The Fourth River

Tributaries, The New Nature: “When the World Doesn’t See You But You See (and Feel) the World”

By on October 18, 2017

 Selected by Ira Sukrungruang


By Rochelle Spencer


Six months ago, I sent out an email, with the subject line “Earth Day and People of Color,” to more than a dozen media outlets. “There’s a myth,” I wrote, “that people of color aren’t concerned about the environment or environmental causes. On Earth Day, April 22, several organizations are working to dispel that myth.”

Earth Day was six months ago and while I met a lot of people of color who are working to preserve the environment, I still don’t know how to dispel this myth. When I volunteer with the Sierra Club, whose work I respect and love, the volunteers are almost always white.  And when I visited an opening reception for an eco-arts class, held at a college where most of the students are of color, the attendees are mostly white. Still, while people of color become the public face of humanity’s violent, often alienating separations from natural environments (think: trees and grass) to unnatural environments of bars and metal (think: prisons, gated public housing), the smaller, private interactions are less discussed. Outdoor Afro organizes hiking trips for people of color throughout the Bay area. Town and City Permaculture and Quilombo have held cleanups and plantings in West Oakland. The Kiss My Black Arts Collective, which makes exciting art out of recycled materials, participated in the AfroSurreal Writers’ EcoArts Festival, as did James David Lee, an Asian-American artist, who created a public installation examining people’s relationship to relaxation and their environments at 3000 San Pablo Ave., an unused parking lot.


The Kiss My Black Arts Collective displays their EcoArt at the AfroSurreal Writers’ EcoArts Festival

I’m sure that the eco-arts instructors must have included artists of color in the exhibition, but for some reason, the students didn’t attend the reception. If people of color are actively thinking about their environments, why is there less public discussion about the ways that people of color try to preserve their environments?

When James David Lee created the Reading Room at 3000 San Pablo Ave. as part of the EcoArts Festival, we had both envisioned a temporary installation where people could read books and relax. We were also interested in the idea that people harm their environments as they seek out leisure, so James provided benches, made of ice, that melted as the day went on. As more white people showed up and interacted with the installation, fewer people of color did. James and I found this troubling.

Afro 2Afro 3

James David Lee’s Reading Room (left); Rtystk and Tracey of the Kiss My Black Arts Collective


As a black woman, I wonder if it’s a matter of feeling as if you don’t belong. If the public perception of environmentalism is white, maybe people of color don’t associate their nature-loving selves and their environmental efforts as part of the larger environmental movement. The question we have to ask, if we’re serious about a better world, is how do we make sure people of color are included in this conversation?




Rochelle Spencer is co-editor of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2014), a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and founder of the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop.