Today is World Ocean Day, which is, understandably, a big day here at Ocean Conservancy. We spend 365 days a year talking about the wonders within our ocean—certainly a privilege and pleasure to do. And we talk about the problems facing our ocean—and the solutions we can develop to solve them.
Throughout history, the ocean and its beaches, coasts and waterways around the world have been the source of celebration, joy, liberation, pleasure, preservation. During that same time, these areas have also been the site of oppression, segregation and racism for many, including Black Americans and other minorities and oppressed peoples. The ocean means many different things to many different people, and it is facing innumerable threats, including climate change, biodiversity loss and rapidly expanding plastic production. These threats are directly impacting people and coastal communities—not just for the future, but right now. This World Ocean Day is a call to ramp up our urgency, ambition and action to protect our ocean and everyone who depends upon it—ultimately, all of us. Yet to do so, we must grapple with our history, and we must acknowledge past injustices in order to create just and equitable solutions for people and the planet. I want to share with you some of the ways racism and injustice have intersected with our ocean and coasts, and also share what Ocean Conservancy is doing for a more just and equitable world.
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Theft of coastal lands
The Gullah Geechee Nation is made up of descendants of West Africans (primarily Senegambian peoples) who were forced to the Americas as enslaved laborers for European and American rice plantations along the Atlantic Coast. The Nation encompasses coastal areas from Florida to North Carolina—the lands that Gullah ancestors labored on during enslavement. After the Civil War, many white landowners abandoned these coastal properties; the emancipated Gullah ancestors who stayed behind rebuilt their own independent, thriving communities through fishing and farming, relying on their accumulated ecological knowledge of the coastal plains and their ancestral knowledge of rice cultivation and fishing in West Africa, in order to preserve the culture, language and economy of their original homelands.
The land was passed down from generation to generation, with no official record, because Black Americans were often not granted access to legal resources and, if they were, were likely to face stiff, overwhelming racism in the Southern legal system. This type of property is called “heirs property” (meaning no clear title to the land), and it is easily stolen. Vast swaths of coastal land in the South are now sought after by white developers, and the Gullah Geechee, who have roots in this land for generations, have had little recourse for action. Leaders like Queen Quet are working to preserve the culture and communities of the Gullah Geechee. If you’re interested in supporting communities at risk from land theft, please consider the Black Family Land Trust. You can also read more about the Gullah Geechee’s rich cultural history, their connection to Southern coastal lands and the threats they face from climate change from Ki’Amber Thompson, Ocean Conservancy Ray Diversity Fellow (2018).
Swimming pools and beaches were segregated during the Jim Crow era. White landowners restricted access for Black attendees or charged high prices for parking or access to keep everyone out who wasn’t white and wealthy. When Black people were allowed to access a beach, it was often in unsafe or unsupervised areas, increasing the risk for drowning. One notable exception was Virginia Key Beach, a South Florida paradise and Black-accessible beach that was formed through non-violent protests. Now, the park is preserved as the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, which will celebrate its 76th anniversary this year. “Wade-ins” at segregated beaches were critical in helping end segregation, especially in places like Florida.
Ocean Conservancy’s role
Last year, World Ocean Day came on the heels of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer. At the time, we reflected on how Ocean Conservancy can contribute more meaningfully to the fight against racism and for social justice. We’ve spent the months since implementing new initiatives and enhancing existing ones to make Ocean Conservancy more just, diverse and equitable as an organization and to improve the ways in which we show up to deliver on our mission. I’m so proud of our work and especially proud of our staff, including our Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion task force—for leading on this work since 2013 and for making us better and stronger as an organization.
With humility, and with the recognition that there is more we could have done and much more we need to do, I want to share some of the ways Ocean Conservancy is taking action. Over the past 12 months, we’ve hired a Senior Vice President of People; we overhauled our hiring practices, sponsored the March on Washington and Black in Marine Science Week, hired a Vice President of Conservation, Justice and Equity, and requested (and were granted) a three-year, $1.5 million investment from our Board of Directors to incorporate justice and equity into our conservation strategies. We are focused on growing the diversity of our staff and Board of Directors.
Are these actions vital? Absolutely. Are they sufficient? Absolutely not. We’ve made a start and taken the first of many steps in a long journey, and we hope you will continue to hold us accountable for our commitments as an organization.
As I said last World Ocean Day and many times since:
A just and equitable future requires far more from us, and we commit to learning and doing more. Does an ocean conservation organization have a role to play in dismantling racist systems? I know we do. Will the ocean be better off in a more just and equitable world? I know it will.
This year, I hope you’ll join me in celebrating our ocean and thinking more broadly about how people have used water to lift each other up and celebrate, as well as further divide us. Together, we can work to make our ocean—and the institutions working to protect it—accessible and welcoming for everyone.