Problems of Place: In the Language of Plants

In the language of plants, my family tree does not have the kind of roots that go deep into American soil. I am a child of immigrants, born in New York City and raised in a suburb outside of it. For myself, like many other first-generation Americans, minorities, and people of color, I struggled to find my place in America’s rugged landscape. With diaspora comes disenfranchisement, a fear of feeling foreign, and a longing to belong. In the language of plants, we are windblown seeds carried across continents— some as a matter of choice, others as a matter of circumstance. In the language of plants, we are introduced, exotic, invasive.

Common cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium) in Chicago Bog (McLean, NY). Photo by author, 2016.

After graduating from high school, I went to college in upstate New York to study environmental science, where I first learned to speak the language of plants. The exams for my introductory field biology class involved taking a walk through the woods and being asked to identify some two-hundred species of trees and shrubs. I studied voraciously. By the end of the semester, I’d glance at the understory and rattle off the names of plants in English and Latin, like they were my old friends. I learned to navigate the forest with nothing more than a compass and my own close count of my paces. By understanding the landscape around me, I felt like I could finally exercise a claim to it. I found my niche.

Me, in Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area (Newfield, NY) after helping a friend inoculate mushroom spores for her thesis project. Photo by Dana Schmidt, 2016.

During my college years, I worked with the county parks and recreation department, collected data for various ecological studies, and became a teaching assistant for other budding ecologists and outdoor enthusiasts. I no longer felt foreign to the landscape around me. As a keeper of its knowledge, a teacher of its wisdom, and a thinker of the things we have yet to understand about it, I found ways to forge connections—symbioses—with the life that grows around me, tethering myself to the land.

Environmental education for me was a way of obtaining a sense of place in America. I was lucky enough to have many mentors and friends to ground me in the deciduous forests of the Northeast. Although I have had the privilege to pursue environmental science through higher education and begin my early career in the field, these are opportunities that are rarely afforded to many people of color. The percentage of racial minorities and people of mixed-race identity in the United States has been increasing over the last several decades and is predicted to exceed 57% in the year 2060.[1] However, the shifting ecology of American society is poorly reflected in environmental science and its related fields, such as agriculture, natural resources, wildlife, and fisheries. Across NGOs, private foundations, and government agencies involved in the research, management, and preservation of the environment, racial minorities make up less than 16% of boards and general staff.[2] The gap is greater for women of color.

Fall foliage at the Arnot Teaching and Research Forest (Van Etten, NY). Photo by
author, 2014.

Although there are increasing initiatives and stated desires to increase diversity by environmental organizations and agencies, there remain significant barriers to creating a more representative environmental workforce. Among these include a lack of consistent recruitment of racial minorities, little collaboration with marginalized communities, and an exclusionary culture which promotes greater participation by white males. The ability for young people of color to become involved in environmental careers at an early stage is also stifled by lack of access to environmental education and internship opportunities.

Unfortunately, early studies about racial minorities and the environment have contributed to stereotypes that poor people and people of color are less interested in the environment than middle and upper-class white Americans.[3] For example, studies conducted by the Department of Interior in the 1960s and 1970s reported that whites were more likely to go camping and birdwatching than blacks and other minorities.[4] Findings like these were often interpreted as minorities having a lack of interest in these activities rather than a reflection of the historical social inequalities which reduce the ability for minorities to have enough income, access to transportation, or leisure time necessary to participate in outdoor activities.

An access road through Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area (Newfield, NY). Photo by author, 2016.

This misconception persists through the present day. A 2018 study by Pearson et al. has found that the public largely underestimates the environmental concerns of low-income and minority Americans.[5] This mistaken perception is sometimes employed to justify the low diversity in environmental fields. Pearson’s study also showed that words like “environmentalist” are more closely associated with whites, revealing an underlying cultural bias against minority participation in environmental fields and activities.

Yet, minority communities are not only concerned about the environment; they are often also the most vulnerable to environmental hazards and crises.[6] Therefore, we need to change the ways that minorities are perceived in relation to the environment in order to effectively remove current barriers impeding access to education, outdoor recreation, and environmental careers.

Research and management largely benefit those who are in charge of directing these efforts. The current lack of representation of minorities within environmental fields is especially troubling within the context of climate change, pollution, and resource scarcity. If minority communities are not a part of the processes through which these issues are addressed, then minority communities will continue to be marginalized through poor access to clean water, green spaces, climate resilience, and the like.

An old growth Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and its secondary growth hardwood neighbors in Ringwood Natural Area (Dryden, NY). Photo by author, 2017.

If there are greater opportunities for minorities to participate in the ways that the landscape is studied and managed, then we can become more embedded into American history and geography. There is a need for marginalized communities to take root in the environment in order to be able to thrive in it. In the language of plants, increasing diversity is a process of ecological succession. In the language of environmental justice, increasing diversity is a process of ecological success.

[1] U.S. Census Bureau. “U.S. Census Bureau projections show a slower growing, older, more diverse nation a half a century from now” (December 12, 2012).

[2] Dorceta E. Taylor, The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2014).

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Survey of Outdoor Recreation Activities: Preliminary Report,” U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (February 1970); “Survey of Outdoor Recreation Activities,” U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (1965).

[5] A.R. Pearson, J.P. Schuldt, R. Romero-Canyas, M.T. Ballew, and D. Larson-Konar, “Diverse segments of the US public underestimate the environmental concerns of minority and low-income Americans,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115 (2018): 12429-12434.

[6] L. Downey and B. Hawkins, “Race, income, and environmental inequality in the United States,” Sociological Perspectives 51 (2008): 759-781.