How does the violent history of racial hatred in America affect the African American experience in the wilderness and community health today?
Jourdan Keith, founder and director of the Urban Wilderness Project, says healing the historic wounds of racism – perpetrated through lynchings often committed in isolated rural areas — are the only way to improve her community's physical and mental health.
Keith's organization hosts a community conversation on the issue called "Strange Fruit: Race, Violence, and Environment," Thursday, Feb. 12 from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Pritchard Beach Bathhouse, 8400 55th Ave. S.
It's part of a four-part series titled "R U an Endangered Species? Community Conversations That Could Save Your Life."
Not only does the organization talk about environmental and race issues, but its mission is built around escorting African and African American youth on extended wilderness adventures where they camp out, climb mountains and complete public service projects such as trail maintenance.
"The idea for the community conversations came up when I began to understand the environmental and physical dangers that were contained in our water bottles, and how we were using plastics and how that might be interrupting our endocrine systems," Keith says.
So in 2006, before the major news media broke the story about toxic chemicals leaching from plastic bottles, the Keith's environmental justice organization held its first event about the dangers, and about how people could eliminate plastics from what Keith calls "their own little personal ecosystems" — the home and the workplace.
"Our motto is that we may not know all of the answers, but we know it's time to start asking the questions," Keith says.
"I began the organization because I had worked for several different organizations that served youth in the community but often they lacked the cultural connections that were required to actually reach the kids they had received funding to serve," she said. " I thought it was critical that we bring in that cultural piece, so you'll see in the environmental work that we do we integrate storytelling, we integrate the language and the visuals of the people that we're serving, and that are represented in our organization."
This year the group marks its sixth year providing youth and adult educational programs as well as access to the wilderness — one of the critical components of what Keith sees as environmental justice work.
Keith says that, because the group focuses its services on students in South and Southeast Seattle, the young people tend to do their own kind of outreach through word of mouth about their backpacking trips with the organization.
"A lot of the kids, until they see pictures of their friends in our slide shows, think that we're crazy, and sometimes we'll have kids say that's just for White people, or sometimes they say things like, you're going to go somewhere and you're going to sleep on the ground? That's nasty. Or, so how are you taking a shower? Those kinds of things; just being able to imagine themselves is a big leap."
This week's event shines a light squarely on the deepest roots of African Americans' avoidance of the wilderness – the historical connection between lynching and rural landscapes.
"We did plan it not in terms of commemorating Black History Month but naturally a lot more peoples' minds turn to AA history at this time," Keith says.
"Strange Fruit," is a reference to jazz icon Billy Holliday's song contrasting the violent scene of a lynching with the pastoral stereotype of the South, with its birds and poplar trees.
"As I discovered just the other day – I teach poetry at Cleveland — two of my students, in creating a poem about "Where I'm From," referred to uncles they had who had been lynched," Keith said
"I believe there's a lot of unspoken fear that is one of the barriers that keeps a lot of African Americans — youth and adults — from enjoying the wilderness," she said. "It is that historical trauma, because so much of the violence that our ancestors endured took place in the context of the wooded areas of this country, and even though it's not commonly spoken it seems to be part of our collective hesitancy."
| Urban Wilderness Project's|
"R U An Endangered Species?
| Find Out" is a series of events linking social justice, culture and environment.|
Strange Fruit: Race, Violence, and Environment, Thursday, Feb. 12, 5 to 8 p.m. at the Pritchard Beach Bathhouse, 8400 55th Avenue S.
A panel discussion analyzing the historic trauma of racial violence and how it impacts the African American attitude towards wilderness experiences. With guests Theryn B. Kigvamasud'Vashti of CARA; Delbert Richardson, collector of the American history exhibitThe Unspoken Truth; performances by Griot Works Youth Troupe, a. k. Allin; and host Jourdan I Keith.
Saving Limbs: Green Spaces and Women's Lives, Thursday, March 12, 5 to 8 p.m. at the Pritchard Beach Bathhouse, 8400 55th Avenue S.
Groundbreaking research in Illinois has proved that urban green spaces increase self-esteem and decision making for girls and reduced domestic violence. Learn what you can do to protect our social and natural Eco-systems.
Does Homophobia Have a Carbon Count? Gender Perception and Safety, Thursday, April 9, 5 to 8 p.m. at the Pritchard Beach Bathhouse, 8400 55th Avenue S.
Have you ever avoided public transportation, especially at night, for fear of harassment? Have you learned to guard yourself against unwanted comments from other commuters by changing your behavior? In a heterosexist paradigm does same-sex affection redefine us as female or male and increase our safety concerns? Could public education make your bus ride safer and allow you to leave the car behind? Learn what you can do to protect our social and natural Eco-systems.
This event is unique in its approach to talking out the history and working to move past it, Keith says.
"The goal here is, because there's so many things that are positive about the experiences that can be had in the wilderness, is to speak our fears, abandon them, and then collectively determine how can we dismantle this," she said.
"How can we heal, because we need to, because our children are and as adults also we're facing skyrocketing obesity and diabetes and ADD and ADHD in which experience in the wilderness, all of those are mitigated on one level or another by that. We're in a place where collectively, I think we have to grow past our fear. "
Keith says this event is also promoting the R U An Endangered Species Campaign to push the Environmental Protection Agency to start recognizing environmental justice concerns as they impact African Americans specifically.
"We're asking people to act on those who have been left out of equations of environmental depredation, the same way we protect orcas and eagles, to see that humans are being threatened in our habitat," she said.
For more information call 206-579-5848 or go to www.urbanwildernessproject.org.