This is an excerpt from “Engage, Connect, Protect: Empowering Diverse Youth as Environmental Leaders” by Angelou Ezeilo. Reproduced with permission from New Society Publishers. It was released Nov. 11.
Editor’s Note: Earlier in the book, Angelou Ezeilo describes a commercial for the “Keep America Beautiful””campaign from the 1970s. It featured an actor from Italian American descent playing Native American man dressed in full regalia. After he rowed his canoe down a body of water that was littered with waste and stood near a roadway where someone threw trash out of a moving vehicle, a tear rolled down his cheek, letting viewers know that all the trash made him sad. Her experience watching that commercial is the jumping off point in this excerpt.
When I reflect on that commercial I saw when I was a child, of the Native American shedding a tear when he observed the heedless ignorance of the littering Americans, I can’t help but to ask myself what happened: How did we get so far away in the ensuing decades from that image of Indigenous peoples as the true stewards of the Earth? How did the teary-eyed chief morph into the wealthy white family shopping at REI? I would venture a guess that when most Americans think of Native Americans now, their thoughts are more likely to wander to casinos and, unfortunately, maybe even poverty and alcoholism.
No longer are they seen as the original environmentalists. But how might the condition of the planet be different if the last few decades had gone in another direction: if we had decided as a community to lift up farmers (Black, White, and Latinx), migrant workers, scientists, botanists, even hunters as the true symbols of environmentalism — people whose life’s work, whose livelihood, whose passion is directly connected to the condition of the planet.
It would have been beautiful if things had evolved this way. I shake my head at the missed opportunity. It’s stunning to think that hunters likely see environmentalists as the enemy, even as we toil to protect the habitats of the animals they hunt. Yes, of course, many environmentalists would balk at the idea of killing any living creature, for sport, for food, for anything. But there are certainly hunters within our movement, too. We should be a diverse and nuanced bunch. Our tent should be big enough to include everybody, but yet it feels like it actually has become narrower.
The opposition forces have been able to keep us divided into separate camps. The conservatives will say they’re the ones that want you to have a job and be able to put food on your table while the environmentalists care more about polar bears and the black-footed ferret than you and your future. So they implore people to fight against us if they wish to have a real shot at a solid quality of life. It’s a ridiculous divide with a specious logic, but unfortunately it’s been wildly successful. With its blind adherence to homogeneity, the environmental movement has not been agile and forward-thinking enough to combat it.
The point I’m making here is that the movement is damaged every day that its most prominent spokesman in the public’s eye is a wealthy white man. This may seem like an obvious point, yet it still seems to escape too many powerful and influential figures inside the circles where I spend a lot of my time. If I’m at a conference and the voices participating in the discussion are missing an enormous swath of the American public, then that discussion is necessarily going to be too stunted and limited to be as effective as it could be. There are going to be enormous blind spots.
But it’s not too late. I guess that’s the message, too, because it’s going to have to happen eventually; that is, if we’re going to save this planet. Pivotal connections are being made with diverse groups of people of color, though we need many more. If you check the results of bond referenda on environmental issues, you will find that people of color are even more protective of the environment than white people — we instinctively understand that the survival of the planet is so much more crucial than some corporation’s revenue. And frankly, we are still watching in astonished disbelief when we see so many white people in the U.S. who don’t seem to get that. If white liberals don’t start making moves to embrace groups of color, they are going to become increasingly irrelevant, bulldozed by the more powerful forces that are motivated by greed and self-interest.
My goal is to work so hard that I put myself out of business, to look up one day and realize that GYF [Greening Youth Foundation] is no longer necessary. How will I know when society has reached that point? There’s a little black girl who hasn’t been born yet — not yet even a twinkle in her mom’s and dad’s eye. But she will be born one day in the future, emerging into a crazy, complicated world that seems unable to solve the problems of its own creation. That little girl will decide that she is surrounded by wonder and beauty that needs to be protected, preserved, cherished. And she will make an instantaneous decision that it is her job to be the Earth’s protector.
Her decision will feel organic, comfortable, well within her reach. Why? Because the society she is a part of will have sent her the message that the environment is something that belongs to everyone and that everyone bears an equal responsibility for protecting and preserving it. She will look in catalogues for outdoor retailers and see herself reflected in the pages. She will look at television commercials for vacationing at the Grand Canyon and see her family represented.
She will look at Congress and see women who look like her mother and her auntie giving speeches from the floor of the Senate. This little girl will be no more likely to look for permission from white liberals to be enjoined in an environmental movement than she would ask them what she should eat for dinner. From the first day she emerges, she will be empowered. When that day comes, I can retire to my rocking chair — a nice glass of Malbec at my side, Stevie Wonder playing softly, a great book on my lap — and bask in the wonder of the glorious sunset.