By Sandy Sweitzer, TLC Executive Director
This newsletter — Confluence — is named for the beautiful spot where the Deep and Rocky rivers come together at Triangle Land Conservancy’s White Pines Nature Preserve and join the Cape Fear River. The word conjures up connection, community, coming together. It’s also a spot that regularly floods.
This year, we have experienced another kind of confluence: a pandemic that has laid bare racial and economic disparities, a painful but much-needed racial reckoning, and incredibly destructive storms and wildfires. Each of these was a crisis that had been building on its own, but it wasn’t until they came together to cause a symbolic flood that everyone had to pay attention.
In June, I wrote a statement on behalf of TLC explaining why a land trust would and should care about racial equity. Our first step is to acknowledge that the history of land conservation, the very core of our work, has 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. Every acre in this country was stolen from Indigenous people so that white people could build wealth. On most of the land we protect in the Triangle, Black people were enslaved by white people, who benefited economically from this forced labor.
When the conservation movement started, white people removed Indigenous people from their homes to create national parks. Today, Indigenous people live on a fraction of their land, and Black and Brown people own less than 2% of farmland. For decades, white people have dominated the conversations around outdoor recreation and limited access to outdoor space for minority people.
TLC began telling these stories at Horton Grove Nature Preserve, where the trails are named after the descendants of the enslaved people who once lived and worked on that land. For years we have joined Stagville State Historic Site in celebrating Juneteenth with our community, including many descendants of those once enslaved on that land.
The second step is to continue open discussions about race, equity, and inclusion within our own organization (including with you!) and land trust community. Actively working to dismantle systemic racism is the only way TLC can fulfill our mission to bring the benefits of land conservation to every person in the Triangle.
The experience of opening a nature preserve and inviting people to enjoy the respite of public land in the shadow of a slave community pushed us to overcome our guilt, open our eyes and hearts, shift our perspective, and make changes. Several years ago, TLC staff and board began the long journey to become an anti-racist organization. Much of the work has been internal, like staff and board attending workshops, discussions, and webinars, doing our own reading, and changing processes and policies. We have updated hiring and board recruiting processes and incorporate racial equity into our new board and staff orientation and staff work plans.
As a white woman, I have found the process scary, exhilarating, depressing, and inspiring — often all at the same time! Personally, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that I’ll make mistakes. Of course, we all will! Just like all Americans (of every race and ethnicity), I’ve been swimming in the water of white dominant culture my whole life. Turning the tide of those floodwaters is central to our mission and will help us become a stronger organization protecting even more land across the Triangle.
Today you’ll see signs of this journey at Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve, which is now officially open (!!) with 9 miles of walking and biking trails and two farmers already hard at work. When you visit, please take time to read about the property’s long, complicated history on the signs in the breezeway of the White Barn.
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. The pandemic has made clear the importance of nature for our wellbeing. We believe deeply that land conservation is critical to a healthier and more vibrant Triangle, but we also know the importance of recognizing the way systemic racism has shut out Black, Brown, and Indigenous people from the land conservation movement. In addition to TLC “regulars,” hundreds of new people have discovered the 44 miles of TLC trail made possible by our members. Many have even become members themselves (Welcome!).
I invite you to join us on the journey to become anti-racist individuals and organizations. On our website you can explore books, articles, webinars, podcasts, and videos TLC staff have found helpful in our journey. Most importantly, I invite you to learn, ask questions, and make mistakes. We can only hope that this confluence of death and destruction will turn into a flood of connection and community.