Living Writer Series, Carolyn Finney: Fighting Racism in Environmentalist Spaces

Each semester, San Diego State University’s Hugh C. Hyde Living Writer Series features readings and discussion with incredible authors. As one of the longest running Living Writing Series in the nation, SDSU doesn’t shy away from bringing in some heavy hitters doing cool work in the world. Wednesday, December 2nd saw the force of nature that is Carolyn Finney for their final reading of the semester, the Laurie Okuma Memorial Reading.

The Laurie Okuma Memorial Reading features women writers of color, which is exactly the kind of thing I’m here for. To see the English Department investing their well-endowed Living Writer Series in some gender and racial diversity gives me the warm fuzzies and as I meandered over to the Love Library I was ready to be wowed.

When I entered the room, I saw a lot of people, more than usual for the series, which while it has heavy draw from the English students, doesn’t usually pull as much interest from many other people on campus or in the community. As I looked for a seat, I even heard someone comment about how the events weren’t usually this well populated. My heart gave a little victory air punch at that. The intersectionality of the discussion brought English, Africana Studies, and Women’s Studies majors along with faculty and community members. For good reason, too.

61yij+nxMmL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_Finney’s book Black Faces, White Spaces centers on repositioning nonwhite individuals into environmentalism and outdoor recreation, telling their stories. Finney’s purpose in writing the text is twofold: to critique how privilege shapes who talks about the environment and the outdoors, and to identify the ways in which marginalized people engage with those outdoor spaces. While she specifically focused on issues of the outside for her text, she’s overall invested in “a commitment to question conventional wisdom and reconsider long-held assumptions regarding the production, representation, and dissemination of knowledge about people, places, and ideas.” A noble and intersectional goal, if I might say.

She didn’t do a reading so much as she gave a great lecture called “Radical Presence: Black Faces, White Spaces & Stories of Possibility,” which deconstructed her book based on the stories she tells in her academic text. Finney herself spoke with extreme charisma and passion. She imbued much of her discussion with humor and emotion, which facilitated an instant connection to her and her stories. She told many, but my personal favorites were about the Guerrilla Gardener and MaVynee
Betsch Betsh. The Guerilla Gardner is a man named Ron Finley who she quoted as saying “you ain’t gangsta unless you plantin’ things”—he plants everywhere, even on the sides of highways, which I think is an awesome way to inject beauty into the world. MaVynne Betsh is a force of nature who gave up all of her wealth and a very marketable stretch of beach to environmental causes in order to preserve the African-American history of that beach; she then chose to live on a chaise lounge on the beach, which I think is just fantastic and radical.

Finney made it a point to say that she is interested in uplifting history and individuals below the academic record, not tearing anyone down from the pedestals we’ve put them on (cough—John Muir—cough). She’s not interested in diminishing the accomplishments of others, she’s interested in showing black individuals as resilient and triumphant. While freely admitting that victimization of African-Americans has occurred in our society, she wants a new focus, one of radical resistance to normative narrative, one that shows how black people thrive.

All in all, I’m pleased I went. I had never thought about how white our discussions of environmentalist issues are, and now it’s all I’ve thought about for a week. I asked her to sign a copy of her book for me, and I’d like to leave you with the inscription she wrote:

“May our stories continue to create the change we want to see.”

By: M. Aiken

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