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Migration & Me: Connecting People with Nature Through Stories of Personal Journey

 Veronica Kyle of Faith and Place 

by Jennifer Roche 

When Veronica Kyle, founder of the Chicago Wilderness Force of Nature Award winning program Migration & Me, began working on environmental issues years ago, she didn’t find a lot of other African Americans around the table with her. As part of her role with Faith in Place, she remembers listening patiently as her collaborators discussed their theories on why more African Americans were not involved in the parks, particularly in stewardship or outdoor recreational activities.

 “I would hear things like ‘they’ don't really do nature or hiking or come outside or ‘they’ like to stay close to their community,” recalled Kyle. “I knew that story had another side to it.” Kyle, who was born in Alabama and moved to Chicago as a child, remembered men who fished and hunted and women who gardened, canned, and made quilts outside while sitting on their porches or under huge weeping willow trees. During her later experiences working in Jamaica and South Africa, she saw how the oceans and nature interconnected with daily life.

“But, I also knew there was a bittersweet side in nature for African Americans,” said Kyle. “In servitude as slaves, as sharecroppers and from lynchings in the woods. We picked cotton, planted and harvested fruit, but we were also ‘strange fruit,’ as Billie Holiday sang.”

Kyle recognized `these incorrect assumptions and stories about why black people were not engaged in their local parks and forest preserves, and she felt the situation lacked some “real, raw truth-telling.” Historical factors that African Americans and other diverse people have faced, like being run off of Chicago beaches, shot in local woods and preserves, or forced from their land in the South, were not being recognized by the broader environmental community. Not to mention that the land had been taken from indigenous people before that. “It’s painful for some to admit that even the land we now steward may have been taken or stolen from those who came before us to this country,” she said.

Finally, at a meeting, the discussion came up again. How do we get diverse people involved with nature? “They weren’t asking me,” Kyle recalls. “And, I thought, ‘Did you invite diverse people? Was it a real invitation?’ And a few people said in a kind of dismissive way, ‘That will probably never happen.’” Kyle went home that night with these concerns on her heart, and by morning she had her answer. Inspired by what she learned from US Forest Service Program Specialist Mike Rizzo about the monarch butterfly’s 3,000-mile migration -- from Mexico to Nova Scotia -- she saw the stories of African Americans and Mexican Americans aligned in that same journey.

A New Idea

“What if I started a story circle in churches and everyone got to tell their migration story and how nature was a part of it?” Kyle recalled thinking that evening. Everyone has a migration story, just like the “amazing” insect, whether it’s from the south to the north or from the city to the suburbs or from apartment to apartment. She was convinced this could be a way to bring diverse stories into the environmental movement. She decided to ask participants what their earliest memories of nature were -- both their fondest and their worst. She would ask about what kind of foods they remembered, what smells, and what they missed most.

She remembers when she first shared her experiences in the story circle of her migration from the south. When she was about 7 and her brother 5, after traveling the long distance to Chicago by train, they were met by their new community who were kissing and hugging Kyle and her siblings with “scratchy” beards, open arms, and big smiles. Her brother asked her who all the people were, and Kyle concluded they must be family because she smelled the collard greens and chicken cooking in the kitchen. As a child, she felt that they must be people “like us.”

“I likened that to the monarch flying over our yards and, if they see milkweed, they can land because that was my familiar, that was my Sunday dinner food,” said Kyle. Monarchs require milkweed to procreate and reproduce and other pollinating plants to rest and survive during their journey, signs that came to represent hospitality to Kyle. “Monarchs look for the same things as humans as they migrate, no matter what -- food, shelter, a welcoming environment,” said Kyle. “They are avoiding prey -- animals, birds, insects -- and we are avoiding our prey - racism, Jim Crow, self-hatred (a result of internalized oppression).”

Every time Kyle went to the story circle after that, she brought collard greens and milkweed. She would relate the stories from the circle to the migration path of the monarch asking what people would do if they couldn’t find what makes them feel at home. As people shared their stories, she heard many difficult tales, but also fond ones of fishing with a grandfather, picking peaches with a grandmother, and making strawberry pies. Many people also spoke of the nature they had in their backyard, like happy memories of sitting in a tree.

“We all leave the story circle realizing that we’ve had some good experiences in nature,” said Kyle. “Even in the worst historical times, nature provided recreation and solace.”

Growing Stewardship of Our Lands

Out of these rich connections among the story circles, the desire and opportunities to steward the land emerged naturally. Kyle reminds Migration & Me participants that all they have to do is plant milkweed and make sure that it grows back, and the monarchs will come, too; the participants will have planted a welcoming sign of hospitality. Kyle also asks her participants to imagine what might be possible if they took their stewardship into the parks and beaches “that you pay taxes on whether you were historically denied entry or not.”

“Imagine if we could restore our neighborhoods, if we could eliminate what brings us harm -- gun violence and the effects of racism are our ‘invasive species’ -- would we do that? We can plant milkweed but butterflies can not,” said Kyle.

Today, the Migration & Me project stretches across Illinois, including in Waukegan, Lake County, and the northwest suburbs, in Central Illinois, and Chicago. Faith in Place organized 42 nature outings last year, racked up more than 2800 volunteer hours and pitched in to help the forest preserve maintain about 35 acres. The program also sends two people a year to North American Monarch Institute at the University of Minnesota to deepen their education and familiarity with the butterfly. Still, funding remains a perpetual challenge. Kyle hopes to find some “six-figure” donations so she can take Migration & Me to the next level.

Last year, Chicago Wilderness named Kyle’s Migration & Me Program a Force of Nature Award winner, which she said was a humbling moment. “To me, that award was affirmation that this was something worth starting, worth continuing, and worth banging our heads together to write proposals and keep funded,” Kyle said.

She also sees it as an affirmation that the environmental movement needs more programs that are culturally sensitive and historically factual. “It helps all of us, not just diverse people, because our stories and interactions with nature are not all the same,” Kyle said. “I’m just blown away that Migration & Me is still here and still growing.”

 

To learn more about Migration & Me, to download a free toolkit, or to make a donation, please visit  https://www.faithinplace.org/our-programs/migration-me

Jennifer Roche is a communications consultant and freelance writer based in Chicago. You can find her on Twitter @BowerbirdComm or online at www.bowerbirdcomm.com