July 18, 2016

I recently had the pleasure of joining a “Sankofa chat” for The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities program at their annual Grassroots Convening, where partner organizations from around North Carolina came together to share, to learn, and to build relationships.

“Sankofa” is a West African word that represents the concept of going back and retrieving those things from the past that we can use in the present and to make better decisions for the future. The Sankofa chat offered an opportunity to reflect on the most important strides the conservation movement has made, what we would have changed and what we hope for the future. One of the most important achievements ­and also the area where we need the most progress and support, now and in the future, is social justice and inclusion in conservation.

JJ Resourceful Communities Grassroots Convening Jim Joseph 2016 NC c Connor Atkins-198Ambassador Joseph speaking at the Sankofa chat, joined by The Conservation Fund’s President and CEO Larry Selzer (left) and Resourceful Communities Director Mikki Sager (right). Photo by Connor Atkins.

While I currently reside in North Carolina, I grew up on a farm in rural Louisiana. I developed a great appreciation for the land and the majesty and mystery of nature. But when I met people who considered themselves conservationists, they tended to be people of wealth who seemed to be romanticizing all things rural, while I was just trying to get away from the poverty and inequalities imposed on me by rural life.

In 1977, when I was before the United States Senate for my confirmation hearing for Deputy Secretary of the Interior for the Carter administration, I was one of very few African Americans in a leadership position for managing public natural resources. One of the senators said to me, “Why are you interested in the Department of the Interior? I would think you’d be more interested in one of the human resource agencies where you can do more good for your people.” That moment stuck with me. He didn’t see conservation as something that was relevant to everyone. I did my best to introduce social justice, not just in the Department of the Interior, but into the way natural resources were managed and distributed.

In the spirit of Sankofa, l look back on the conservation movement with the wisdom that we’ve gained. If I could go back, I would do my best to help make the conservation movement more inclusive from the very beginning, both in its composition and in its message. I marvel at the national park system we have built, and at the way that this land has been preserved for public use. But what I have also found is that these crown jewels in our history aren’t accessible to a large portion of the population living either in poverty or in urban areas. During my time in the Department of the Interior, one of the things Secretary Cecil Andrus and I set out to do was to develop an urban parks initiative to encourage support and development of parks that were accessible to urban populations. It is very gratifying to see The Conservation Fund’s “Parks with Purpose,” such as the Lindsay Street Park in Atlanta, advancing an inclusive approach to making conservation meaningful and relevant to all people.

JJ Lindsay Street Park Ribbon Cutting c Whitney Flanagan 057A young community member adds her sign stating why Lindsay Street Park has purpose for her. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

Going forward, we need to have people at the table who reflect and represent what our country really looks like, so that we can make conservation relevant to everyone. Preserving our vast, magnificent landscapes is an imperative part of conservation. But so is connecting people with nature, helping them look at their own resources and their own backyard and see value, a source of optimism and empowerment.

Resourceful Communities works closely with grassroots organizations and networks in North Carolina—they have more than 500 partner organizations—that are working to preserve the rural landscape in a way that provides both economic and social benefits to underserved communities. Resourceful Communities is the Raleigh-Durham host organization implementing the federal-private Food LINC initiative, focused on connecting demand for local food in ten urban areas with supply from local farmers and commercial fishers. Branching out further, Resourceful Communities leads a “Community Food Sovereignty” program nationwide (funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation), with a focus on the country’s most impoverished rural regions, that is designed to help rural and tribal communities advance food sovereignty and social justice by leveraging conservation tools and resources to increase access to land, water and capital.  In addition, Resourceful Communities plans to lead a “Community Food Access through Farm and Forest Conservation Initiative” that will increase working lands conservation in communities in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi in order to address economic and environmental needs in distressed communities and help historically underserved farmers overcome barriers to participation in conservation programs.

JJ Transplanting Traditions Community Farm Resouceful Communities NC c Olivia Jackson 25Transplanting Traditions Community Farm helps immigrants from Burma and refugee communities use their farming traditions to grow healthy, culturally appropriate produce and build agri-enterprise skills to generate revenue at local markets. Participants farm on a four-acre parcel of protected land in the Chapel Hill area. Photo by Olivia Jackson.

One of the greatest strengths of Resourceful Communities and its partner organizations is their ability to go beyond what many think of as “traditional” conservation. They have realized that conservation in and of itself is important, but it also has a role in advancing economic and social justice. Many of our country’s natural resources are located in our most impoverished places. The economic and social distress in these areas, and lack of political power, puts these natural resources at risk of environmental degradation. 

As Resourceful Communities’ director Mikki Sager has said, “You can’t worry about conservation when you’re trying to put food on the table and shoes on your kids’ feet.” So Resourceful Communities’ focus is conservation solutions that also deliver economic empowerment, and just as importantly, social justice. Resourceful Communities and its partners are taking the social, historical and economic disadvantages they face and turning them into opportunities to build real, lasting, positive change.

JJ Conetoe-resourceful-commmunities-steve-orr-48 copyHarvesting fresh fruits and vegetables is a team effort at Conetoe Family Life Center in Conetoe, North Carolina. The 25-acre community farm is managed by local youth who participate in afterschool and summer day camp programs. Photo by Steve Orr.

These groups are creating innovative models for community-led projects that show us that our natural resources are the infrastructure for building healthy communities and thriving economies. They are introducing community agriculture into food deserts where residents traditionally haven’t had access to healthy food; connecting young people to nature and building a sense of leadership and community; conserving land that serves as an integral part of communities’ cultural heritage; and showing us that conservation is about what we do every day. They’ve cumulatively supported more than 1,000 green jobs in North Carolina, and they are also making conservation more inclusive than it has historically been.

JJ Sandhill Family Heritage Association 38Sandhills Family Heritage Association engages communities to preserve and protect the rich African America history, heritage, and cultural ties to the land in the Sandhills region of North Carolina. The group also runs the Sandhills Farmers and Crafters Market, shown here on opening day this season. The market supports local producers and reaches low-income consumers. Photo by Olivia Jackson.

As I was talking to Mikki about the work their partners are doing, I realized that Resourceful Communities and its partners are a model for what the broader conservation movement can and should be. A model that shows that diversity need not divide; that pluralism is a benefit, not a burden; and that conservation matters to everyone.

“I wish the [conservation] movement had been more inclusive from the beginning; inclusive in both its composition and its message.”
- Ambassador James Joseph, speaking at Resourceful Communities' Sankofa chat 

Want to hear more from Ambassador James Joseph, Larry Selzer, Dr. Norm Christensen, and Mikki Sager? This video will give you a front-row seat to the recent Sankofa chat.