Speech

Last night, I went to the Florida Trail Association’s Scenic and Wildlife Film Festival. They asked me to be one of the speakers, and I liked what I said, so I decided to post it here. The parentheses are places where there was some ad-libbing or words that I can’t quite capture here. Here it is:

My name is Hillary, and I am the leader for Outdoor Afro St. Pete and Tampa Bay. This is (a leader from a different network introduced himself here). Outdoor Afro is a national nonprofit organization that seeks to celebrate and inspire black leadership in nature. We have over 80 leaders all over the country and host monthly events hiking, kayaking, biking, etc.

We ground our events in the history of indigenous people or black people on the land. Since this film festival is an event for OA St Pete, Tally, and Jacksonville, I decided to share the history now. And as the only diversity and inclusion trainer for Pinellas County Schools, this sort of conversation is where I live.

Let’s think about some local history, particularly that of Gainesville and Alachua County.

After the Civil War during which Alachua area soldiers fought for the Confederate army, there was an extremely shortly lived reconstruction era. “During that period, the first school for blacks in Gainesville, the Union Academy, was established in 1866 by the Freedmen’s Bureau to educate blacks.” Despite white aggression towards the teachers at the school and even towards the building, the school operated in that capacity until 1929. But throughout this time and the times that followed, Gainesville schools have remained largely segregated.

Regarding the local history of elections, the Florida Legislature in 1889 imposed a poll tax and a literacy test which effectively disenfranchised most blacks and basically put an end to electing black politicians in Gainesville and all of Florida, really, for a long time.

The Ku Klux Klan became pretty active in Gainesville in the early 1920s. If you’re a history nerd like me and want more info, google Woodrow Wilson and Birth of a Nation to learn more about the Klan’s reemergence. As elsewhere, the Klan was anti-black, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic, and “professed to uphold morality.”

From 1877 to 1950, Alachua County had among the largest volume of lynchings of any community in the country, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. And actually per capita, Florida lynched more people than any other state in the country during that time period. And finally, in 1964, Alachua schools started to attempt integrating after a local court case forced the issue. This was 10 years after Brown vs Board claimed segregation was illegal.

The point of naming this history isn’t about feeling guilt. In fact, author Robin DiAngelo says, “when we are mired in guilt, we are narcissistic and ineffective.” The point of knowing the history is awareness. There is power in realizing that it’s only been 65 years since segregation was deemed illegal. There is power in knowing it’s maybe been 55 years since any real attempts at integrating schools and businesses and recreation sites started. There is power in knowing there have been 0 days since there existed a fully integrated school district.

And there is power in understanding your history, which is deeper and wilder than this tiny picture I painted today, and drawing a straight line from that legacy to why the outdoor industry remains so monochromatic.

If in your head you are asking the question “why don’t they just go outside?” as I’ve been asked a million times before, think about the last time you were ever in a situation where you were the only white person. How comfortable were you? Have you ever actually been in that position? Now consider that this is the story of our lives when people of color choose to go enjoy nature.

“The number of people of color working in top green organizations is shrinking.” From 2017 to 2018, the number of people of color working in these organizations went from 33 to 4%. Thus the number of white people went from 67 to 96%.

Even thinking about the National Park Service, the majority of visitors are white. (Here I shared a story about two summers ago. I went to Mount Rainier National Park, and as we drove to Panorama Point Trail, we stopped and explored some smaller trails and visitor centers. We were in the park for over two hours before I saw another black person. It was actually a family, and when I got out of the car, I hugged them. The reaction of my white friend I was with is one that was funny, but easier to explain than to write out.) In fact, for some parks, the number of white visitors gets up to 90%. And the numbers are equally disparate in your state, county, and local park scene.

Now think about the last hike you went on. Think about the joy you felt when you looked up at how blue the sky was during the hike or how excited, but low-key scared you felt out there when you spotted a gator on the side of the path at Sweetwater Preserve. Think about the last time you kayaked and the serenity you felt on the water as you maneuvered through a mangrove tunnel or got startled by a fish jumping up out of the water. Think about the fact that those feelings and experiences and excitement and moments of healing should be for all people. And join in ally-ship to not let our sordid racial history get the best of us.

Ally-ship doesn’t mean using people of color for flyers or website banners; it’s in the small movements that don’t seem to matter like when I was at the Grand Canyon three years ago. (Here I explained about being at the bookstore at the Grand Canyon National Park. There was one of those things you put your face through there where your face shows, but then your body is whatever the cut out is. These things are always white people or animals or fruit, but at age 30, I experienced one for the first time that was a person of color. Not only that, but the cut out was a female park ranger with natural hair!)

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Ally-ship is in the small things like when you do see us on the trail, treat us like the other humans you see out there. Say “hi” instead of asking us if we are a church group or a family reunion.

Ally-ship is in the big things like doing your homework and seeking advocacy by becoming a real participant of a movement that’s breaking down barriers and working to remind everyone that the outdoors is for all of us.

I wasn’t booed off the stage, and I got a pretty decent clap from the mostly white crowd. I even got some thank yous which was interesting. However, a couple women said, “you go girl” to me afterwards which was problematic, at best.

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