to nature.”
Committing to Earth Day for All
On Earth Day, we need to recommit to the environmental emergency, but we also need to ask hard questions about “whose Earth” is it every day. We need far more nature and outdoor opportunities for communities of color and more representative leaders among policymakers that could make that happen. And more wellness destinations, boasting amazing natural resources, need to interrogate their too-often tall, exclusionary gates—and rethink how their own (and new) communities and their workers could be included in all the “healing nature” that they sell.
Read Tonia Callender’s full trend in “Adding Color to Wellness” in the 2021 Global Wellness Trends Report.