By Chris Morrill, Executive Director
Three years ago, CalWild embarked on an examination of the reality of our firm belief in equitable access to public lands. As a public lands organization, we often tout the romantic democratic ideal of public lands: regardless of your background, status, or appearance, public lands are there for all to enjoy their inspiring wild wonders, opportunity for solace, and chance for spiritual connection.
Given the historic make-up of our board and staff, mostly white and mostly affluent, stories that contradicted our ideal hadn’t emerged in our conversations. It only took a little digging and some dialogue outside of our immediate team to realize the notion of public lands being for everyone was not the reality.
Our discussions and considerable reflection led to CalWild’s first Equity and Inclusion Statement in November. To make sure CalWild was not only talking, but taking action, we launched our Public Lands Equity and Resilience Program in February. This program was designed to directly tackle the challenge of opening up public lands to people who haven’t been welcomed or provided a voice in the past.
The incidents of the past few months, including the brutal murder of George Floyd, sent shockwaves through our society. A veneer of equality was wiped away and, for many of us, a world was revealed that is less fair, less just, and much more violent than we had known. It also opened up a space for stories and experiences long hidden or pushed aside to rise to the front.
Re-examining our assumptions was inevitable after such visceral images and stories. Collectively, given the widespread protests that followed, we are in a new place regarding the reality of racism in our country, especially the long and persistent racism that affects the lives of African Americans.
Given the seemingly singular nature of the moment and CalWild’s recent emphasis on equity, our board and staff felt it important to acknowledge this as a moral moment. As an organization we felt it was our responsibility to speak publicly on the reality of racism in our society by releasing a statement in support of Black lives. This was a statement declaring support for an idea, a reality, and hopefully a new paradigm.
While CalWild does not work on the issues that are most clearly emerging from these protests, police and criminal justice reform, public lands do not sit outside or above the impacts of racism.
Sadly, systemic racism is pervasive in all the institutions Americans have built as well as the cultural stories we tell ourselves. If we believe it’s a moral imperative that our institutions treat all of us equitably, and we at CalWild do, we are required to think about how we can proactively combat what is a collective moral failing.
We are dismayed and sickened by the number of people sharing stories of harassment, intimidation, and threat on public lands or in outdoor spaces.
Chad Brown is a decorated military veteran and a fly fisherman. In a recent article sponsored by Peak Design, Chad talks about being told on social media that he is “taking” fly fishing from white people and that “this is our sport not yours”. On fly fishing trips, he has had his tires slashed and his brake lines ripped out of his truck. He says he continues to struggle to find comfortable wild spaces where he can simply enjoy the outdoors and not worry about his safety.
Tsalani Lassiter is an outdoorsman and photographer who often lives out of his van. He wrote about photographing grizzly bears, but still being more afraid of people than the bears. He has been singled out for harassment and told to “follow rules” no one else was following. Tsalani has been stopped and told to prove he’s a photographer while carrying multiple tripods and twenty pounds of camera equipment. He talks about never being able to feel absolutely free, regardless of where he is.
In response to the incident of Black birder, Christian Cooper, in Central Park, many Black outdoors people shared their stories about harassment and intimidation in outdoor spaces, as well as their love for birding and other outdoor recreation. It shows that Chad and Tsalani are not alone. Their experiences are common and routine for Black people in outdoor spaces.
CalWild started this journey a few years ago. The reality of these stories only strengthens our commitment to and further highlights the need for more equity work on public lands. We do not want to end our work with a statement, instead we are looking to continue to take small steps to fully realizing a reality where everyone is welcomed and embraced on public lands. When the passion and outrage dies down, it will be our job to continue to combat this issue in our work for years to come.
To that end, CalWild is committing to these actions in the near term. We share them with you so that we can be held accountable.
- Sharing more diverse stories on public lands – In order for a more diverse community to feel welcome and safe on public lands they must hear more stories about Black, Indigenous, and People of Color using these spaces. CalWild is committed to using our platforms to elevate stories like Chad Brown’s or of the many inspiring Black naturalists.
- Develop equity protocols for all our programs – CalWild’s Public Lands Equity and Resilience program is an important first step in elevating the issue of equity on public lands. However, to truly embrace this notion, CalWild will adopt formal campaign protocols that integrate equity into all the work we undertake. When established we will share those protocols publicly.
- Explore supporting outings of youth – Setting the expectation that public lands are for People of Color just like everyone else, we will explore partnerships and hopefully provide funding to get more kids from diverse backgrounds onto public lands.
- New land acknowledgement protocol – Native people were here before us and continue to hold strong cultural and often physical connections to their ancestral lands and traditional territories. Therefore, we will be acknowledging the original stewards of the land we are working to protect. We will continue to learn more and further honor California’s first people.
- Continue to intentionally diversify our board and staff – This is a long-standing goal of ours and one we haven’t been as successful as we’d like. If you know any Black, Indigenous, or People of Color who might be interested in our work and serving on our board, please let me know.
- Expand staff trainings on equity issues – We are encouraging staff to attend workshops and trainings focusing on topics like implicit bias, allyship, storytelling, and discrimination on public lands.
Instead of being tangential to our work, we will center more equitable policies in our advocacy. CalWild will work towards fulfilling the vision of public lands belonging to everyone. That must be the future of public lands. If not, public lands will not have the fate we desire: wild places loved and protected today and for many generations to come.
Please let me know your thoughts, comments, and questions by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.