Carolyn Finney delivers SHOUT week’s keynote speech on race and environmental justice

by Claire Borecki

On Monday, March 11, environmental activist Carolyn Finney gave the keynote speech for SHOUT week, a Pugh Community Board (PCB) annual event highlighting “speaking, hearing, and opening up together.” SHOUT is PCB’s main project during the school year, in addition to financing and hosting other speakers and events.

Finney is an environmental justice activist, a storyteller, and a cultural geographer. Her book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors challenges readers to question how representation in government and organizations create priorities, how race changes lived experience, and who owns land and occupies space.

Finney was a Fulbright Scholar, a Canon National Parks Science Scholar, and received a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Environmental Studies. Along with public speaking, writing, consulting, and teaching (at Wellesley College, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Kentucky), Carolyn Finney served on the U.S. National Parks Advisory Board for 8 years.

PCB Chair Arunika Bhatia ’19 introduced Finney by explaining that “her work challenges us to question whose stories are left out of environmental institutions and narratives.”

Dr. Carolyn Finney engaged her audience in Lorimer Chapel with a broad mindset and personal stories. “I want to talk about justice, freedom, and emergence. I want to talk about race, place and peace…this is mostly personal for me. And the personal is political and the political is intimate.”

Finney told a story about how her father wanted to be hired to be a national park ranger, but was told that they “did not hire negros.”

Finney also discussed her childhood intensively, saying that it was important to explain where she’s from. “Land is also about belonging…your ability to say that you belong somewhere is a privilege…there are so many people in this country today who cannot say that they belong here.”

Finney claims that people separate the environment from every other aspect of life, but that people do not make the same distinctions with race. “Land isn’t just about land. It’s about political power,” she says. “It’s about having the right to say ‘I belong here.’

Finney asked the audience to consider land within these political contexts. “I have to ask the question: why was on that land before ‘“they’” got there?” she asked. “Who was removed and killed for them to have that opportunity?” She discussed the repeated history of such oppression, making the point that this land has always been stolen.

“The challenge is: how do we hold that truth?” She asked the audience as she addressed the history of how black people have interacted with nature in the United States, covering the historical politics of things like the Homestead Act and the Wilderness Act, which gave preference to white Americans, and the modern context of surprise and discomfort that white people feel when seeing people of color in nature.

In its entirety, her message was one of healing and redemption. “We need to show empathy even to those who we need to hold accountable,” she said.

Bringing Finney to campus has been in the works since the fall. The planning stages begin when PCB board members come to campus for the first semester. Members bring their ideas for who would be a good speaker. “A good speaker prompts others to open up about issues surrounding multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion, all the things that the Pugh center stands for,” said PCB Publicity Chair Maddy Wendell ’19.

Once members bring in the names of potential speakers, the board watches videos of them speaking to confirm interest. Next, they reach out to candidates and ask about price and availability.

“This year we had a couple different options,” said Wendell, “and Carolyn Finney is what we went with because she’s amazing, and a lot of us are really interested in ideas of environmental justice, as well as inclusion and diversity in the outdoors.”

Once the PCB confirmed Finney’s visit, planning for the rest of the week began. The theme for this year’s SHOUT week is “for justice, for peace, let’s plant the seeds.”

On Wednesday, a lunchtime lecture was held by Lesly Melidez, the deputy director of Groundwork Lawrence, an organization that focuses on environmental remediation, who also discussed careers in environmental justice for interested students. On Thursday evening there will be a screening of “Tthe North Pole,” a comedy series on both Global Warming and gentrification and on Friday the Pugh is hosting a walk in the arboretum with a conversation on environmental accessibility and connection with the outdoors. To wrap up the week, the endnote speaker and Colby alumni will be Aleia Bell 17’, who did work in AmeriCorps for environmental education.