by Jasmine Kumalah
I’m a brown-skinned girl who spent the first part of her childhood drenched by tropical rainfall in the shadow of formidable mountains overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I ran barefoot on packed soil, sometimes wiggling away from frightening critters and insects. I spent the other half of my childhood in the repetitive bosom of American suburbia, biking through the nearby woods and across small bubbling creeks, taking weekend trips to nearby cities where the shadows of manmade towers looked on at me.
As a young adult, I spent time both in the mountains of New Hampshire and in the un-managed greenery of Baltimore. In each of these places, I found myself pulled into the environment around me, yet I never saw myself as worthy of being called an “environmentalist.” I was indoctrinated by the narrow and toxic-framed dominant narrative that only certain people, with certain backgrounds, were allowed to be environmentalists.
For many years, I had a very specific image of those who “cared” about the environment. They were always white and always foreign to me. They talked of spaces I felt no connection to, of places that were distant to me. When I was in the “world of environmentalists,” I always felt uncomfortable. My brownness stood out and none of my interests aligned. With my deep love of cities, I found beauty in the one place they often wished to escape. However, like many of the people I encountered in what seemed like a very niche culture, I, too, had become caught up with the fabricated idea of nature. Nature, in this manipulated imagination, was outside of the world I lived. It was fenced, it was legislated, and it was the place richer white folks went hiking and rock climbing, the place they went to safari and tour. Nature was always the thing that was packaged, consumed, and protected by governments and their agencies. Nature was not my block in the city or my house in the suburbs.
I had been thoroughly convinced that sunset horizons on large expanses of safari, tall snow-peaked mountains, and boreal forests in northern lands epitomized what qualified as nature worthy of notice. I had wrongly come to believe that to care about nature, I had to feel romantic energy toward these often legislatively conquered, dominated spaces.
Domination and neo-colonialism aside, none of these spaces are inherently bad; they are extraordinary features of our world, worthy of notice and definitely worthy of maintaining. The problem is these spaces live within a hierarchical structure. These dominated spaces are often mostly accessible to those of more means and are seen as more deserving of awe than the overgrown block in the middle of inner-city Baltimore. We have come to be numb to the ecosystems that exist around us. We are numb to the raccoon that makes its way through the trash for food and label it a pest. We are numb to the trail of ants that make their way from the outside, and we set death traps around the perimeters of our home.
We trap ourselves in an idea of nature that all too often divorces us from the nature in our day-to day-lives, a notion that sets up our urban jungles or suburban islands as places devoid of thriving ecosystems. In the end, we are left believing that we are separate from nature and, thus, unable to connect with it. Ultimately, we embody the toxic narratives that leave us blind to the beautiful and magnificent things we should be connecting with every day.
I have come to realize what rejecting these forms of toxic narratives can mean for us as queer and brown bodies. To see around us is to, ultimately, see us. To be blind to the world around us is to, ultimately, give credence to a world that discredits the bodies moving within these spaces; it is to allow for the consistent injustice against our bodies, our homes, and our communities. In the years I have come to be involved in the environmental justice movement, I have seen countless examples of communities of color who’s environments are polluted and destroyed by corporations. In these cases, where is the legislation that protects these environments, that protects our lives and families? These environments have not been viewed as deserving of protection or care, and we have too often bought into this.
The simple reality is that all of us, by simple virtue of living, are part of extraordinary ecosystems. Extraordinary ecosystems we must care for and maintain, whether it is the vacant lot in Baltimore and the eco-system that teems there or the safari site in Kenya. I have come to believe that to be an environmentalist, is to understand and be sensitive to the ways in which we connect to those ecosystems. It is to ultimately realize that the well being of the places around us is ultimately linked to our own well being, to our health, to our survival, and to our resistance. To compassionately see around us is to understand that our spaces are valued ecosystems worthy of care and understanding. In the end, it is also a statement that our bodies and futures are worthy of care and understanding.
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Jasmine Kumalah is a Sierra Leonean-Togolese-American Writer. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Geography and African Studies and is working towards a Masters in City and Regional Planning. She is currently based in Baltimore, MD where she loves to find un-managed greenery.