Confronting paternalism in conservation and camn

Greetings, fellow Master Naturalists! Caroline here, to continue our series on what our revitalized Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee is working through right now.

In our November committee meeting, we continued our education toward the goal of bending CAMN toward becoming a truly anti-racist organization. As a currently majority white member and white led organization, this requires a lot of upfront education. And a lot of unlearning of what got us here. Because make no mistake, majority white spaces did not end up that way accidentally or automatically.

No, there is a culture that permeates these spaces, including CAMN’s, that perpetuates itself and by definition excludes the wisdom and connection of people who do not fit within its idea of “normal” and “ideal”. To name it, this is called White Supremacy Culture. And the distinct characteristics of White Supremacy Culture are what the DEI Committee has begun to unpack as it relates to CAMN, the larger American conservation movement, and even our own lives outside of CAMN. We will leverage this list over the course of many months as we attempt to divest from this culture.

I’ll be honest, when I first read this list, which was introduced to me by the local organization Undoing White Supremacy Austin (UWSA), I had a pretty visceral reaction. These norms and unsaid rules are the air that I have been breathing my whole life as a white lady in the U.S. It was (and continues to be) really hard to extract these items from, well, what feels normal. And it has been extremely painful. Because these norms have ruled my life and they have caused me pain… and by wielding them, I have caused pain to many, many others. Some were strangers, some were my dearest loved ones. And knowing that I will never be perfect at anti-racism work, that I will continue to cause harm, that the best version of myself would only be able to minimize the harm I cause? Yeah, talk about a wake up call.

And what a daunting task: to dissect the very air that I breathe and to unlearn the characteristics that I have learned over a lifetime to expect and to idolize. To begin to divest from these norms. To learn how to counteract them. Whew. I’m tired just revisiting what a monumental task it is.

And yet, the people who suffer the most from White Supremacy Culture–Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color–need and deserve white people to begin and sustain this process of unlearning. White Supremacy is a problem created by white people. Therefore it is a problem for white people to solve. We must expel it from our personal lives, our conservation work, our paid workplaces, everywhere.

We all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and care. White Supremacy Culture certainly doesn’t do that–it does the opposite. It punishes those who deviate from its unwritten rules. It isolates them and devours them. White people get devoured by it too. I know I have.

People of all kinds can perpetuate or choose to reject these cultural norms. I’m excited and, honestly, solemn and wary, about CAMN undertaking this unlearning process. It’s painstaking work to look at the harm we ourselves have caused. And again, it is so worthwhile and so necessary. Real lives are on the line and they deserve better.

Paternalism, specifically, is deeply intertwined with American conservation. The movement’s early heroes supported and participated in forcibly removing Native Peoples from their historic homeland in order to make national parklands more accessible to white Americans. Many supported Eugenics, and actively perpetuated White Supremacy Culture. This legacy impacts our outdoor spaces today, often making them physically and emotionally unsafe for our peers who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. The legacy endures in what outdoorsey people are expected to look like, in which conservation organizations get the majority of funding, in who gets harassed in public parks, in who is rarely hired for job opportunities in the sciences. We’ve got a lot of work to do to counteract these oppressive ideas, practices, and norms. Join us, won’t you?

The DEI Committee November meeting centered two readings:

1. The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture (focus on Paternalism)
2. Reckoning with the Racist History of American Environmentalism

And the agenda looked like this, if you’d like to follow along:

  1. Introductions – everyone gets to introduce themselves, their identities, and how they’re feeling at the moment
  2. Land Acknowledgement (borrowed from UWSA until we can establish our own)
  3. What is white identity? A brief history, based on learnings from the book Stamped: Racism, Anti Racism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi
  4. Grounding Exercise
  5. Break Out Discussions on the following questions:
    1. Initial reactions to the readings, White Supremacy culture, and the topic of paternalism
    2. Discuss examples of environmental paternalism
    3. How might CAMN and other majority white environmental groups cause paternalistic harm? How have we?
    4. What antidotes should we keep top of mind when attempting to support and engage with Black, Indigenous, and communities of color?
    5. How do we minimize our harm so that we do more good than harm? How will we know when we’re being successful in this?
  6. Grounding Exercise
  7. Close Out

Won’t you join us? Feel free to each out to the committee at diversity@camn.org or me directly at diversity-chair@camn.org to join the committee or to learn more about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.