Widgets Magazine

Earth in Color blends humanity and art into the environmental movement

We arrived one set early to give ourselves the best chance for the clearest view. Although the front row at a music festival is reserved for daydreams and bucket lists, it’s a much more attainable fantasy during the middle of the day, otherwise known as the festival-goer’s early morning. At San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival, my plan-ahead friend, Sharon, had expertly puzzle-pieced snacks into a backpack that would last us the day: deli sandwiches, vegan protein bars, carrots and free hummus samples that we sampled in greedy handfuls on the way into the park.

Under a green halo of California oak and eucalyptus it was warm enough to wear only one out of the three layers I had brought for the day. Eventually, I found myself pressed against the metal railing opposite the stage after the end of the first act. Within moments, I would be just feet away from an artist I had been dying to see for months. Her name was Noname, a black female rapper from Chicago whose lines could be likened to the smoothness of a perfectly timed Rube Goldberg machine, and just as satisfying.

As Noname’s set began, I was, as many people who look like me would call it, one of “the only chocolate drops” in sight. A few songs into the set, she stopped to inspect the mass of fans with a knowing, but frustrated gaze.

“This is a very white crowd,” she stated matter-of-factly. “Where are my black girls in here?”

I let out a shy “whoo!” and raised my hands to join the sparsely distributed club of feminine chocolate drops.

Even beyond our skin tones, Noname and I resembled each other in matching loose-fitting jean jackets and crowns of tight, dark curls. She spent the next song singing to every black girl that had made herself known in the crowd, sharing intimate moments of eye-contact and a smirk that bled through the lyrics as if to say, “I see you out here, girl.” When her eyes met mine across the metal fencing, I felt her welcoming me into the experience, as if to say that this part of the music festival was for me, even if nothing else was.

That feeling of camaraderie amongst black festival-goers, especially in the midst of Golden Gate Park’s natural beauty, is extremely rare. But several miles south of my Outside Lands experience, Darel Scott ’17 was drafting the plans for a new kind of festival aimed at people of color and their connection to nature. For once, a space that affirmed the minority experience and didn’t require a special shout out for the flecks of brown and black peppered into an otherwise homogeneous crowd.

For decades, festivals have been a way for people to celebrate art, community and nature. From 1969’s Woodstock, a legendary festival held in New York’s Catskill Mountains, to massive annual events like Coachella in the arid desert of Indio, California, a picturesque natural landscape is as intrinsic to a music festival as are sweaty crowds, vodka water bottles and lines of porta potties. Scott’s vision for Earth In Color, however, brings the role of the environment to the forefront of the festival identity. The singers, visual artists and food vendors will all be acting through a lens of sustainability.

Also at the forefront of the event is racial identity. Earth In Color is made for people of color to honor their unique experiences with the environment. Scott’s vision is one that is rewiring the way we think about involvement in nature as a “white thing,” allowing each attendee to write their own story about how they connect to the world around them.

Historically, identity, music and the environment were not ideas that seemed to meld within a festival context. For much of recent history, people of color were tied to music and performing, while the environmentalist movement grew at a distant and exclusive parallel.

Revisiting Woodstock and the August of 1969, Black artists at the event used music to highlight their political views and frustrations. Many heavily relied on improvisation and spur-of-the-moment additions to songs. The first act on stage, Richie Havens, closed his set with “Freedom,” an improvised song about the struggles and alienation experienced by people of color in inner cities. But perhaps the most famous example is Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Lasting at least a minute longer than traditionally played, Hendrix adorned the anthem with guitar motifs that resembled the sounds of bombs and strife. The additions provided an ironic backdrop to the patriotic anthem, and they served as his protest of the Vietnam War. During a decade that marked the height of the Civil Rights’ movement, music was a powerful political communication tool.

Although these two black artists used their platforms to raise awareness about social injustices, none of the issues were framed explicitly within the environmental context. Perhaps this is a result of the ways in which society defined “environment” in the mid-to-late twentieth century. As civil rights activists fought for access to physical environments of equal quality (think water fountains and public parks), the government viewed segregated urban spaces as separate from “The Outdoors.” The Outdoors was the target for legislative protection in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, around the same time that hippies convened at Woodstock.

The Outdoors was a place without people (the government was yet to properly recognize the land rights of Native Americans) full of scenic expanses of canyon, forest and water. Activists focused on issues that threatened this natural beauty. Some of the most popular causes of the time were the Santa Barbara oil spill and the damming of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Nixon was not only sensitive to the burgeoning environmental movement, but also was especially fond of the popular naturalist John Muir. But Muir, who is often venerated for his glorification of “untouched” natural lands, lived his environmental activism through a eugenicist’s racist lens.

However problematic Muir’s views, his social prejudice was of little concern to Nixon, who founded the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during his tenure as president. A win for America’s public lands, but not for the people of color who were erased from their recognized histories.

Upon accepting a Google Calendar invite, Scott and I met outside on a bright February day to talk about how her environmental mission was disrupting the status quo. She showed up with a purple pen in hand, a planner by her side and a garnish of gold jewelry. It was exactly the look of a person who was determined to make her dreams a reality, stemming from a childhood in which the problems of diversity in the environment were very apparent.

“When I look back, a lot of my memories are in the outdoors, but not in the outdoors like in the ways that we think,” she tells me.

As her mother studied for her doctorate degree throughout Scott’s childhood, “study picnics” at the local botanical garden were a frequent occurrence.

“My sister and I would run around and look at the plants. Or we would just read. But I didn’t realize that my mom was, like, really studying.” To this day, Scott keeps her home lined with plants that hearken back to her childhood in the gardens.

As Scott lived out her young adulthood in a suburban Texas hometown, issues of diversity and inclusion became increasingly clear. Working through the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum at her high school, she remarked how her program attracted kids from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. It was a striking contrast to the homogeneously white Advanced Placement program at the same school.

Even still, Scott was one of only two black girls in the IB program. And she felt this absence of representation throughout her life. “[At the park] it was me, my mom, my sister and everybody else who was not black. So I think I’ve always been used to being that one quirky black girl in the sea of white people.”

As she grew older, Scott was able to hold onto her love of natural spaces with a hint of healthy criticism. Soon, that criticism evolved in her desire to enact her own change. And that desire turned into the idea for a transformative movement that would counteract mainstream ideas of environmentalism.

Not to say that environmentalism was always focused solely on white men and colonial ideals. With the dawn of Burning Man, music and art’s roles in the outdoors started to mingle. Beginning in 1986 as a bonfire ritual between friends, Burning Man has evolved to become synonymous with eccentricity, art and connection to the Arizona desert. The festival drew about 70,000 people in 2016, but only 1 percent of attendees, also deemed “burners,” are black. The lack of effort by Burning Man organizers to intentionally increase minority attendance has drawn criticism from those who observe a continual embrace of the fifth founding principal of “radical self-expression” while leaving behind the first: “radical inclusion.”

However, it’s difficult to imagine Burning Man becoming more inclusive by way of an administration that operates under a founder who was recently quoted saying, “I don’t think black folks like to camp as much as white folks.” This sentiment, voiced by founder Larry Harvey in 2015, brings to light a misconception bathed in racial prejudice – one that has led to the exclusion of people of color from America’s natural spaces for centuries.

In the wake of such ignorant and exclusive comments from one of the festival’s most powerful figures, black burners, along with other underrepresented attendees, are fighting against it. Several have come together to create communities centered in identity and solidarity. The two most popular, Que Viva and the People of Color camp, are a haven for those seeking out burners who share their racial identity and/or a commitment to social justice.

Ashara Ekundayo, a member of Que Viva in 2015, spoke out against Harvey’s beliefs to The Guardian: “Despite the stereotype that African American folk don’t camp, we have a long history of being in the wilderness. We know how to be outside, how to tend the land, how to fish. Think about how we ended up on this continent in the first place. People were working the land.” It may be a while until these sentiments are truly understood by Harvey, who, in response to an isolated black burner, said, “I know how she felt. My son is biracial.”

While Burning Man established its roots in the mid-1980s with white cultivators, black people were forcing themselves into the mainstream environmental movement. One of the first environmental justice movements to gain traction happened in Warren County, North Carolina. In the early 1980s, the predominantly black and low-income county was disproportionately affected by corporate dumping of hazardous waste on its land and a local government that turned a blind eye to the injustice. The water contamination crisis that followed sparked protests throughout the ‘80s, with black community members marching, suing and even lying down in the streets for their basic rights to clean water.

Scott calls upon these pioneering environmental justice struggles in her work to craft a contemporary movement while attending Stanford. After considering engineering as a pathway through which to solve the nuclear waste problem, she shifted to environmental science when she realized how much more support the program offered. But despite administrative support, the community still wasn’t there. In an anecdote from a memoir essay, “The Answer is Freedom,” Scott remembers the ways in which her identity precluded her ability to connect to the land and people during a class at Stanford’s farm. The O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm is seen as a cathartic haven for most of the university’s environmental science students. But as soon as Scott stepped on the Stanford farm, she was reminded of the times that she toured the violence-stained fields of former plantations in South Carolina, a state in which her ancestry runs back to slavery.

Intergenerational trauma, in which offspring inherit the effects of PTSD from their parents, is a biologically-proven phenomenon. It manifests in people such as the children of veterans and the descendants of slaves. However, many educators are not privy to how intergenerational trauma affects their students’ learning. Experiencing a trauma that white professors are not trained to acknowledge or heal is an alienating experience within itself. However, black students with slave ancestors, including myself, deal with this pain in addition to the microaggressions and prejudice we face on an everyday basis.

But after living through a traumatic academic experience, Scott looks back on it with a silver lining.

“That moment really influenced how I interact with my earth systems environmental knowledge ethic,” she says.

The ways in which the class at the farm barred her from forming close connections to other students and faculty inspired her to seek connection with people who shared both aspects of her identity and her love of the environment. This journey led her outside of Stanford to a friendship with one of the most famous African-Americans in the environmental movement: Shelton Johnson, a ranger at Yosemite National Park whose work on research and advocacy for minorities in the outdoors has been praised by the likes of President Obama.

“[Johnson] is taking up space in a way that I would like to one day: on a big scale,” Scott explains, “People know who he is. And I think it’s not about fame, but it’s about impact. And I feel like he’s made a lot of impact.”

Scott’s relationship with the well-known scholar is one of many inspirational friendships she has fostered, with others including popular curators of digital movements, like Amirio Freeman of the Instagram account Being Green While Black.

Scott’s journey to find others like herself helped her realize that community actually does exist for people of color who care about the environment. She began to envision this growing network fortifying and strengthening in intentional ways. And that’s how Earth In Color was born.

Earth In Color lets people of color craft their own environmental narratives, even if the initial motivations to attend the festival have nothing to do with nature. It comes in the wake of the creation of worldwide celebrations like Afropunk, an event that focuses on diasporic black music, art and culture. Instead of the attendee-driven activism at Burning Man, the social and environmental justice initiatives at Afropunk comes from the festival’s creators, who encourage hopeful attendees to earn free tickets by completing community service hours. Recent projects have included urban farming with the Toyota Green Initiative and participation in local government through the New York City Housing Authority. Afropunk was the first festival to intentionally encourage black people to engage with their community’s natural spaces and normalize black presence in the outdoors.

Earth In Color takes the philosophy of Afropunk’s volunteer model one step further. Scott’s vision of the event makes the connection between festivals and environmental justice one and the same. It’s a completely new approach to how people define their celebration of Earth Day – from one in which an individual might plant a single self-congratulatory tree to one where communities actively work to uplift diverse environmental narratives.

Although Scott acknowledges that she can only speak from the black American perspective, her event is designed for all people of color to discover how they connect to their environment on their own terms. “[We’re] not screaming climate change, not screaming environment, but just creating an immersive experience,” she says of Earth In Color’s hands-off environmental message.

“My number one goal is to have that ‘Aha!’ moment created by the experience and not by what I say. Experiences, they go deeper emotionally for people.”

Scott sees creation as a vehicle for people to customize an environmental journey during Earth In Color, which is set to be held at Stanford’s farm. Along with a dedicated non-hierarchical team, she has recruited a series of student groups, non-profit organizations and artists to run interactive booths. Attendees will have the option to brew kombucha, create a salve, construct a Coachella-reminiscent flower crown or even learn about sustainable cooking using the farm’s own crops.

Other booths will spread awareness of people of color-centered environmental organizations, such as Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors. For less active types, an art gallery of student works will serve as an additional space to contemplate the politics and manifestations of environmental issues. The anchor of Earth In Color, an evening concert consisting of a well-known headliner and student openers, will be available only to the event’s active participants. Concert hopefuls need not worry, however, as Scott promises to implement enough activities to keep attendees busy throughout the day.

April’s inaugural festival is only the first iteration of Darel’s vision for Earth In Color. In her mind, the festival could become as large as Coachella or as geographically distributed as Afropunk. But even in its nascent stages, Earth In Color is a powerful manifestation of the dreams of a young black girl wanting to find camaraderie in the Dallas botanical gardens or on a California educational farm. It’s the result of years of searching for community – not only by Scott, but also by generations of hippies, artists, activists and environmentalists of color whose stories have been ignored by society. Earth In Color marries these multiple storylines and weaves the narratives of humanity into those of environmentalism. It gets people to realize that the environment is not just something they should care about, but rather something they want to care about.

When I asked about her most pivotal moment in the outdoors, Scott describes a specific childhood summer living in South Carolina. In her memories, she is running barefoot, side-by-side with cousins and aunties through the sprinklers. She is an uninhibited sand angel sprawled-out across the crimson soil and the muggy east-coast heat, and there are no borderlines between her blackness and her love of the earth. She does not yet understand the plantation or the blood beneath it.

“It was three months of just intense connection with nature,” she tells me, “I just felt — I was going to say wealthy, but I felt filled.”

For many black women and minorities, that is all we want at the end of the day. We want to feel like we are whole, we are heard and we are a part of something larger than ourselves. I confess to Darel that I, too, have family in South Carolina, and before I can finish my sentence she is already calling me cousin.

 

Contact Claire Miles cmmiles ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Claire Miles