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Climate, Communities of Color, and Connections: Interview with Audrey Peterman

Guest Bogger

Audrey Peterman, President and Co-founder of Earthwise Productions, Inc.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida

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“Because I know these stories I am wholly unable to sit quietly by or to lend my energies to the induced apathy from which our country suffers. The elevation of Fort Monroe to the status of National Monument gives us a window into our natural and cultural heritage and shows us our connectedness as a nation…I fervently hope that the Fort Monroe story inspires us to wake up and address the most pressing threat faced by our generation – climate change.” Audrey Peterman

Kate Cell, an author of the recent UCS report National Landmarks at Risk, recently interviewed Audrey Peterman of Earthwise Productions, Inc. for her take on how climate change is affecting our cultural heritage and resources.

Audrey Peterman on the Bright Angel Trail at Grand Canyon National Park.

Audrey Peterman on the Bright Angel Trail at Grand Canyon National Park.

Kate: What’s your life work, and how does it connect with our report National Landmarks at Risk?

Audrey: As a naturalized American of Jamaican ancestry, my love and passion for my adopted country grows with every unit of the National Park System that I visit, every piece of our story that I learn there. I’ve stood in 170 of these inspiring places, from the majestic glacier-clad mountain range in Denali National Park, Alaska to the exotic Dry Tortugas National Park at the confluence of the Atlantic, the Gulf and the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Florida. My books Legacy on the Land and Our True Nature, and my other efforts, seek to connect Americans of African, Asian, Hispanic and Native ancestry to their stories in the parks.

Climate change poses the greatest threat to the survival of the human race, yet few black or brown people have had the opportunity to learn how the 2,000 year old trees in Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks that were alive at the time that Jesus walked on Earth are now in danger. I take that very personally after learning that the African American “Buffalo Soldiers” cared so assiduously for them at the turn of the 20th century. How could we be complacent in the face of their demise? But if you don’t know this part of your history, you might accept the prevailing falsehood that “Americans of color do not care about our environment.”

I am distressed that so little has been done by the agency that manages our national parks to connect all Americans to their stories in the parks. National Landmarks at Risk takes an important step by telling inclusive stories and linking those stories to the risks posed by climate change.

Kate: You were an expert reviewer for our case study on Fort Monroe. Why is Fort Monroe important, and why is it important to you?

Audrey: When President Obama used his powers under the Antiquities Act to make Fort Monroe a unit of our National Park System, I was elated that this invaluable part of American history will be forever protected. I connected it immediately with Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, which was built with the labor of enslaved Africans and others as part of America’s coastal defense system. Eerily, the Confederate leader Jefferson Davis was imprisoned at Fort Monroe, and Dr. Samuel Mudd, implicated in the assassination of President Lincoln, was imprisoned at Fort Jefferson.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” said Santayana. The flip side of that oft-quoted statement is that when we know our history, we have a greater likelihood of avoiding the same mistakes. Judging by the current rancorous discourse in our country, with people of European ancestry making statements such as “take back our country,” it is clear that we haven’t learned all the lessons of the places protected in the park system.

Fort Monroe, VA, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, was integral to the end of American slavery. The first African slaves to arrive in English North America made landfall at Old Point Comfort where the fort now sits; 250 years later, “Freedom’s Fortress” provided refuge for thousands of escaping slaves during the Civil War.

Fort Monroe, VA, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, was integral to the end of American slavery. The first African slaves to arrive in English North America made landfall at Old Point Comfort where the fort now sits; 250 years later, “Freedom’s Fortress” provided refuge for thousands of escaping slaves during the Civil War.

How much could we use the leadership of someone such as Major General Benjamin Butler who made the fateful decision on this day, May 27, back in 1861, to declare the freedom-seeking people at Fort Monroe as “contraband,” thereby providing a safe haven for thousands. This decision essentially forced President Lincoln’s hand towards the Emancipation Proclamation two years later. How much do we need the courage of someone like the Hon. Frederick Douglass, who affirmed in the heat of the Civil War, “…an important point was gained… when General B. F. Butler, at Fortress Monroe, announced the policy of treating the slaves as ‘contrabands’… to educate President Lincoln…to the ultimate policy of freeing the slave, and arming the freedmen.”

Kate: How do you connect the Fort Monroe story to the larger challenges we face?

Audrey: Our country is in desperate need of people who above all respect the dignity of the human being, and strive to uphold our common humanity as we pursue that ideal state “with liberty and justice for all.” Because I know these stories I am wholly unable to sit quietly by or to lend my energies to the induced apathy from which our country suffers. The elevation of Fort Monroe to the status of National Monument gives us a window into our natural and cultural heritage and shows us our connectedness as a nation. Leaders and the people worked together to eliminate the threat that the institution of slavery posed to our country. I am grateful that community leaders worked to get Fort Monroe protected. I fervently hope that the Fort Monroe story inspires us to wake up and address the most pressing threat faced by our generation – climate change.

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About the author: Audrey Peterman is President and Co-founder of Earthwise Productions, Inc., an environmental consulting and publishing firm focused on connecting the public lands system and the American public. Audrey serves on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, the Association of Partners for Public Lands, and the National Parks Promotion Council. She is co-author with her husband Frank of Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care, which described their 12,000 mile journey through the national parks. She is a member of the UCS Science Network, and served as an external reviewer for the recent UCS report, National Landmarks at Risk.

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