During my time at the University at Buffalo there was one teacher whose classes everyone wanted to get into. Ralph Critelli taught at a Kenmore School by day, and classes at UB by night. I took his History of the Environmental Movement at 7pm once a week during my senior year. The time was important because while most late night classes are ones that you would want to skip, Critelli’s wasn’t. Critelli knew it was hard for us to be there so late so he would bring in a coffee maker and pastries every week. I even brought my dogs with me to class, but if UB finds themselves reading this blog Critelli never said I could bring them.
Critelli was all the things a teacher should be and even got me to watch The Dead Poet’s Society for the first time. Critelli wasn’t one to assign busy work, the things he had us put our energy into were designed to help change ourselves and the others around us. One of my presentations resulted in him recommending teaching to me as a career path, part of the reason I would go on to be a teacher’s aide for 2 years. Our final project he assigned flipped on a switch I didn’t know I had. The assignment was to present an idea to change the world, it could be a product, service, or organization and we didn’t have to limit our idea by financial constraints.
I started with what I wanted to see changed around me: I was on of the few People of Color in my major, community gardens can change lives but many people don’t have access to them, outdoor activities are inaccessible because of the cost of gear or entry, climate change will impact people of color first and worst, and black people keep getting the police called on them by white people for living their lives. The next step was creating a solution and thus the Environmental Equality Center was born.
My idea for the Environmental Equality Center is to create a community for people historically left out of the environmental movement (Black, Ingigenous, People of Color, low income, LGBTQ+, women, etc.) to feel safe and comfortable in pursuing outdoor education and experiences. I call it the Environmental Equality Center, because I want everyone to be treated equally in outdoor spaces, but I don’t just want equality, I want the equity to get us there. There is a long history of violence against these marginalized groups when outdoors, as recently as September of 2020 Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by white men for jogging while Black. Not only do I want to help create a relationship for people with the outdoors, but I want to create a safe community for people to seek joy without fear.
It is harder for people without a direct relationship to the environment to care about the environment. The goal is to encourage more relationships with the outdoors so we can build more momentum around proactively fighting the Climate Crisis. Additionally, I want to help normalize praise for the work marginalized communities already do, sometimes without even knowing it to fight the crisis such as using public transport and repurposing items instead of throwing them away.
My long term goal is to have a physical location on the east side of Buffalo, ideally in 14215, where we can educate the public about the environment. Someday the site will have a community garden with a green house so we can be hands-on with plants all year round, educating on where food comes and making urban gardening more accessible. The center will have a community space where we can have presentations, a small scale library, some computers for public use, and a free thrift store. My short term goal while we are still developing is to offer free or low cost programming. Long term goals include securing funds to buy outdoor equipment that can be shared with the public to use for outdoor recreation. Maybe even some day sponsoring trips nationally and even internationally.
For a few years I let my idea gather dust after a few shallow attempts failed. I graduated in the summer of 2018 and packed up my truck to head to Minnesota for an internship with the Forest Service through the Student Conservation Association. I was invigorated by being in the Bozeman Ranger District. I met some people there I think of everyday. Something less positive I think of often was the day I spent with about all 80 Forest Service employees and interns at a sexual harassment training. When it came time for folks to bring up any feedback they had for the Forest Service one white woman in her 20’s said it would be nice to see more diversity in leadership positions. This was fitting, looking around that room of the 80 people there 2 were brown women and I was one of them, and there were no black or asian people.
The next person to take the mic said we needed to remember we want QUALIFIED people. The joy brought to me by the woman was quickly soured by this white man in his 40s. Not being a white man doesn’t make any of us less qualified to be here. All of our cultures have traditions that utilize the environments of our home places, that doesn’t die just because old white men were the spotlight of the environmental movement. This made me realize I had to work everyday to keep combating this way of thinking and developing more environmentalists of color and my idea had to become a reality.
This is a project that has become the product of my life experiences so far. As I work my day job I will continue to develop the Environmental Equality Center. So far I have managed to become a legal entity and am currently working on a business plan. If this is something that speaks to you please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow us on Facebook as we develop.