Where we belong is there room for african americans outdoors opinion smile politely

Scorn, distaste, and fear of nature became the emotional legacy of a people who had been kidnapped from their homelands and forced to make the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean to pick cotton and prime tobacco for often violent and abusive masters; they were finally subject to losing legally owned land to the whites who continued to victimize them long after slavery was banned.

I have wrestled with being the only participant of color in the Master Naturalists program. Furthermore, in this climate of heavy African American surveillance nationally, the legacy of sundown laws across Central Illinois communities and continued residential segregation across Champaign County, it is deeply unnerving to drive into very rural forest preserve sites with no other African Americans present as fellow participants, guides, or presenters.


Yet another challenge is the sobering recognition that all of these preserves were formally Native American lands who are no longer in possession of these lands due to forced dispersal. I raise these issues not to blame, but to sensitize the reader to what I am considering as an African American woman each time I arrive to a field trip site.

During the flowering of my outdoor interest, theatermaker Latrelle Bright and I would cross paths periodically during my outdoor excursions and we would inevitably discuss questions of race and public space. So when she presented to me the idea of participating in Journey to Water — a collaborative project between her, Theatre Maker, and Prairie Rivers Networks — I eagerly signed up to participate with a group of African Americans.

Journey to Water is an effort to connect and discuss the relationship of African Americans to water and local water sources. An intergenerational group of 20 African Americans caravaned to Homer Lake for a day excursion and activities this past weekend. The effort was made possible by the Catalyst Initiative grant from the Center for Performance and Civic Practice and partnerships with CU Change Makers and the Champaign County Forest Preserve.

Upon arrival, we stopped in at the Homer Lake Interpretive Center to meet with staff, get a brief overview of the grounds, gather maps, use the restrooms, and set our course for the day. The group that Bright hosted was primarily comprised of African American pre-teens and their mothers who are participating in the CEESTEM program created by Dr. Phoebe Lenear, a non-profit organization whose goal is to increase underrepresented minority youth participation in the STEM fields.

Interestingly, as our youth descended from the buses and headed for the play structures near our picnic area, white park visitors moved rapidly to depart the play structures when they say our youth group approaching. Similarly, 100 or so feet from the play structure, a white fisherman gathered his pole and departed the water when we arrived. It was as if our presence set off an internal alarm that triggered immediate white flight.

Nonetheless, despite this initial hiccup, the adults moved to settle in, brought out lunch coolers and art supplies and organized groups for the days activities: painting, hiking, canoeing, and kayaking. I got a nice 1 ½ mile hike in before lunch. After the first round of activities, we lunched as Bright did a public reading of her work exploring African American relationships to water from pre-US settlement to the present.

After the performance closed, we then had time to complete another round of activities before departing. This time, I chose to paint. My picture began as just a scene of the lake. However, as our young kayakers and canoers, many of whom were engaging in both activities for the first time, approached us, their courage and ease on the water inspired me to immortalize their journey across the river in my painting.

I hope that our local outdoor community can come to “true seeing” regarding who is absent from local outdoor experiences in programs, program content, participants, and in leadership. In this way, such “true seeing” can foster fuller and more diverse experience of the public spaces that we all share and support with public and private dollars.