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Reclaiming Your Environmentalism

2013 June 6


By Fred Tutman

People ask me almost everyday why more African-Americans are not environmentalists. My usual answer is, “who says we are not?”  Yet everyday I meet people who seem to think that being an environmentalist of color is some sort of novelty. Nothing could be farther from the truth! My heritage with the environment like many other people of color sets a strong foundation for environmental stewardship. To my great fortune, I grew up in a rural stretch of Maryland’s Patuxent River corridor. The four corners of my world, and my playgrounds were collectively the wind, sun, sky, the forests and of course the nearby river. As a boy I gigged frogs, hunted imaginary wolves with tobacco sticks, and I collected and sold Japanese beetles to my great grandfather at a penny a bug. Among my warmest boyhood memories were at dusk with my great grandfather where he and I walked through the gloom of the woods, or sat on fallen logs waiting for deer; where the silence was a sort of like being in a church.

Untitled-1So my people and I were tied to nature and the earth’s rhythms on many levels. Were we environmentalists? Sadly, many do not regard indigenous people as such. But we had a heritage of self-sufficiency on the land, of growing our own food, of continuing a family tradition of being in grace with our surroundings. We were in a perpetually renewing contract with mother earth and thought of ourselves simply as those specially favored by nature.

Throughout my conservation career, I have worked around environmentalists eager to teach the rest of us how to live and love nature in their own image. And perhaps many of us from various walks do need to be reconnected to the earth—but there are just as many who happen to be absent from mass environmental causes who already have a rich heritage with the earth.

Truly we all have very different context for the environment. And it seems to me that is exactly what diversity means. There is no reason one must join a club or carry a membership card in order to claim status as an environmentalist. The many expressions of our individual environmental connections are as unique and as personal as our fingerprints and yet this truism easily gets overlooked. That is exactly why more ethnic and cultural inclusion is so desperately needed in the environmental movement. Because we each need to claim the full environmental heritage to which we are each entitled.


The stories of our individual ties to the environment are rich, layered, textured, powerful and empowering.  Much more layered than the simplistic and very misguided notion that “black people don’t care or know about the environment.” So in my view, the environmental movement doesn’t just need to embrace “diversity.” Instead people need to understand first and foremost that the many faces of environmentalism actually ARE diversity. Only then can we look at relative social justice and fairness with an honest and appraising eye. Deeper respect for the environmental context held dear by people of all walks and ethnicities is the only way environmental movements will ever reach their full inclusive potential.

Fred Tutman has served for ten years as the Riverkeeper for the Patuxent, which is Maryland’s longest and deepest intrastate river. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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22 Responses leave one →
  1. Deborah permalink
    June 6, 2013

    Thank you for this blog and placing a spotlight on an issue that seems to get forgotten when we have a conversation about environmentalism and who is an environmentalist. We all have a connection to the earth and we all should have an opportunity in helping to protect it. Thank you once again for reminding us all that there are many faces, cultures and experiences that make up the envirnmental movement.

  2. Lori permalink
    June 7, 2013

    Beautifully written.

    As we recognize and accept diverse expressions of environmentalism, the movement will become much stronger. People will then be able to learn from one another and begin to build upon one another’s ideas.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and enabling readers to consider the ways in which their history may be similar and/or different.

  3. Tony Mahoney permalink
    June 8, 2013

    How true. Keep up the good work Fred,

  4. Joe Padgett permalink
    June 8, 2013

    Fred, oddly enough, your mother and I were in the class of 1957 of MSC. As I recall, we took English 101 and 102 in the same sections, taught by Dr. Welfred Holmes. I say oddly because my son, David Padgett, is an associate professor at Tennessee State University in Nashville and is involved in research activities pertaining to environmental studies. You can check him out on Facebook.

    • Frederick Tutman permalink
      July 7, 2013

      Thanks, my Mom is trying to reach you as she is hosting a luncheon at her house for some of her (and your) classmates from MSC. I will check out David’s Facebook page. Perhaps you could send me your contact info at my office?

  5. Megan Latshaw permalink
    June 10, 2013

    Beautifully written! Thank you for this perspective.

  6. Robert Murphy permalink
    June 10, 2013

    I’ve shared Fred Tutman’s essay with several friends. It’s a wonderful essay and it’s very much appreciated.

    A few months ago, I was invited to speak in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which is an old factory town. I made the argument that concepts like “ecology” developed, in large part, because of the experiences of mill workers and others in towns like Lawrence. Especially during the late 1800s and into the early 1900s.
    (The period sometimes known as “the Progressive Era.”)

    “Conservation historians” often focus their attention on the experiences of naturalists like John Muir. Although agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency have little to do with wilderness and wildlife protection. Agencies like the EPA developed, in large part, from the public health movement and from the work of people who are now identified with environmental justice work.

    In some ways, the late 1960s and the early 1970s were a time of confusion and disruption for public health and environmental protection workers. Public health theorists focused, increasingly, on the delivery of medical care services and on “lifestyle” concerns like obesity and cigarette smoking. Wilderness groups like the Sierra Club expanded their agendas to include energy policy, farm policy, immigration, and other concerns.

    The environmental justice advocates of the 1980s challenged some of the new environmental thinking that began to develop with the first Earth Day. However, it was the climate change crisis that challenged – and that continues to challenge – the public’s understanding of “environmentalism.” Climate change will change everything. It will even bring us to a better understanding of environmental justice.

  7. Deborah permalink
    June 11, 2013

    I had to come back and say that, “I love the Environmental Justice in Action Blog and your Video series” it has helped me learn alot and has broadened my perspective on environmental issues and the impacts that are happening around the country and beyond.


  8. RTS permalink
    June 14, 2013

    I always enjoy reading this blog because it is the only one that moves outside the box and discusses real and pertinent issues that people care about. Keep making us think and bringing thought provoking issues to the forefront!


  9. Travis Herrera permalink
    June 20, 2013

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  10. Marlin Faison permalink
    June 21, 2013

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    • James Genao permalink
      June 24, 2013

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  11. Mike Fullerton permalink
    June 27, 2013

    as a first time visitor to your blog I am very impressed.Thanks!

  12. Kim permalink
    June 28, 2013

    Another great blog educating us on an area that needs more attention and resolution. Great Job!

  13. Alejandro Barton permalink
    June 29, 2013

    Thanks for sharing this knowledgeable content. I like it so much.

  14. Carlton Eley permalink
    July 2, 2013

    Thank you for preparing this blog. I love the imagery and familiar details. I grew up on my grandfather’s farm. This blog brings back memories. Thank you for stating what many people tend to contemplate, but may have difficulty expressing through a blog. I need to forward this to my sister who is an agricultural economist.

  15. Sheryl Mebane permalink
    July 2, 2013

    Thank you for this piece. This reminds me of my family’s relationship to land in North Carolina. The final sentence will stay with me:

    “Deeper respect for the environmental context held dear by people of all walks and ethnicities is the only way environmental movements will ever reach their full inclusive potential.

  16. anmac permalink
    July 15, 2013

    I accept this article . Beautifully written!

  17. Vanvalkenburg Alexander permalink
    August 6, 2013

    This was such a good post, very interesting to say the least, it really made me stop and think.

  18. Charles permalink
    August 18, 2013

    Great article with great information!! Keep up the posting and keep up the great work .

  19. Henry Heard permalink
    August 18, 2013

    I accept this article . Beautifully written!

  20. hamilton houseme permalink
    August 20, 2013

    This is a good post, thanks for sharing.

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