Working to end systemic racism must be a critical component of land trusts’ work

Systemic racism harms Black people and people of color every day in the United States. Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and David McAtee should still be alive right now. Christian Cooper should have never been threatened while birding in Central Park. Countless others, many of whom we will never know, should never have been killed, harmed, or harassed because of their race.

These recent incidents are antithetical to Triangle Land Conservancy’s deeply held values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. TLC has been working for years to address racial disparities and increase diversity and inclusion in all aspects of our work, but TLC’s staff and board commit to redoubling our efforts.

When TLC spoke out on social media last month against the murder of jogger Ahmaud Arbery and the harassment of birder Chris Cooper, some people questioned why a land trust would or should speak out against racism and racial violence. White supremacy and systemic racism have led to ongoing inequities in access to and enjoyment of the outdoors. We believe that our goal of sharing land conservation benefits with every single person in the Triangle cannot be reached without actively working to end racism.

First, we must acknowledge that the history of land conservation, the very core of our work, has historically perpetuated systemic racism. Every acre of land in this country has a long, often unrecognized or forgotten, history of people who lived and worked there. Since the beginning of this country, native people, and then enslaved Africans, lived on and took care of the lands TLC conserves today. When white colonists arrived in America, they stole ancestral lands from native people and brought with them enslaved Africans who were forced to labor on that land. After the Civil War, former slaves and their descendants acquired land. In 1910, rural African American farm families held between 16 and 19 million acres of farmland. Today, that number has dropped to just over 2.5 million acres. Some of that is due to urbanization, but much of it was taken from African Americans through threats of violence, lynching, and racist laws. It’s also a sad fact that much of the history of access to open space protection is inextricably linked with racism: indigenous people were removed from their land in the name of conservation to create most of our national parks. With stolen land and labor, white people built wealth exclusively for other white people. There is a direct line between that generational wealth and economic disparities today that have been laid bare during this pandemic.

The second step is to continue open discussions about race, equity, and inclusion within our own organization and land trust community. TLC staff and board are committed to equity and inclusion in our work and in our lives. Today, we commit to doing more. Actively working to dismantle systemic racism is the only way TLC can fulfill our mission.

Which brings us to the third step: to use our unique position and resources that we have as a land trust to ensure the benefits of land conservation are shared with everyone in our community by continuing to partner with and support organizations led by Black and brown people, to work with minority-owned businesses, and to connect with communities of color. Taking action on racial disparity is directly linked to Triangle Land Conservancy’s commitment to protecting wild and working lands for the health and enjoyment of all people. We know that a diverse work and outdoor environment makes our organization stronger, more effective, and more successful, too.

We are making mistakes and learning from them, but TLC is dedicated to continuing this journey to become a more productive and authentic land trust by not just celebrating diversity, but working to become an anti-racist organization.

If you have any questions, concerns, or comments about our diversity, equity, and inclusion work, I invite you to send me an email at ssweitzer@triangleland.org and we can set up a time to talk.

Thank you,

Sandy Sweitzer
TLC Executive Director

For more information about racism in conservation work we recommend this article, “Environmentalism’s Racist History,” written by former Durham resident Jedediah Purdy.

We’d also like to share a few examples of things TLC’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work:

  1. Sometimes TLC tells part of the history of our properties or their previous owners through the name of a preserve: Irvin Farm, Brumley Forest, Williamson Preserve. When TLC opened Horton Grove in 2012 we named the trails in honor of the enslaved people and their descendants who worked the land and lived on it for generations. We are also working to document and share the histories of Black and indigenous communities at the future Williamson Preserve.
  2. TLC board members are recruited for their commitment to conservation and their expertise. We also use a “diversity matrix” that includes geography (since we serve six counties), gender, age, and race.
  3. We have expanded the places we post job announcements. In addition, before managers review resumes, they are “blinded” to remove information that might indicate race (which results in implicit bias). We also ensure our interview committees are diverse.
  4. We prioritize working with minority-owned vendors and are continuously searching for new vendors owned by Black people and other people of color.
  5. Since 2016, TLC has paid for all staff to complete a two-day training with the Racial Equity Institute, and we provide numerous training programs, workshops, webinars, and staff retreats to examine how racism impacts each of us and our work.

These are small steps, and we strive to do more. This work is ongoing and has been eye-opening and transformative for many of us. TLC is committed to a more just and equitable future where everyone has access to the outdoors and an opportunity to foster a love of wild and working lands.

If you have any questions, concerns, or comments about our diversity, equity, and inclusion work, I invite you to send me an email at ssweitzer@triangleland.org and we can set up a time to talk.

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