River Rally 2017
Several speakers at River Rally 2017 in Grand Rapids did not mince words about environmental injustice involving drinking water, and about the lack of diversity among environmental groups.
University of Michigan Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the School of Natural Resources and Environment Dr. Dorcetta Taylor said, “if you want to see which Environmental groups are committed to bringing people of color into their organizations, all you have to do is look at their websites.” She said organizations must reach out “beyond this room” and purposefully hire minorities.
Dr. Taylor asked, “Why aren’t there more blacks in the National Parks?” She says her extensive research shows possible reasons: parks like Shenandoah Valley in Virginia were segregated as recently as 1935, when a small red circle designated the areas where blacks were allowed. She even found documents stating “ blacks and whites should not recreate together.”
Dr. Taylor says she believes people of color are not welcome in some wide open green spaces in the U,S. and she says “environmentalists are quiet about this.”
Dr. Taylor described the inhumane treatment of slaves and Native Americans and her belief these violent chapters in U.S. history inform the way white people who first came to this country treated the land and water.
She also introduced us to Phyllis Wheatley who was brought to the U.S. as a slave in 1761 by her owners, the Wheatleys. She published a book of poems – the first African American to publish in the colonies – and her nature writing is believed to have inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
A sample of Wheatley’s work: “The morn awakes, and wide extends her rays, On ev’ry leaf the gentle zephyr plays, Ye shady groves, your verdant gloom display To shield your poet from the burning day”
Yet she says the face of the environmental activist and the environmental writer is almost always presumed to be white.
Another panel led by Director of the National Urban Initiatives at the National Wildlife Federation’s Simone Lightfoot focused on access to drinking water, environmental injustice and the tragedy of Flint’s water crisis.
Panelist Monica Lewis-Patrick with the group called “We The People of Detroit” raised her voice as she said, “Shutting off water is an act of war.” She said, “This water fight is the fight of our lifetime”. She challenged every person in the room to never let a conversation about water end without a discussion of Flint.
More information about the River Rally Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan at rivernetwork.org