Naamal De Silva
Whose stories are on your shelf? Who's stories do you follow on social media? What personal stories about the environment have influenced your work and your life?
It is nearly 4am on Wednesday and I’ve been awake for awhile. I feel consumed. Last week, I felt consumed by the news and by social media. The #blacklivesmatter protests are painful and hopeful and transformative. Between the pandemic and these protests, life and society appear to be changing so rapidly. There is such uncertainty. I am terrified that the stories that have become newly visible to so many will once again be covered over, that our progress will erode away into nearly nothing. I care deeply about diversity, both cultural and biological. My entire life, I have felt that much of what I value is invisible to many people, at least to most people with power to create change. In this moment, if feels like that might change. I have such hope that we are about to move towards a time of justice, greater equality, protection for the vulnerable, and greater care for each other and for the planet. I have hope, but I am afraid that I will end up heartbroken.
Last year, witnessing the global climate protests and Greta Thunberg’s rise, I felt hopeful that we were moving forward towards broader understanding about environmental problems, and that our understanding would extend towards an understanding of the unjust impacts of climate change. I had hope that the anger of children would move us more rapidly towards solutions and towards justice. I hoped that, within and outside of the environmental field, we would see more stories of young people of all colors, nations, orientations, shapes, abilities, and religions. Since the climate strikes have become digital because of the pandemic, it feels as though a lot of that that energy and attention have dissipated. We cannot afford to look away. Climate change and biodiversity loss pose threats to our existence, just as police brutality poses a threat to the existence of black people in America.
It will take all of us to address systemic racism in America. It will take all of us to protect vulnerable groups of people throughout the world. It will take all of us to address the climate crisis, species extinction, and plastic pollution. It will take all of us to ensure that the impacts of social and environmental problems are distributed equitably throughout society. To engage and enrage and inspire all of us, it will take the individual stories and emotion and the passionate dedication of a diversity of people. The stories of these people need to be more visible.
Throughout my adult life, I have sought stories of the diversity of people working for the environment. I knew that the environmental field was not only composed of the white and the privileged – it only felt that way because the brown and poor were invisible. I searched for stories, but I felt that I was sifting through sand. I looked for these stories in books, in the mainstream media, and in academic journals. I did not find nearly enough. A few years ago, I found far more through social media. I sifted, and I started following accounts of people who spoke out about how they belonged in nature – accounts like those of Rue Mapp and Jenny Bruso and of organizations like Outdoor Afro, Unlikely Hikers, and Melanin Basecamp. I learned about more stories by attending events and meeting people. I found even more through my dissertation research and reading. I gathered some stories by chance - my path to Maya Hall’s story started with trying on a jacket at a Patagonia store. I started a writing group for Mayla and people shared unexpected things. Finding these people and their stories felt like validation.
I started Mayla because I felt the need to gather and amplify these voice – the voices of diverse people who care for the environment. I intended to include the stories of white people alongside the stories of black, brown, and indigenous people from all over the world. However, the stories of white people always felt easier to find. I wanted all the stories, but I was looking for the ones that appeared to be rare.
That is why I feel consumed right now. Over the past week, it has been so much easier to find stories of diversity. I have been digging deeper into the lives and stories of those who are #blackinnature. These stories bring me joy, even when they express anger. They are some of the stories for which I have been searching my entire life, and suddenly, it feels like I am inundated. I can’t seem to get enough.
They are stories that feel intimately familiar, and yet, they are not my stories. They are the stories of people who surrounded me as I was growing up, of people who were friends or who are friends. They are the stories of authors who have influenced my life and how I see the world. They are stories of people who share my skin color but not my history.
I have many stories of feeling invisible, and a few stories of feeling like I stand out or don’t belong simply based on my color. The stories of black Americans help me feel more visible. At the same time, they highlight my differences. When I am alone in nature, there have been times when I felt unsafe because I am a woman. There are very few instances where I felt unsafe because I am brown. I can recall one summer afternoon in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, my white husband and I were walking along a forested creek, where a group of white men pulled up with lots of beer and a confederate flag flying from the back of their pickup truck. They did not say anything to us, but as an interracial couple, we felt intimidated, and we left. They took up the space we ceded. As we left, we noticed a large Latino family on the far side of the pickup truck; they were the only other people there and they did not give up their right to enjoy time in nature. Maybe we did not need to do so either.
There are far more instances when I have felt protected by my invisibility. In high school, I studied a lot and followed most rules, but I would leave if I felt that I was not learning anything. Two of my history teachers were often missing; my world geography teacher read a newspaper during class while a group of boys played poker in the back of the room. I felt a sense of freedom in leaving, but little fear about cutting class. As I left the building, there would always be police cars around my mostly black school in my mostly white neighborhood. Police officers would be standing by these cars, and I saw them stop black and Latino teenagers. They mostly stopped boys, but a few girls too. They would return these students to the school building. They never once stopped me – they hardly ever even looked at me. It was as though they could not see me, as though my glasses and my South Asian face and my silence were a shield. In those moments, invisibility felt like power.
In my career, I have felt at times that invisibility has held me back. I have, at times, attributed disparities in pay or recognition to my gender or my age or my skin color. Certainly, there have been many times in conference rooms where I have made a point that the rest of the people in the room ignored until it was repeated by a white man. There have also been many times when white men have amplified my voice and supported my work, whether through empowering me to publish articles or through opening doors that might otherwise remain closed despite my education and experience.
I am a brown woman in conservation – sometimes that makes me invisible and at other times it makes me stand out. Nevertheless, I have not had to think about whether my hairstyle would keep me from a promotion. I have never wondered whether I might be arrested or possibly killed for walking in a park. Amidst the deluge of stories this week, I keep returning to that of Christian Cooper, whose care for the lives and wellbeing of birds posed a direct threat to his own life and wellbeing.
We all needed to hear his story, but not just the story of his encounter with Amy Cooper. We all need to hear stories of the diversity of people who care about nature. It is through stories that we make meaning of what is happening in the world. Through stories, we process loss, whether it is the loss of a human life at the hands of the police, or of a nearly extinct shark at the hands of fishermen. We need the stories of the people who resist injustice and who halt extinction. We need MORE stories of black and brown and indigenous and white scientists and activists and innovators and farmers who are passionate and visionary. We need to feel their pain and anger and joy, to hear about their ancestors and home places and sources of inspiration. We need their creative solutions and unique perspectives. We need to see the ways in which racism and injustice limit our collective access to creativity, innovation, and care for the earth. We need their stories and their work to be visible so that, together, we can envision a future that is both just and sustainable.
Curating Hope features the personal stories of diverse people who protect nature. Together, we can envision a more sustainable future.