Updated: Aug 12, 2020
Randy Rowel Jr. is an Annapolis environmental scientist and educator who sees the current demands for social justice through the lens of being a black man, and also the lens of someone who has focused his life on making America green again.
“My goal in life is to take as many people that are living in those environments that are most vulnerable out of those environments,” he said. “We get them in tune and in in touch with the natural environment, so that they can see all the great things that exist right outside their community."
Rowel is a global environmental consultant with a masters degree from Virginia Tech. He is also a science teacher at a Fort Meade middle school and has been a diversity and inclusion coordinator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
He said he believes there are many aspects to the disparity minority communities face, particularly black communities, regarding access, opportunity and even personal perspective relating to the natural areas of Anne Arundel County, and the outdoors in general.
“I always say that if you come outside of your house every day and you see ducks, snakes, turtles and rabbits running around, and birds flying by, cranes, that can give different interpretations or appreciation for the outdoors,” Rowel said. “But if you come out in front of your door every day and you see drug needles and trash, hear gunshots regularly...you see this every day that also gives you a certain appreciation or an ‘unappreciation’ for the natural environment.”
Like many issues that negatively impact black communities, he sees much of the catalyst for the inequity as being rooted in problems with the government system. He said the strong focus of the county on the environmental integrity of the Chesapeake Bay and other natural resources has sometimes been to the detriment of minority communities.
He sees irony in the fact that white government workers who may come to black communities to work on watershed-related infrastructure projects, are probably totally unaware of how isolated the families in those communities have become from the natural world.
“I always say--Are people natural resources?” Rowel asked. “And the answer is yes. Because the people are the ones who are going to take care of natural environment. So, if the people are a natural resource, what is more important to take care of and invest in? The environment, or the people?
“And I think for a long time, there's been an extreme amount of disinvestment into our
communities, which has led to a lot of the mistrust and misguidance we're seeing now"
Part of the answer, Rowel believes, is a shift in funding. But part of the answer lies he thinks on how black Americans perceive the outdoors over time.
The perspective of many African people centuries ago for the most part, was that of individuals who lived with and from nature in small rural communities. That changed drastically when they were imprisoned and immersed into inhumane conditions as slaves in America. Daily life for most in America included extremely long days of forced labor in the outdoors.
A negative association of the outdoors may have continued on into the 20th century and Rowel even sees tendrils of this outdoor disenfranchisement today with the process of gentrification.
“I mean, you got to remember we were promised 40 acres and a mule(after the Civil War),” he said. “So when people think about access to the outdoors, it’s more so from a hard and tarnished aspect. We were cut out of that whole, movement.
“We were cut out of our connections to the natural environment. Our waterfront land that was owned by us, pre and post slavery was all due to gentrification--pretty much swiped away from us. They bought us out and moved us out, claiming that we couldn't pay taxes on land property.”
Rowel comes from a farming family. He said he played college basketball and also played some semi-pro ball afterward. He has experienced life as a black American living in both rural and urban areas in Maryland and North Carolina.
He also stands in a rare category of professionals in America. Only two percent of school teachers in America are black and male. His environmental vocation may also make him a rarity in the black community.
But for Rowel, he recalled his first experience of stepping out into nature was like love at first site,
“I've always been infatuated with the outdoors,” he said. “I sat and asked myself what it is that I wanted to do. Where was I at when I was most happy? And that is in the outdoors."
He knows what a positive impact time in the outdoors can have on all people, including black America. It may be an uphill journey, but he is marching forward to do what he can to educate people on this often unexplored area of social injustice.