The Strange Fruit of Complacency

By: Camila Rivera-Tinsley

Southern trees bear strange fruit 
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root 
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze 
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. 

Pastoral scene of the gallant south 
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth 
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh 
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh. 

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck 
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck 
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop 
Here is a strange and bitter crop. 

Did the imagery of the poem above shock you? Does the juxtaposition of the beauty of a tree bearing fruit, and sadness of a tree being used to bear the fruits of racism disturb you? If the answer is yes, then a portion of my mission has been accomplished. The poem above is symbolic of the complicated narrative and relationship that exists between Black bodies and green spaces. 

I am many things; a woman, a mother, an educator, a parks practitioner, a lover of humans and nature and green space, an advocate of overlooked people and places, and I am also melanated. These days, I feel my melanin more than ever, and the ways that that small phenotypic difference shapes my experiences. I am never free of the burden (or the power) of being Black in America.  

What does being Black in America mean? What does being Black in the parks and rec world mean? What does it mean to be Black in the environmental world? These are questions that I confront daily, just by waking up and going to work. I consider how I am perceived by the world and my peers. I adjust my language so that I am sure to signal to others that I am “smart” enough to exist in the space that I am in, and I am intentional to seem non-threatening so that I am better received. I am consistently aware that I am often the only representative voice in a space, and as such I am often both the representation and the advocate for whole groups of people. I am also keenly aware that the urgency that I feel to change the world, is often not felt by others, until blood is shed. That is a hard a lonely space to live in. Sometimes, I do not feel protected or emotionally safe. 

This begs the question for me, how are we protecting people of color that enter the parks that we steward? How are we protecting our coworkers, our community members, or the students that show up to our various camps and programs? How are we actively confronting the weaponization of blackness in green spaces? 

To borrow from a famous leader, there is a fierce urgency right now. We must confront and actively challenge and change the ways that our organizations are complicit in perpetuating structural inequities. We must change our narratives. We must commit to active change. We must not let complacency continue to bear its strange fruit. No more blood should spill in the streets or on the leaves. 

I am calling on all my peers to stand up for me and for the other black bodies that inhabit predominantly white spaces. I am calling on you to have hard conversations, to reflect on your biases. I am calling on you to create budgets that demonstrate a commitment to equity. I am calling on you to ensure that your staff and board are reflective of the communities that you serve. I am calling on you to reinterpret green spaces and actively seek to uplift black and brown voice. I am calling on you… 

Let us please bear new fruit in the future. 

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Parks Are Where We Learn

May 7, 2020 by Amber Stacy & Lydia Konecky

Our job isn’t a job, it’s a calling.

We don’t just teach children about the environment in fun and exciting ways. We build meaningful, sometimes lifelong, relationships and connect individually with our students. This is what the Frick Environmental Center staff live to do. And you can see that it works. The faces of students who return to our classes light up when they see us again, exclaiming,“I remember you!” We can’t tell you how much those moments mean to us.  

It’s a wonderful, mutually beneficial relationship that forms. We value the students who visit the Environmental Center and park and they, in turn, value the Environmental Center and our treasured greenspaces.  

Everything we do brings us and the students joy, but one of our favorite activities is creating seed balls in our ‘mud kitchen’ with first graders in our Habitat Explorers class. The students explore the meadow in Frick Park, collect seedlings then make seed balls to help new meadow plants grow for the next generation of first graders who will explore and experience the wonders of Frick Park.  

Newly shaped seed balls in hand, palms delightfully muddy, the Explorers stomp happily back over to the meadow to heave their seed balls into nature, letting out a gleeful shout in the process. They then whisper a wish to the seed ball for it to grow and prosper in the park for the next group of Habitat Explorers.  

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Our favorite part of the whole day? It’s the dirty hands. Kids are often told to stay clean and look sharp. But that’s not what being a kid is all about. You remember that feeling, I’m sure. The delight of rolling up your sleeves in dirt and just having a great time. That’s what we deliver every day to the kids. Joy and delight, and memories that will stay with them until they have children of their own.  

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 A child once said to us, “My mom told me that if I get my hands dirty then I’m having a good day!” Now we ask the kids, “How many of you are having a good day today” and they all enthusiastically thrust up their dirty hands. It’s amazing.  

Sincerely, Amber Stacey and Lydia Konecky, Naturalist Educators

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On Staying Connected to our Humanity

It has been said many times during these past months, but it cannot be stated enough: we are living through strange and trying times. Everything has changed, and many are certain that nothing will ever be the same again. As parks and recreation professionals, each of us in our different spheres have probably been questioning how we will respond as an industry and how our respective organizations will endure. If you work on the programming side of the profession, like me, you may have pondered how best to respond to ever changing political messages and restrictions to various activities, while still following a mandate to engage with our communities and provide quality outdoor experiences.  Many of us have risen to the occasion and begun to adapt our programs and approach.

The rush to adapt materials to digital platforms and connect with park users through alternate means has been necessary, but also fraught with many moments of productive struggle. Parks are about getting folks outside to experience the elements and to commune with one another while enjoying sports, concerts, hikes and many other types of activities. Encouraging people to learn and commune while being confined to their homes, has seemed disingenuous at times. Virtual nature hikes simply are not the same as being on a trail to physically observe the patterns that nature has to offer, and to be able to touch the various textures and take in all the different smells. But the times dictate that we must prevail, because we want to be there for our various communities, and we want to prove our value as Parks and Rec Professionals. Funders want to know that their dollars are being spent effectively, and we want to be able to demonstrate that.

While all this pressure weighs on our shoulders, I have had to remind myself to pause and reflect. I have even had to remind myself that the benefits of being outdoors are not just for park users, but they are also for me! These times can be stressful, and we need to be easy on ourselves. The following tips were recently published in the career column of the Nature Research Journal. I have adapted them:

Manage your expectations
These are new and different times. There will be times when you cannot concentrate. It is ok to take a walk and come back. Be easy on yourself and know that you need time to adjust to these new patterns.

Routine is your friend
Working from home can have us blurring the lines between work time and family time. Do your best to set specific times when you will be working, and try to stick to them.

Be compassionate with yourself and with others
We are all connected by the same struggles. We will all feel moments when we are overwhelmed. We have to give grace to others and to ourselves. Remember that we are all doing our best.

Maintain connections
All humans need connections for our mental as well as our physical health. Staff teams have instigated virtual coffee groups, online book clubs and co-working spaces where we can work in the (virtual) presence of others. We may be in social isolation, but we don’t need to feel alone. Stay connected to friends and make an effort to reach out to those who might be isolated.

Manage uncertainty by staying in the present
Focus on each moment right now. What are the tasks at hand for the day or even for the hour? Find ways to meditate and focus on breathing in and out for a few minutes an hour.

Most of all, I think that we need to support one another professionally as well as personally. Find ways to share our struggles and our triumphs. Reach out to one another to share about our work, but let’s also share our humanness with one another.

Camila Rivera-Tinsley, Director of Education,
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

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