Imagine walking along a path in a forest on a balmy summer evening. You inhale the serenading scents of sweet oak and sugar maple trees, feel the soft ephemeral touch of the cottonwood or helicopter seeds, and hear the song numbers each bird carouses in their lively pursuit of mating. Insects on the ground scurry out of your way to find a meal for their colony. Though you venture into the territory of the wild and untamed, your mind and body ingratiate with the harmony of living creatures that composes the ecosystem. It is as if you know them by name and by story. There is a familial intimacy that is hard to describe. You feel at home.
Unfortunately, this feeling is only for a moment. That moment passes because the pathway is prematurely cut off by yellow ‘caution’ tape, traffic cones, and the noise of a demolition derby of dump trucks, bulldozers, and excavators finishing up the last removal of remnants of an old neighbourhood of housing units for low-to-middle income Black families. They are the initiators of what will be a large expensive condominium overlooking an ever-shrinking forest. This is a reality that is often faced and feared.
Forced removal of families from homes, stripping the physical environment, and the subsequent pollution of air and waterways is not a strange occurrence in the lives of Black and Indigenous people of colour (BIPOC). While many of us hear the term, gentrification, and think about a clean up of physical markers of social disorder within a community, few of us consider the use of land needed to enact this transition. Even further, we are seldom aware of how disruptions can have mental health consequences not just for the Black and Indigenous families displaced but for the surrounding residents. The well-intentioned efforts to improve the outdoor spaces of Black residents through elevating the economic appeal of neighbourhoods does more harm than good.
How does it affect BIPOC mental health? To illustrate, let’s go back to the forest imagery. There is an intimacy with nature that connects BIPOC to healing of the mind. Like conversations within a family unit, experiencing nature through the senses leads us to form a bond with a part of the world that doesn’t reject based on race, gender, or ethnicity. Connecting fully with nature confirms the necessity of observation, description, and participation that is touted as essential for developing knowledge about one’s mind and body. As if being taught by our parents/guardians, these experiences help us develop a model of the ecosystem and allows us the choice to dwell with nature both in space and time through our efforts to sustain it. In concert with the efforts of others in the community, these practices emphasise a collective efficacy that has positive health outcomes. Through an appreciation of this diversity, Black and Indigenous folk have been able to reaffirm the benefits of difference – complexity and creativity – when the world often treats differences as threatening.
Conversely, it is also the destruction of this diversity that obstructs Black and Indigenous people from the mental health benefits of green spaces and its biodiverse potential. For much of human history, BIPOC have been forced to contribute to the type of societal projects that disrupt the balance of ecosystems on Earth. From the establishment of modern societies in the West to the excessive extraction of natural resources off the continent of Africa, the infrastructure we continue to develop has had unfortunate consequences to the efforts of self-determination in these populations. It serves to sever the relationship that they have with the Earth, which spans as far back as the earliest evidence of humanity’s existence.
If there were a perfect analogy to describe the reality of many BIPOC folk who are displaced because of gentrification, the ‘retrofitting’ of their spaces is akin to seizing an aging parent and placing them in a confined establishment, such as a nursing home, with little interaction between them and their children. Forests and wildlife are replaced with high-rise, expensive condo dwellings that contain small parkettes and constructed waterways that are passed off as consolation prizes for those who end up cooperating. These consolation prizes feel as foreign and feign to BIPOC just as a nursing home feels daunting and uncharted for many of our elderly. This practice shows symptoms of elder abuse that many in society are aware of but poorly equipped to confront. Just as how we place the elderly in nursing homes and expect the system to take care of them, we do the same when we attempt to strike a compromise between ourselves and nature by limiting greenspace and expecting the leftovers of Mother/Father Nature to continue thriving. The constant removal of the greenspace creates a separation between humanity and its stewardship over nature in a manner that is uniquely felt by Black and Indigenous people.
Respecting the parent-child relationship between Earth and BIPOC requires all of us to reappraise the current environment as a project towards reclaiming a secure attachment. A securely-attached relationship to nature and its abundance requires, in its basic form, being responsive to the need to heal the areas of the Earth that have been devastated and to expand those in the process of restoration. It involves showing respect to the ancestral intimate relationship BIPOC have with nature. This respect involves learning from and working with BIPOC to create a blueprint for how humanity will reconnect with Earth. We have the potential to make this planet the paragon of security wherein we can explore its unique and diverse geography. When we can take this approach to restoring the areas of Earth, we are displaying a recognition and a respect for the mental wellness of BIPOC.
Matthew Wilmot, PhD is a MATEC community health educator. You can connect with him @w1lm0t.