by Zoom Out Mycology
Luisa Black, an amateur mycologist who also participated in the class, recounts her arrival at her AirBnb in Chicago:
My partner and I got an airbnb in the middle of a sprawling residential neighborhood in Chinatown. When we arrived, I was pretty excited to see Cantonese translations of all the instructions in the multi-bedroom shared apartment and little markers of the refusal to assimilate throughout the neighborhood. What warmed our hearts the most was the sound of little feet of another guest running down the halls outside and a child’s voice yelling, cajoling, and laughing with her mom in a different language. I forget her mother’s name, but they were staying in the AirBnB while looking for a new apartment to move into. We spoke about how much we loved the neighborhood, how beautiful all the squash and bittermelon vines were, how pleasant it was to see signs and images in Cantonese, Mandarin and other Chinese dialects.
Lisa’s mother then pulled up a map that she found on a Chinese social media platform to show me where she might move. It was a Map of Chicago, with little red dots peppered throughout to show where the highest concentrations of black and brown people were. It was hard to tell what she was saying about the map at first, so I waited, until she swiped to another map -- this time, with the areas where murders and shootings are recorded most frequently. She swiped back and forth between the two, to show how the areas overlapped, and then she pointed to the area, roughly in the middle, where there were no red dots for black residents. She said “safe, safe” as she pointed.
I stared at her blankly, devastated by disappointment. She mistook my silence for confusion, and tried to explain further with a vague remark about “their” personalities and mannerisms, shaking her head and frowning. I got myself together enough to just say, “I don’t think that’s true” and walked away as soon as I could. I spent most of the rest of the night arguing about it with my partner; about what he or I could have done differently; and about what could have caused Lisa’s mother to think that, to say it out loud, to expect me to agree and understand. After the anger passed, we mourned together for the effect that being exposed to her mother’s racism so young would have on Lisa as she aged.
What is redlining?
Redlining is the practice of denying or limiting financial services to certain neighborhoods based on racial or ethnic composition without regard to the residents’ qualifications or creditworthiness. Redlining has strong ties to segregation but, what does that have to do with the environment or environmental justice? From August 20th to August 30th a small group of students from around the world took part in a Soil Fungi masterclass held by Radical Mycology. This class was the first of its kind, but there was nothing radical about it. It even mirrored the social challenges that are typical in America. One person, a holistic psychologist who came from Bali and grew up in multiple parts of Asia described the class as a clear depiction of American race relations. To say the least- this class was haphazard and segregated, so this month we’re going to explain the connection between redlining and environmental injustice in urban areas. A quote from Abe Gruswitz, a Co-op organizer in East Orange, NJ, highlights some key components he has observed in successful discussions about environmental injustice:
“It was not easy. Many white attendees were challenged to stick through feeling uncomfortable to seek more understanding and self reflection. POC in the communities movement and cooperative movement organized, facilitated, and were given the stage. Important conversations were had on racism and privilege in the movement, how to have multi-ethnic communities, how to not contribute to gentrification, and how to support self-determination for our communities of color. If we talk about structural racism, it helps to talk about more egalitarian and collective structures as alternatives to the structures of hierarchy and capitalism that keep white supremacy and patriarchy in place.”
Redlining was a policy that caused joblessness, homelessness, and violence as well as the many other secondary issues that stem from segregation. Though redlining became Federal Housing Authority (FHA) official in the early 1930s, the effects are still ringing strong today. On the other hand, there have always been resilient forces in history and some of the most effective community organizers we know today have come from Chicago, IL including Fred Hampton pictured to the right.
Being that race is the number one indicator for placement of toxic facilities in this country (NAACP), it was quite the honor to for me-Bashira, a young black female geographer to be participating in soil remediation in Chicago this past August. Redlining, to those impacted, is far from a subtle form of injustice. However, some even more blatant examples include the water pollution health crisis in Flint, Michigan or natural disasters on the African continent not making it to the headlines. The NAACP's program on Environmental and Climate Justice is a great resource when you need help recognizing environmental racism happening in your community. Race plays a major role in determining environmental policies regarding land use, zoning and regulations. An article by The Root on environmental racism states "Many community-led and progressive organizations that profess to fight environmental injustice do not organize against police brutality in Black communities, even though that is an issue of the environment. Voter suppression in Black communities is an environmental issue. Food deserts and poor transit infrastructure are determinants of environmental racism."
Redlining happened in many places and left Black neighborhoods with the least resources but the most toxicity.
I decided to walk to class to get a better sense of the residential neighborhood I was in. A man was outside with his two large dogs and two young sons in his backyard. When he saw me coming he said to both of his children "quickly get inside". I usually try and live a life with no assumptions but to my understanding that person was so afraid of my presence that his two massive dogs offered him no sense of security. I think every once in a while I get away with being 5'3'' but most days i'm 5'2'' so it really makes me empathize with what the Black boys and men in my life experience at the cost of hateful and or fearful perception. The experience I had walking to class happens to me almost daily in Oregon but I never expected it in Chicago. Later that day towards the end of the class we did some soil tests outside and Peter said in the most appropriated way possible "we're out here on the block, south side Chicago." It made me wonder about what it would've been like to be on the block while not feeling like a disposable body.
By the halfway point of the class tensions were running higher in response to how the class was being run. After a few hours of disorganized and minimally coordinated traveling to a site where we would practice our deep mapping and site assessment skills, co-instructor Nance Khlem described Chicago as a "forgotten city" with inexpensive resources left to exploit and desperate people who have no connection to the land. Khlem elaborated by beginning to describe our site. She mentioned how the only three cars in the parking lot were from our soil fungi class and how even the residents of Chicago don't understand the beauty or science behind it's natural areas. Meanwhile, there was a Black Freemason group meeting for around its 100th year right on the water. It was very apparent that a portion of the class was disappointed and dissatisfied with how the fellow participants were being treated. Yet, some of the students chose to be silent for a certificate and others stood for respect and equity.
New city, same problems. Our class took place in Bridgeport, Chicago. Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the United States, and it’s not surprising that the town being praised for high diversity, (according to the 2010 census, Bridgeport is roughly 27% Hispanic, 35% Asian, and 35% White) is almost completely exclusive of Black people. We know that redlining shaped Chicago but what does that look like down the line? Check out this mini documentary on Cabrini Green, its a story about residents in Chicago facing displacement that many of us in urban areas around the United States face daily from Oakland, CA to Newark, NJ.
Cultural appropriation of language in using the word “accessibility"
When asked to define accessibility, a word that had already been worn out by the end of the second day in Chicago, Peter Mccoy had no answer. To me, accessibility is all about equal rights and equity. It’s about other people recognizing my existence, respecting it and making the accommodations that accept me on the same playing ground if that's where I choose to be. If a ridesharing app doesn’t offer some form of transportation for disabled people, I would consider it inaccessible. Because Radical Mycology didn't make basic accommodations to prevent or at least not contribute to alienation and discrimination I consider it more of a disgrace that the class was marketed to be such an inclusive learning opportunity to people of all different backgrounds and engagement levels.
Luisa grew up between Brazil and Virginia and her mom is a Chemistry Professor at Norfolk State University an HBCU in Virginia. Here's a glimpse at her experience of the class.
Throughout the course, but especially towards the beginning, the instructors constantly emphasized the accessibility of the course. They repeated it and applied it to themselves so many times (without any measure for accountability) that it started to sound a bit like white noise… and that’s exactly what it proved to be. White, white supremacist noise. When asked to speak more slowly so that students whose first language was not English could understand them, they simply dismissed the requests with a condescending “Chemistry is a difficult topic,” strongly implying that the problem was not their teaching style, but their students’ stupidity. When asked questions seeking to clarify the teaching matter, they often replied “it doesn’t matter whether you get it. You may have to come to a dozen workshops like this before it starts making sense.” Considering the workshop cost around $3,000 to attend, all told, this suggestion was almost comically out of touch with the financial situation that minimum wage worker citizen-scientists face - the very class they repeatedly claimed to not just target, but actually belong to.
That they claimed to be a part of this class themselves, and so have a right to this language, probably stands at the heart of this issue. The instructors seemed to derive self-satisfaction from trotting out stories of their alienation from the world of hard science, whether that meant dropping out school or not wearing fancy enough clothes to the biology conferences that they attended. They smugly distanced themselves from the elitism of academia, branding themselves as “alternative” or “radical” scientists, and yet replicated the exact acts of alienation and exclusion that they claimed to have faced (though as they were white, middle class people who could afford to go to college in the first place, I have to raise a skeptical brow at the thought of them truly facing substantial oppression). More deeply problematic than the racist and classist alienation that they enacted, is the fact that they dressed it up in the language of liberation -- the language of accessibility. They took the vocabulary and politics built on decades’ worth of the labor of mostly women of color as if it were their own. With no emotional or intellectual knowledge of what “accessibility” means to those who truly need it, and all they have done in order to win it, the instructors wielded it as a shield against criticism and a weapon against those who needed accessibility the most. It was the most violent appropriation of a word I had ever witnessed in person.
Despite challenges faced by our predecessors and in the Soil Fungi Masterclass there have been many successful women in science. After deciding the certificate would offer unwanted association with Radical Mycology and Peter Mccoy I took a different route. I had the honor of speaking with yet another inspirational Black woman about the experience. Her name is Erika Allen, and she's the Chicago and National Director of Growing Power, Inc. We featured info on her dad, Will Allen and his aquaponics greenhouse in one of our previous posts on the history of urban farming. From this experience I can speak to how knowing the victories in your history helps you organize against and respond to injustice the right way, the first time.
Zoom Out Mycology’s Environmental Awareness blog strives to explain and expose environmental topics and concerns to a wide audience. Our team consists of a diverse group of scientists, policy experts, and engineers that help describe the science behind environmental issues that you see in the news and experience in your daily life. We hope that this knowledge will help all of our readers embrace a healthy and sustainable lifestyle! If you are interested in being a guest contributor, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org