Interviews

Interview With Community Environment Activist Jamaican Mark Walters

Written by Xavier Murphy

This month we interview Jamaican Mark Walters a co-leader with the Miami Inner City Outings (ICO) which is an outreach arm of the Sierra Club. The mission of the ICO is to expose youth from inner city and underserved populations in and around South Florida to the wonders of the natural environment. Mark is also an officer on the Board of Trustees of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust. The Trust is a limited instrumentality of the City of Miami that grew out of citizens’ opposition to the city’s attempts to lease Virginia Key Beach Park to developers for an upscale eco resort back in 1999. With a degree in chemistry from the University of Miami and a Florida Atlantic University MBA, Walters manages a research lab at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami School of Medicine. He is an avid kayaker and outdoor enthusiast. He has backpacked the Inca Trail and toured Machu Picchu in Peru, climbed mountains in California and Montana and forded rivers in Alaska, among other jaunts. Walters lives in Miami and has two children. He was born in the hills overlooking Montego Bay, Jamaica and graduated from Cornwall College. Most of his family still lives on the island.

Q. Where in Jamaica are you from?
Born and raised in the hills overlooking Montego Bay in St James in a small village that was once a working plantation called Retirement. Its a few miles out of Mobay.

Q. How long have you lived in the US?
Since 1983

Q: What happened in your life to lead you into becoming activist for the Natural Environment?
As mentioned above I grew up in the hills and spent my childhood roaming the woods with my older brothers and cousins. My family also at various times raised cows, goats, pigs, rabbits, birds and cultivated a variety of foodstuff for our own consumption and to sell. After living in Miami for ~ 10 years I was invited on an Inner City Outings trip by a friend and after spending the weekend camping with the kids and seeing their response to this opportunity, I realized that: (1). I had been missing spending time outdoors since I left Jamaica and (2). I owe these kids the chance to see themselves reflected in the leaders who were exposing them to this environment. Though 95% of the kids were black (the rest were Hispanic) none of the leaders or volunteers were. I could complain about the situation or I could do something about it. I choose the latter and have been leading outing with kids since, for more than 9 years now

Q: Many of the efforts of your organization are to expose minority children in the South Florida area to the environment. It has been said that the environment is not a major issue in the minority community. Do you think that this is true?
It is ridiculous to assume that because we don’t see many black and brown faces depicted in publications or on the news advocating for the environment, that we are not concerned about it. I would suggest that on the contrary, the environment and environmental issues occupy a much greater role in the lives of people of color, and their concern is not one of choice but one of necessity. For people of color and especially the poor, rarely is there the option to change geography when major polluters are sited in their backyards or when local governments through poor planning or lax monitoring allow unsafe environmental conditions to fester and proliferate in their neighborhoods. In these situations, people of color and the poor are usually ignored when they complain and they have to kick and scream to get the attention that other communities routinely enjoy. In addition, people of color traditionally lived off and close to the land and understood that their survival and existence is closely tied to it. And although a majority of people of color may now live in urban centers, this connection to the land and environment is easily re-established. Our work with kids seeks to recover these connections. And there are prominent African Americans who have been blazing trails in the environmental movement. Folks like Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx or Van Jones with the Ella Baker center and Green Jobs for All movement have raised the profile of people of color involved in environmental advocacy, but particularly tailored to the concerns of people of color; their efforts incorporate issues of environmental and economic justice.

Q: Tell us what your organization does to expose children to the environment?
We have Inner City Outings program in fifty cities across the United States, and we have been approached about starting one in Puerto Rico. We engage ethnic communities of African Americans and Hispanics among others, and newcomers like Hmong or Russian immigrants. We introduce kids to a variety of outdoor activities that vary by location. In Miami I take kids snorkeling, kayaking or camping, while they may snow board and backpack in Detroit or river raft and hike in San Francisco or go caving in Louisville, Kentucky. Kids learn about the environment through these activities and in the process are taught to respect and care about and for outdoor places. Research has shown that children need to spend time outdoors interacting with nature and that such exposure and involvement positively affects learning and achievement. Richard Louv in his wildly popular book “Last Child in the Woods” makes the point that “Nature Deficit Disorder” is a real malady that affect so many of our kids because of the lack of unstructured, outdoor play. The Inner City Outings program has been addressing this deficit.

Q: Are you finding that some of the children you take on these outing not having a father figure in their life? Have you become a mentor for some of these children?
The children with whom we work are from varying home situations and we try to engage them in the activities we offer regardless of what that may be. We do mentorship and a number of the ICO groups in other cities have Youth Leader programs that take this to another level. We had a youth leader mentoring program here in Miami a few years ago, but have had to put it on hold until we recruit more adult leaders to work with our kids. The program is all volunteer run, and along with full time jobs and families, some of our volunteers are students and have other obligations that require their time. The youth leader program required a disproportionate amount of our resources because it was necessary to keep the group of kids small (no more than 8), have a lower ratio of kids to mentors (no higher than 3 to 1) and have more frequent interactions with them. This required a dedicated group of adults who were willing and able to devote this time. We were able to do this for a while, but as some of our mentors have had life changes, we have had to suspend the program. We plan to restart it however and several of the former youth leaders have agreed to help re-start the program and be mentors to a new group of youngsters.

Q: What have you found to be the challenge in minority communities when it comes to the environment?
Environmental justice is a major issue, and the Sierra Club, along with other environmental advocacy groups have been making some headway in addressing this. Environmental justice demands that no community should bear more than a fair share of the impact from environmental burdens such as the location of polluting industries, toxic dumps or transportation corridors or other adverse insults that it has always been easier to locate in poor and minority neighborhoods and still are. Environmental Justice seeks to have a more equitable distribution of food, clean water and air, and access to recreation, healthcare among other resources for all people. A major aspect of this is about having the poor and people of color represented when decisions are being made about issues that affect their lives and communities.

Q: If the president of the US called you and asked you to summarize a plan to make the nation more environmentally conscious what would that summary sound like?
Educate our youth, and already they are a lot more aware environmentally than their elders, and it will go a long way to addressing a lot of our environmental ills. Young people are more idealistic and more optimistic about what can be achieved through involvement and engagement and they will sell it to everyone else. And make recycling a national mandate. It is appalling how much stuff that can be recycled gets trashed. It is obvious from the successful programs in many cities through the country, that recycling can pay for itself.

Q: Have you been following the discussion on mining in Jamaica’s Cockpit country?
Not as much as I should, but I am learning more about it.

Q: What are your thoughts on this?
We absolutely must ensue that the government and business interests do not squander our historical, environmental and cultural heritage that the Cockpit country represents for Jamaica. It is just too valuable to barter away for the short-term gains that bauxite mining would provide. I don’t know enough to speak more about this, but I see that a community of activists is coming together to make their concerns heard and to offer viable alternatives to mining.

Q: Any plans to do an outing in Jamaica?
This is something I have considered in the past, but currently have no plans to, though I would love to one of these days. Backpacking in the Blue Mountains, sweeeet.

Q: How does your environmentally consciousness play out in your daily living?
I try to use this awareness to educate the choices I made on a day to day basis. I am lucky that I now live close enough to where I work that I walk to work every day and leave my car at home, and I try to involve my co-workers in recycling. Many of the volunteers who go on outings with our kids, I recruited them from work. More than anything else, I try to be aware of the impact my activities have on the land around me. I believe that we are all connected to the earth and to all the other inhabitants on this planet, whether plant or animal, and so how I treat the earth and the environment around me will sooner or later affect me directly.

Q: Any final word for the website visitors to Jamaicans.com?
The Miami Inner City Outings program is a great way to give back to the community. We are always in need of volunteers and the rewards are instant – seeing the joy on a kids face as you teach him or her to snorkel or kayak is priceless. ICO provides all the training necessary to be a volunteer so no special skill is required to join. There are also ICO programs in many cities across the country so there are volunteer opportunities almost anywhere you may reside.
Visit the ICO website at www.ICOmiami.org or contact Mark at [email protected]

About the author

Xavier Murphy