By: Juan Jaramillo, Uplift Intern
At my college, I am not just an environmental studies major, but for two years a mentor for our low-income/first generation college students for years. One of the many things I have realized as a poor environmentalist is that many of our low-income/first generation students do not participate in our Outdoor Education Center (OEC), not even in the trips. Although they do a lot to reach out to us, letting students borrow expensive gear and subsidizing expensive trips, I don’t even use the center. I think I know why.
I grew up poor in Texas. In the past few years, I have learned to come to terms with my poor identity, and I am not ashamed to talk about it (Honestly, I am more ashamed that I now make more money in one summer than my mother made some years of my childhood). Because of that reality, there were years where we only had a roof over our heads by the grace of our renters. One of those years, the roof over our heads did a particularly terrible job of insulating heat. That was also the year that a blizzard rolled through the deep South. Dallas, the only place I knew for 18 years, got a foot of the whitest, fluffiest snow I had ever seen.
Pure white snow does one thing really well - it reflects light back into space. Because the light is reflected, little heat is dropped off. Environmental scientists know this as the “albedo effect.” I am sure people who live in places where snow is common know this. My Mexican family in Dallas did not - if we did, we would’ve tried to our hardest to knock that stuff down.
Those three days that a foot of pure, white snow covered our roof, we tried our hardest not to leave our blankets. The constant cold was unbearable. Before those days, I thought I hated a hundred-five degrees more than cold. I thought you could hide from cold. But as long as you have enough water and rest, 105 is livable. The constant, numbing pain I felt for three days felt like it would never end. I hoped I would never again feel the same cold that I felt those days.
Since then, I have felt it several times, but the worst were the days I camped in Yosemite this year. By then I knew I did not like camping, because the only other times I had felt numbing cold was while camping. But I wanted to overcome that dislike. I am an environmentalist, after all. I should like camping. Also on a subconscious level, I am sure that the hyper-masculine mentality - machismo - that is imprinted onto young Mexican men, pushed me to do what I am uncomfortable with. But after those 2 cold nights in Yosemite, I realized something: I HATE CAMPING.
Please do not get me wrong, Yosemite is beautiful:
But it wasn’t just the cold. It was also the camp food. Even though we were poor, my mother always made sure our food had flavor and was served at an appropriate temperature. That is not guaranteed while camping. Furthermore, I need private time, but the only camping I have access to is group camping since that’s what is subsidized by my college. I never had my own room until college. I didn’t have my own sleeping space until I was a teenager. There were years that I did not have a bed - so using sleeping bags and pads when camping felt too similar to the carpeted floor I used to sleep on.
On another level, Texas does not have a lot “natural” spaces, especially near Dallas. For a lot of us city-dwellers, rural country is the closest thing we have to “nature.” There is a sticky stereotype that black and brown people have about rural communities: we are not physically safe there. I call it a stereotype because it is not always true, but I credit it with stories I have heard from trusted friends about the power of the KKK and Neo-Nazis on the outskirts of the city. Deep down, I still feel fear for the safety of my group when we are in either nature or country.
There is more, but I fear some who are reading are labeling me a "millennial snowflake". I would ask those who love “roughing it”: how different is camping from what you grew up with? I am not a psychologist, but I am sure that the fact that camping is so similar to the majority of my life is the reason I cannot enjoy it. The more that I come to understand who I am, the more that I know that camping is not for me. I am someone who likes control over my basic needs. Camping takes power over very basic things. I think most people are fine with that and I understand. But I think that people who have lived without power over their basic needs throughout their lives cannot easily empathize with the release of that power.
I think that this power dynamic is the basis for my discomfort. The lack of power over basic human needs and over basic safety are not things to be enjoyed. But what can be done? Sometimes I question if I can call myself an environmentalist when I don’t immerse myself in the whole “natural experience”. I challenge us to broaden the ways we define “environmentalism” and the “natural”. Do I still care about “nature” and “the environment”, despite all this? Of course -- I wouldn’t be working for the Uplift Climate Conference, through the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program, if not.
But I know that this is just my story. I am lucky to even have had exposure to the Great Outdoors, whereas many others have not. Much has already been written about the exclusivity of the "Great Outdoors." Whether or not anyone reading acknowledges the power dynamics that keep the "Great Outdoors" an exclusionary place, there is no denying it is in fact exclusive; just look at the data.
And it will not change by itself.
Have an opinion or response? I hope that I can hear your thoughts, not just online, but at the 2017 Uplift Climate Conference. Register now at: upliftclimate.org/register