Carolyn Finney Lecture: Signs of the Times: Black Faces, White Spaces, and All Things Green

On Feb. 7, cultural geographer Carolyn Finney gave a lecture in the Hilda C. Landers Library titled “Signs of the Times: Black Faces, White Spaces, and All Things Green”.

Finney, also a writer and performer, is “deeply interested in issues related to identity, difference, creativity, and resilience… she explores how issues of difference impacts participation in decision-making processes designed to address environmental issues”, according to the lecture description posted to Inside SMCM before the event.

The storyteller was introduced by Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Ellen Kohl, who said that “the aim of [Dr. Finney’s] work is to develop greater cultural competency within environmental organizations and institutions, challenge media outlets in their representations of difference, and increase awareness of how privilege shapes who gets to speak to environmental issues and determine policy and action.”

“I’m interested in reconciliation, I’m interested in reparations and decolonization, I’m interested in the conversation between American Indians and African Americans about land in this country because we don’t see that conversation… All this land was stolen, and that doesn’t change.”

Finney also mentioned recent news stories dealing with race, including Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s blackface controversy, and problematic statements made by actor Liam Neeson. She said “the thing that I’m frustrated by is that our first reaction is to get rid of those people. And we think we’ve done something. And actually, I’m sorry- redlining hasn’t changed, inequity hasn’t changed, nothing- gentrification hasn’t changed, the inequalities between different ethnic groups haven’t changed, institutions haven’t changed, laws haven’t changed. Nothing has changed. We just got rid of the person. And we feel like something has changed.” Instead, Finney is “interested in how we move on from there… It’s not about agreement, it’s about how we actually have a conversation because something else might emerge.”

Finney’s interest in privilege and cultural competency comes from a personal place. She told the crowd “I have to bring myself in the room… I think that all knowledge is subjective, that we bring all of who we are to bear upon anything it is we’re trying to understand.” Finney showed images from her childhood growing up in New York, explaining that her father was the caretaker for a large property owned by a wealthy white family. She saw how quickly her father’s work was forgotten after the land was placed on a conservation easement, which sparked her interest in environmental issues.

Finney also spoke about the ways people of color have been barred from using outdoor spaces in the past, and how the history of segregation created a social code of who does and does not belong in nature.

As a recent example, she read a post made to Facebook by Vanessa Garrison, co-founder of the health nonprofit Girl Trek. Garrison detailed her experience of being pulled over by a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park with a van full of black women returning from a hike, where the park ranger asked what she (a figurehead of natural recreation for people of color) was doing in the park.

One of Finney’s most powerful slides contained a photo of Ian Gibson, a sport hunter who was gored to death by an elephant he was hunting in Zimbabwe. She contrasted the photos with a photo of a young black boy from Flint, Michigan, which has been without clean water for almost 5 years. Finney told the audience that while she doesn’t have trouble feeling empathy for the little boy, she’s working on expanding her compassion to those she doesn’t agree with as well. “While I felt anger at the idea of him hunting this elephant, I was in tears because this man had a family. This man came from a community… If I can’t have empathy or compassion for him, what is it we are trying to sustain? It is all about relationships.”

Finney’s lecture also highlighted the work of people of color in the environmentalist movement, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, John Francis, Brenda Palms Barber, and MaVynee Betsch.

The lecture, which was the latest installment of the Environmental Studies Speaker Series, was co-sponsored by the Environmental Studies Program, the English Department, and the Provost’s Office.

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