By: Rasheena Fountain
I was on my way back to work for the first time after returning from a Civil Rights Tour I experienced with my Urban Environmental Education Graduate Program classmates. On the trip, we attended historical sites like the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his childhood, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the Greyhound Station where the Freedom Riders were viciously attacked, and other significant sites of the civil rights movement. It was a trip that kept me in a contemplative mindset—a search for how to process very painful recounts of human struggles and ugliness.
As an Urban Environmental Education graduate student who hopes to be a part of extending more environmental education to students of color and disadvantaged communities, I searched for the connections between the work of civil rights leaders and the work I hope to do in environmental education. It saddened me that that I could make connections between current children’s cries of inequality and those youthful sorrows in the south during the 1960s. At moments during the trip and after, I wondered if there was hope—if the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists fought for was alive in 2017.
As I boarded the bus toward my job and the driver continued to talk about carbon tax and his beliefs about environmental concerns, I became anxious. I began to relive all of the turbulent political conversations that have happened during the past election, the hate-fueled racial slurs I have seen all over the comments sections of news media stories, and the raw emotion I carried from the personal stories of fear and trauma of Jim Crow Laws recounted to me by Freedom Rider Dr. Bernard LaFayette during the Civil Rights Tour. I was still feeling the effects of The Lunch Counter Experience at the Center For Civil and Human Rights where guests sit at a counter, feeling the kicks and taunting of strangers that black people faced when trying to sit in a Whites-only restaurant.
On the bus, an overwhelming yearn to stay silent filled me; I was afraid to speak even though I wanted dialogue. I have witnessed dialogue become a lost art of conflict resolution in current times. I was worried that my opinion might trigger hatred, and I wondered if I could safely express my ideas about environmental justice. I wondered if having a differing opinion might lead the bus driver and me into an argument and that something as trivial like the color of our skin and political beliefs would cause us to forget our recognition of the other as a fellow human being.
He continued inviting me into a conversation in spite of my reluctance.
“So, what do you think can help the environment? What do you think are the solutions?”
He followed up by saying that hearing other people’s perspectives helps the day pass at work. I could see he had a genuine interest in my opinion; he was interested in dialogue. I began to open up to him about my ideas of environmental awareness for disadvantaged groups born of having lived in inner-city Chicago—an area we both were interested in because he too happened to be from the Midwest. We found common ground.
As I left the bus, he told me “to be safe and blessed”. I had been grappling with how to proceed in our current political climate, in addition to digesting my experience on the Civil Rights tour. I was searching for more signs of hope—that the progress that I witnessed with the election of the first black president had not vanished into the abyss.
That moment with the bus driver made me realize that human connection and continuing to see the beauty that exists within people beyond our own expectations is the key to overcoming—the key to “The Dream” Dr. King spoke of. And in that moment, I could clearly see that “The Dream” is not some abstract unattainable concept; the bus encounter was the dream. I am living that dream. We all have the capacity to live and perpetuate the dream. We have the ability to continue to push that dream no matter the political climate or actions of some.
What would happen if more people genuinely asked others about their opinions, welcoming dialogue? Perhaps some that have a history of silence and disenfranchisement may feel empowered as I did with one simple question saturated in genuine curiosity.
Rasheena Fountain is an alumni of the Urban Environmental Education program.