Environmental justice at the forefront in The Common Experience virtual town hall

5th October 2020

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–“Spirited” may be the best word to describe the virtual town hall hosted by The Common Experience and featuring Dr. Dianne Glave, an environmental historian and author of Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage.

Spirited as in lively. Spirited as in feisty. Spirited as in uplifting.

Before a zoom audience of nearly 70 faculty, staff, students and community members, Glave elaborated on themes developed in her book, which is this year’s reading for The Common Experience under the theme, “Sustainability: Being Mindful & Making a Difference.”

Glave’s book aims to challenge and correct the traditional view of African Americans as divorced from the great outdoors.

“Unfamiliar with the culture’s rich environmental heritage, people overlook the knowledge and skills required at every turn in black history: thriving in natural settings in ancestral African lands, using and discovering farming techniques to survive during slavery and Reconstruction, and navigating escape routes to freedom, all of which required remarkable outdoor talents and a level of expertise far beyond what’s needed to hike or camp in a national forest or park.”

Her life’s work has been to illuminate those techniques, talents and expertise, in the interest of historical veracity and as a means of finding a way forward amid the challenges of today.

“People of color have roots in nature and have long been experts,” Glave said. “Returning to that history and remembering the impact of ancestors who have influenced our understanding of nature is life-changing. There is much to be learned about how people of color navigated nature.”

In her prepared presentation, Glave related the story of Nat Turner, who led an uprising of slaves in 1831. Situating Turner’s messianic persona, visions and oratory within the context of both African religious tradition and American Protestantism, Glave highlighted the strong connections that existed, and continue to exist, between theology, community, identity, and nature within the black American experience.

Many of these connections have been severed, particularly the relationship of the people to nature, a consequence of the great black migration from the rural south to the urban north since the Civil War.

In her book and her presentation, Glave made the case for rebuilding that relationship–reclaiming it, in fact. For its rupture has been in part the result of policy and intention. And it is also part of a general alienation from the natural world in American culture, catalyzed by technology and the imperatives of capitalism.

Glave, a United Methodist minister in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, sees African American faith traditions, the reverence for the environment and the struggle against racism as inseparably linked. As daunting as the challenges are in these areas, she sees signs of positive change.

She cited groups such as Green the Church as important efforts within black churches to build environmental and economic resilience in their communities, and touched upon organizations that are working to develop a culture of outdoor discovery for African Americans, such as Outdoor Afro, which has a chapter in Louisville.

In a wide-ranging question and answer period following her prepared talk, Glave and the participants explored topics such as Glave’s Jamaican heritage and childhood in New York, environmental racism, the Old Testament, heat islands, food deserts and inter-racial dialogue.

In addressing questions about the current conversations around racial injustice in the U.S., Glave stressed the importance of empathy and fluidity in meeting others “where they are,” noting the need for reflection, self-examination and work in cultural competency among those who benefit from a system based on a history of oppression.

As part of The Common Experience, Glave’s book and her thinking will inform coursework in numerous classes this year, in a wide range of fields. This speaks to a broader message of her visit: building relationships within and between communities, and between humanity and the Earth.

“The struggle is one and the same,” Glave said. “Marginalized people and the environment must both be honored.”

Kimberly Bonacci, senior lecturer of mathematics and a co-coordinator for The Common Experience, is one of over a dozen instructors using Glave’s book in their classes. She was especially moved by the impact the book has already had on students who attended the event.

“​The Common Experience Committee was very excited and impressed by the turnout of students and the questions they had for Dr. Glave that led to a powerful and stimulating conversation,” Bonacci said.

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