by Colin Steven Chval
As part of our annual Sustain Dane Summit on November 18, 2021, three local leaders were invited to join a panel focusing on the Summit theme of “weaving a story of change” and holistic sustainability. The talented moderator of this panel steered discussion through each panelist’s environmental journey, and the importance of equitably including Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) voices in climate discussions.
Angela Russel, Chief Diversity Officer at CUNA Mutual and host of the Black Oxygen podcast, enthusiastically moderated the panel composed of:
- Letesha Nelson, Executive Director of the Goodman Community Center, who called on her experience addressing issues of representation and generational impact;
- Christopher Kilgour, founder of Color in The Outdoors, brought the perspective of environmental access and stewardship within the BIPOC community;
- Baltazar De Anda Santana, co-founder and Executive Director of the Latino Academy of Workforce Development, provided a grounding in the intersectionality of climate change and economic development.
Equitable Inclusion and the “Doctrine of Discovery”
Christopher began the discussion by recalling how his family fostered a passion for intergenerational environmental stewardship by educating him and helping him explore nature. He wanted to do more to share the outdoors and see more BIPOC community members enjoying the outdoors. His parents would encourage him to ‘be that somebody’ who acts. He has woven this message into his life, encouraging others to be “agents of change” and promoting environmental access and stewardship. Following this, Angela asked him to touch on the historical “whitewashing” of sustainable practices. Christopher talked about how, often, the complex sustainable techniques White society has treated with a “Doctrine of Discovery” were developed long ago by First Nation groups. At Angela’s invitation, Baltazar emphatically jumped into this discussion, recalling his childhood exposure to water recycling and sustainable practices growing up in Mexico.
Angela continued the conversation with Baltazar, asking what equitable inclusion might look like. Baltazar shared the story of his first date with his now-husband where he cooked for them. His husband wanted to contribute to the meal, so he brought a side dish to share. Baltazar recalls welcoming the dish and then setting it aside, isolated from the meal he had cooked and made center stage. He stated that this is how he has seen Latinx community members treated – inclusive in word, but exclusive in practice. Instead, we should place the “dishes” of all groups at the core of the “meal” – recognizing, elevating, and valuing the substance they provide.
Equity of Opportunity
Angela then turned to Letesha for her environmental story. She shared her adolescent experience helping her grandma maintain a small backyard vegetable garden in Milwaukee. This exposure to sustainable practices helped foster an appreciation for environmentalism. While small vegetable gardens have been treated like a novel means for sustainable living, Letesha emphasized how it has roots in slavery, where slaves would cultivate small gardens on the miniscule space allotted to them. Letesha also shared her experience of the importance of BIPOC exposure to nature, recalling her daughter’s first camping trip. At first her daughter was averse to “roughing it” on a camping trip with the local girl scouts’ chapter, but at the end of the trip, she was noticeably happy, confident, and had gained an appreciation of nature. She highlighted the need for more nature-based opportunities for BIPOC children to provide these mental health benefits and to foster environmental consciousness.
Expanding on this discussion of equity of opportunities, Christopher brought up how many of these outdoor experiences are led by White-run camps, which is the result of decades of systemic racial barriers. He argued that to effectively promote environmentalism in our youth, they must relate to the people leading outdoor experiences and that the need for constant exposure and discussions. Letesha reasserted both points and discussed the ways in which the Goodman Community Center is actively addressing them, such as its youth gardening initiative. Baltazar took this opportunity to touch on economic development and the financial barrier prohibiting those opportunities, which need to be addressed by adults having quality, well-paying jobs.
Amplification of BIPOC Voices
The penultimate point of discussion was about equitable and sustainable representation. Christopher began by asserting the need to live unapologetically and speak truth to power by stating uncomfortable truths, and the need for non-BIPOC people to continue to support this work. “I’m just preaching to the choir, but the choir sings and that song can be heard outside the building that they’re standing in.” Continuing to have these discussions amongst each other encourages people around us to join in that song. He concluded by stating that these efforts and the knowledge of stewardship needs to be intergenerational to make it sustainable. Baltazar continued the theme of amplification, noting how people often come to him seeking his input on how their recently approved funding could be used to benefit the Latinx community, but they did not have a true partnership since his input was not included in the process of getting that funding despite it directly impacting what he is being asked to do.
To conclude the panel, Angela asked each panelist to share their concluding thoughts. Letesha concluded by stating that “we need to keep having these conversations” and to meet these discussions with action. Christopher expanded on that and stated the need to put resources behind our efforts and that we can’t “go back to the same old system.” Baltzar closed out by saying we need to elevate voices outside of a racial context and reevaluate business practices to support workers.
We thank the panelists for their participation in this event, the insights they brought, and the conversations they started, and we look forward to meeting these efforts with action.