Racism is Hurting Our Cause—And We Shouldn’t Look Away

June 8, 2020
-by Kerri Sorrell, Des Moines Program Coordinator

Recent events and protests have sparked intense conversations and calls for action at Trees Forever. We have been listening and processing, and thinking deeply about how we can do better for our employees of color and our communities. Trees Forever condemns the racism and violence that we know has long impacted people of color in this nation and that continues today. Our hearts are with all those that are feeling deep pain and frustration right now.

Our Growing Futures program, which works to address tree inequity in historically low-income neighborhoods and employs many teenagers of color is an example of how Trees Forever has begun the work to address inequality and justice. We know we have so much further to go. We also know that while every person benefits from the presence of trees and being outside, not everyone is safe to enjoy the outdoors freely. We will continue to discuss and plan for how we can make outdoor spaces and a nation that is safe for all people equally, and will focus on how the momentum of this moment will be carried through our daily ongoing work.

I wanted to share the thoughts of Kerri Sorrell, Trees Forever Program Coordinator who manages the Des Moines Growing Futures program, on how racism has impacted our work and is embedded in the larger environmental movement to this day, and how we may work to better confront these issues moving forward. Her words are below.

Please join us in solidarity with communities of color and those facing continued injustice in the outdoors and beyond. We all have a part to play in bettering our world, and I hope that we can work together to bring it about.

Shannon Ramsay, Founding President & CEO of Trees Forever

In any ecosystem, the success of its survival depends on diversity: thousands of plant, animal and microbial species existing in unity to create balance and a thriving environment. The same is true of our human communities – the more perspectives and experiences we have, the stronger we are. But when it comes to outdoor spaces and environmental work, more often than not, who we see and who is safe doesn’t reflect the diverse make-up of our country. And just like in a larger ecosystem, when one element suffers, the entire system is at risk.

You may think that racism wouldn’t be pressingly relevant to Trees Forever, or other environmental and conservation groups. Recent protest events and the Black Lives Matter movement may seem worlds away from the work we do to plant and care for trees and the environment. But it just isn’t true – in the work that we do, Trees Forever is confronted by and confronting direct racism and historical racial injustices constantly.

Our Growing Futures program, launched in 2019, takes direct aim at long-standing racism in the environmental world. Crews of teenagers in the state’s two largest metros work to plant trees in historically under-resourced neighborhoods that lack the tree cover or park space that more affluent, more white neighborhoods have. We prioritize hiring teenagers from the areas we work in because we want to keep that investment in those communities. Teen employees take part in professional development and green job shadowing opportunities so that, if they’re interested in environmental work, they have a pathway to apprenticeships, internships and college programs. And yet, despite the amazing work these teenagers are doing in their communities, they’re confronted regularly by assumptions that they’re doing community service or they don’t belong in these spaces. When hard at work planting trees, we’ve had drivers yell offensive, hurtful, embarrassing things out their windows aimed directly at how our crews look. These experiences are painful, but unfortunately, they’re nothing new. These experiences must stop.

Trees Forever has committed to this work because we know there is substantial proven inequity in the environmental field and outdoor spaces. Despite making up 40 percent (and growing) of the total US population, only 5-12 percent of people who visit US public lands are people of color, and only 12 percent of staff at environmental organizations are non-white. These figures are undoubtedly a result of pre-Civil Rights movement segregation policies that limited non-white access to public spaces, and acts that continue today. Just in the last month, two instances of targeted racial violence in outdoor spaces made national news – Ahmaud Arbery was murdered while jogging and Christian Cooper was threatened while birding in New York City’s Central Park. Historically black and low-income neighborhoods are still more vulnerable to pollution, food insecurity, and climate change. These are issues that are impacting the communities we work in and employees daily.

The environmental world is pre-dominantly white—even though all people of every color have the right to benefit from having access to nature. Nature helps mental health. Trees clean our air, water and soil. Our Growing Futures program was created to engage young people because we need the next generation—all colors and genders—to step up, speak up, dig in, and create change.

How can I lead a group of teenagers and then stand by when they are harassed at work? How can I watch consistent acts of violence against people who look like them and not speak out? These events and movements are not far away – they are here, now, and they’ll continue until we have the hard conversations and take action.

My white colleagues and I stand in solidarity with our black co-workers. Trees Forever is having and will continue to have conversations about how we change our organization and the ways we work to better contribute to a more just and inclusive environmental community and country. We are taking a serious look at ways in which we will take further action to continue the important conversations and actions that are happening now. Our nation and communities need to change, and we’re committed to making that happen, so that all people can feel safe and welcome outside.

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