By Cliff Chapman / Executive director, Central Indiana Land Trust
The summer between high school and college, a buddy and I decided to take a road trip from Indianapolis to Bloomington, where we planned to grab some interesting food and take a walk around the Indiana University campus. About halfway there, I noticed the gas gauge getting close to “E,” so I asked him if he wanted a snack since I needed to pull off and fill up.
He tensed up. He grabbed the handle on the passenger-side door. “Are you sure we can’t make it to Bloomington?” he asked. I said no. He followed with, “Can we just get a gallon or two and then fill up down there?”
I didn’t understand. As long as we had been friends, I had never seen him act like this. He rubbed his hands on his pants legs. I said something like, “What the hell, man?” After a long pause, he said, “Cliff, I’m Black. It’s not safe for me to stop here.”
Of course, I knew he was Black. We’d been friends since seventh grade. We made fun of each other all the time, often poking fun at ethnic differences. We had a routine in high school of my being the world’s worst rapper while he beat-boxed. But our glaring difference never affected me until that moment. I was embarrassed by my naiveté – my ignorance. To this day, the memory makes me sad, and it returned with greater poignancy when I heard about the racist incident near Monroe Reservoir over the Fourth of July weekend.
Unfortunately, that memory visits me often. You see, during the 23 years I’ve worked in nature conservation, I’ve never seen a Black family enjoying a stand-alone nature preserve by themselves – one that wasn’t part of a state or local park. Not once. I’ve read countless essays and blog posts about engaging people of color in nature preserves and participated in national conversations on the issue. Every time, I remember my friend panicking over a gas station stop.
For me, getting out of the city to visit natural places is a refuge from the troubles of the day. And, these days, facing a pandemic and tragic violence against Black individuals, we all could use that refuge. It pains me to know that the natural world may not always feel like a refuge for people who, like my buddy, fear for their safety when they leave the city.
Protecting natural areas in Central Indiana benefits everyone, and not just everyone who can visit them. I mean everyone, globally. Planting trees in Indiana helps people in Norway, Zimbabwe and India. Protecting nature in rural Indiana benefits people in Carmel as well as Martindale-Brightwood. From cleaner air and water to climate change mitigation, we can clearly point to these impacts.
I imagine every nonprofit director and board member has similar feelings about how their work benefits everyone. But that assumes everyone has access to those benefits. Despite the universal positive impact of our work, there is still a piece that is missing.
Here’s the thing: The Central Indiana Land Trust is not changing its mission. We are first and foremost a charitable organization benefitting plants and animals and protecting the natural areas they call home. But we also are committed to connecting Hoosiers to nature. Our challenge is to do that for all Hoosiers. How? I don’t know. Neither does our board. Essentially, we’ve been driving that car to Bloomington without thinking about filling up before we set off.
We’re committed to changing that story, starting with our board leadership, working toward a board that is more representative of our community. It’s a first step, to be followed by others.
I challenge other nonprofits to pursue similar measures. Let’s make sure our work truly benefits everyone. Otherwise, we’ll drive into the future in ignorance, missing the realities sitting right next to us.
PHOTO ABOVE: The Meyer Nature Center in Morgan County is one site which African Americans may be reluctant to visit.
This essay was first published in the Indianapolis Business Journal, For more about Central Indiana Land Trust, a nonprofit located on The Old Northside, visit conservingindiana.org.
BONUS COVERAGE: Artist-led innovation works to create better ‘places’
By Ariana Beedie / Coordinator, Creative Placemaking Program
Since entering the role of Creative Placemaking Program coordinator at the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center, I’ve often wondered, “What is my dream placemaking project? What is that creative piece that will bring communities together?”
When I think about it, the dream is artists and neighbors collaborating to bring innovation to their neighborhoods. The best part about that dream is that it is already becoming a reality for some of our neighborhoods. Artists are already leading the charge on innovation in Indianapolis.
Artist-led innovation is something that isn’t new for many cities. The real key to sustainability is getting neighbors to buy in, harness the power of transformation and see the artists in themselves.
When I think of artists and neighbors working together on projects to empower themselves and anyone who visits their neighborhood, I think this is a real start for community healing and change.
Essentially, artists are also neighbors – an interesting way to think about working together. Utilizing each other for efforts to improve or bring light to our neighborhoods is truly the goal of the “Arts-Based Community Development” model.
Indianapolis is very lucky. Our incredible local artists have created impeccable events that tie neighborhoods together and have made a great impact on local communities – artist-led events such as Chreece, the first all hip-hop festival in Indy; or WooGRL Fest, the first all-women’s music festival. Also, I have to mention buzz/CUT, the first LGBTQ+ festival in Indy, and New Hands Festival, the first festival by the non-profit People of Culture that shared profits with local organizations. These events are artist-curated, centered on creatives and community.
What’s amazing about INRC’s Creative Placemaking Program is that we are giving power to neighbors and equipping them with the tools to work together, while identifying and uplifting local artists to collaborate with. We all have to work together to make this sustainable dream a reality. It’s not only on artists, but neighbors willing to embrace and welcome these new ideas and features. If only developers could follow this model.
For the future of placemaking, my hope is to see neighborhoods taking initiative and completing projects together to transform our communities. I hope neighbors are teaching others about the tools they’ve learned and teaching the youth this work, so they’re able to maintain their Indy legacies. As a third-generation Indianapolis native, I believe this legacy is important to continue.
There’s power in neighbors working together. When community leads, everyone wins.
Those with questions or interested in learning more about INRC’s Creative Placemaking program, contact Ariana Beedie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-920-0330, x309.