It’s April now. The Martin Luther King Jr. posters have come down, the Rosa Parks story has been packed away on the shelf, freedom song melodies have faded out in the distance, and educators, organizations, and institutions all over the world are patting themselves on the backs for a job well done and another year of “celebrating diversity.” It’s back to business as usual, with some folks not recognizing accomplishments or contributions of black people and/or black culture until February rolls around again.
Unfortunately, I have personally become accustomed to this narrative. As a black child in a predominately white school and community, I can recall rising anxiety as February approached. I could feel the piercing eyes of my peers and educators as our learning space transformed into what felt like some sort of black history shrine, complete with a 28-day timer. I couldn’t tell if they were looking to me for approval or seeking praise for their probably well-intentioned efforts. Either way, I had learned to be prepared for the glares and the questions and the unwanted attention while we sat and listened to the same stories about the same people, every year. It was embarrassing. It was exasperating. It still is.
As an adult and environmental professional of color in a white-dominated field, the frustration only deepened. Now, instead of a haphazard, canned Black History Month celebration for a few weeks each year, there was nothing. I couldn’t decide what was worse. Did people who shared my passion for environmentalism, stewardship, and wildlife not care about who I was? Was there not space for black environmentalists and recognition of black history milestones that shaped parts of the environmental movement? I didn’t have the answers, but I decided that my people and our history shouldn’t have to wait. I needed to do something about it.
In my position at the time, I rallied up support from colleagues and began to organize annual Black History Month Celebrations in the office, providing space for education, learning, sharing of culture and traditions, and hopefully understanding. I needed the people I worked with and the agency I worked for to grasp how critical this space was for myself and my fellow people of color who so often felt alone and excluded when it came to the intersection of environmentalism, race, history, and culture.
Though the support to organize annual celebrations alleviated some of my feelings of isolation, it was very clear that it wasn’t enough. Sure I had the attention of folks around the office for a few weeks, but as the month came to an end, I could feel the enthusiasm fade. And as the year went on, it was again, business as usual. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I think this is what inspired my journey to the UEE program—the desire to go beyond a single-month dedication to black history and instead honor the pivotal legacies of black people through meaningful action.
Just as urban environments are often left out of conversations of traditional environmental education, black history and multiculturalism are also commonly excluded, detaching the voices and contributions of those communities from existing
achievements of the environmental movement. We cannot discuss environmental education without considering the changing urban landscape, and we cannot educate without including multicultural perspectives, history, traditions, and voices.
My coursework within the Urban Environmental Education graduate program has equipped me with the language and pedagogy that I have been seeking in my struggle to ensure that who I am is connected to what I do and most importantly, is valued by the organization I represent. A particular reading from my Multicultural Environmental Education course captured my feelings exactly. In Making Choices for Multicultural Education, Christine Sleeter shares the grave importance of creating learning spaces that are diverse, intentional, and inclusive.
“Teaching diverse traditions and perspectives, questioning stereotypes, learning the appropriate cultural codes in order to function within a variety of settings, recognizing the contributions of all groups to society (especially those that have been traditionally excluded), encouraging teachers to learn more about their students’ experiences and realities, and eliminating negatives biases from materials are all deemed important everyday practices.”
I am now reflecting back on my classroom experience and considering the impact an educator who possessed this mindset and was outfitted with critical pedagogy would have had on my development. I am learning to use my own adverse experience as an opportunity to communicate to fellow educators and institutions just how important authentic and intentional history lessons are, as well as how traumatic and oppressive the lack of inclusive and multicultural learning and working spaces can be, especially for young people of color.
Celebrating diversity and being inclusive is not a headcount of hued faces. It’s not only acknowledging non-dominant culture and history on occasion. It’s not hiring a certain number of people of color and showcasing them when convenient or profitable. Celebrating diversity and being inclusive are not just being invited.
As noted diversity advocate Vernā Myers puts it, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” And furthermore, I would add, it’s dancing in the middle of the dancefloor with or without an audience. It’s more than one month, one celebration, one face, or one story. When it comes to something as indispensable as the environment, our planet and this movement cannot afford to leave anyone out. Whether I realized it or not, ensuring that we all have a seat at the table (or a dance partner) has always been and continues to be my mission.
Bottom photo by UEE graduate student Khavin Debbs.
Denaya Shorter is an alumni of the Urban Environmental Education program.