Welcome back to the Our City Forest blog. In my last post I outlined the issue of low visibility for People of Color in the sciences and within the environmental movement. I’m doing this because it’s Black History Month but really, Black History Month provides me with an excuse to do something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Before I came to Our City Forest I wrote for an LGBT blog as a hobbiest science reporter. While there I was struck by the lack of representation of POC and LGBT in science news and history. That isolation, made graduate school more difficult than it needed to be. Other students in my program dealt with similar issues based on race, ethnicity, gender and religion. Doing these posts is my way of fighting that isolation while promoting the values of Our City Forest.
We need diverse viewpoints in science, public policy and the environmental movement not only because to do include these viewpoints is more egalitarian. Environmental issues often affect minorities disproportionately. The water crisis in Flint Michigan isn’t the first time this has happened to a community of color. It’s happened time and time again, locally in Alviso, San Jose, on Native American Reservations and on the East Coast from Chester Pennsylvania to the South Bronx. On an organizational level, Our City Forest targets areas in San Jose that have been disproportionately impacted by freeway construction and air pollution and low-income, tree-denuded neighborhoods. We recognize that we cannot do this alone. We need to partner with and promote our natural allies and this includes people of color. To that end, here are two more African American environmentalists, ecologists and activists you should know.
Dr. Gillian Bowser spent eighteen years working for the National Park Service as a wildlife ecologist. She has worked in Yellowstone National Park, in the Grand Tetons, Joshua Tree, Badlands and Wrangell St Elias National Parks studying and evaluating wildlife conservation efforts and the impact of humans on wild spaces. She was made the Special Assistant to the Director of the National Parks service in 2000 and served for two years working with the Director of the National Parks Service and the Secretary of the Interior on park policy. She transitioned back into research in 2003, taking on a leadership role in the Cooperative Ecosystems Studies Unit.
Dr. Bowser wasn’t always involved in parks but they did have a major impact on her childhood. While hiking in Grand Teton National Park to Bradley Lake would have an encounter that changed her life.
"I still remember the moose. It was between me and some huckleberries that were dangling from laden branches. The smell of those huckleberries in the warm summer sun was wafting down the trail, curling around the moose, and tickling my nose. I remember the moose was fairly unimpressed by the huckleberries or my desires and stood stoically in the absolute center of the trail… Now, as s 20-year veteran of the National Park Service, I often look back at the memories of that moose and wonder why my parents felt so compelled to bring us from Brooklyn, NY, to the wilds of Wyoming in the back of a battered car.”
As a teenager growing up in Brooklyn during the 70s, she witnessed the mass movement of middle-class African Americans to Queens, concentrating lower-income African Americans in Harlem and Brooklyn. Roughly around this time the air pollution in the city was so bad that it caused the deaths of eighty people. She attended LaGuardia High School of Arts where she specialized in ceramics an artistic passion that’s been kept alive through her scientific career. Her work has been featured in gallery shows in Huston and Denver.
Dr. Bowser is a former fellow of the AAAS Science and Diplomacy program where she worked with the US Department of Marine Conservation on international fishing treaties and marine conservation. She attended the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris as a member of the Women’s Group to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. She is a Principal Investigator on a global research initiative from the NSF on mentoring underrepresented women and women from developing countries. A large part of this project is The Three Circles of Alemat, a mentoring program for Middle Eastern Women.
Her work focuses on biodiversity, sustainability and urban-wildland interfaces in habitats as diverse as Peruvian highlands and African plains. She is a tireless advocate for women and people of color in the field of environmental justice and a forward-thinking educator.
Currently, Dr. Bowser is a part of the Rocky Mountain Sustainability and Science Network as a research scientist and mentor. She is also a professor at the Colorado State University Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability.
John Francis was born in 1946 in Philadelphia, PA. His father (John Francis Jr.) was born in Panama, to Antiguan parents who had been working to build the Panama Canal. The family immigrated to the United States and settled in the Nicetown neighborhood of North Philadelphia. Francis Jr. worked as a lineman for the electric company. His mother, La Java, took him to spend the summers on with family on the Rappahannock River where it emptied into the Chesapeake Bay. At a young age tuberculosis swept through Francis’s family and neighborhood. He lost family members to the outbreak and was quarantined in a sanitarium.
As a young man, John Francis visited friend in Inverness in Marin County, CA and decided to stay. He was was part of the counterculture movement and spent some time living in a commune in Lagunitas. While living there, John witnessed the 1971 San Francisco Bay Oil Spill.
Two Standard Oil tankers collided at the mouth at the bay and spilled 800,000 gallons of oil. Much of the oil washed into Bolinas Lagoon, a tidal estuary and important fish and bird sanctuary. The catastrophic tide of oil awakened a grassroots effort to clean the birds and remove the oil. A number of environmental groups were formed. John Francis, walked the oil-soaked beach and took a vow to stop using motor vehicles in protest. Shortly afterward, he took a vow of silence to keep himself from arguing with passing motorists, the silence would last 17 years. In his words “I actually listened. And it was very sad for me, because I realized that for those many years I had not been learning.”
During those 17 years John Francis walked 500 miles to Ashland, Oregon, where he completed a bachelor’s degree at Southern Oregon University. He took two years to travel on foot to the University of Montana where he completed a master’s degree in Environmental Science. He walked again to the University of Madison-Wisconsin and completed a PhD in Land Management, taught classes and conducted research all while maintaining a vow of silence. He ended his vow of silence in 1990 on Earth Day in Washington DC, where he accepted a position with the US Coast Guard crafting oil-spill regulations which earned him the US Department of Transportation’s Public Service Commendation.
He left his position with the Coast Guard and sailed in a motor-less boat through the Caribbean, and walked through Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. Just prior to this trip he was made a United Nations, Environmental Program Goodwill Ambassador. National Geographic was set to write a story about him but declined on the basis of skin color. Sensing that his responsibilities had changed, John ended his self-imposed ban on motor transportation 22 years after it had begun
More recently, John Francis has been a visiting professor at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison. His story has been shared by TED and he has been an educational fellow for National Geographic. His current efforts involve building collaborations with indigenous peoples and non-Natives for environmental conservation. He still conducts walk-pilgrimages through his Planetwalk program. His most recent walk was completed in 2014 in Hangzhou. China. His other project involves developing environmental curricula with his Planetwalk nonprofit.