Our C-U Women Outdoors series is all about highlighting the women in our local RuggedOutdoors community who are passionate about the outdoors. Meet Ruth Nicole Brown, a professor at the University of Illinois whose research focuses on black girlhood and their experiences outdoors.
Name: Ruth Nicole Brown
Occupation: Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. (Editor’s Note: Since this article was originally published, Ruth Nicole became Professor and Inaugural Chairperson of the Department of African American and African Studies at Michigan State University.)
Ruth Nicole Brown is an artist, scholar, mother, and outdoor enthusiast. She is the visionary of Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT), an intentional social practice of celebrating Black girlhood with Black girls and those who love them. Brown is an Associate Professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.
What does the “outdoors” mean to you?
I grew up in south suburban Chicago and we played outside. For me, the outside is synonymous with the outdoors. The goal was to get outside as early your parents would agree to, knock on the doors of friends to see if they could come out and play, and enjoy the neighborhood together. As a child the outdoors meant a good time and provided opportunities to wonder and ask lots of questions about it all.
My mother often tells a story about how I begged her to become a member of our local nature center at age 9. I was really in awe of Owls and owl pellets. Remember the physical cube where you can put your hand inside various holes to feel what was inside and make guesses at the material? Well I’m still very much into how the outdoors make me feel, exploring those feelings, collecting materials of different textures, and learning about plant and animal life. I find wildness especially intriguing.
Recently, I’ve returned to the outdoors. I had almost forgotten how much I love it. Now, I’m playing outside as a researcher. The things I now collect I look up and study. I write about the questions I have and take lots of photographs. I am interested in making connections between the outdoors and Black girlhood as it relates to environmental justice, walking meditation, field recordings, Black girls and women’s contemplative thought, and Black artist’s representations and ecowomanist preoccupations with the outdoors.
If the weather is nice on a Saturday, what can we find you doing?
On a nice Saturday I’m heading to the Douglas-Hart Nature Center with my four children.
Your current research is focused on black girlhood and the outdoors. Was there anything specific that lead you to this topic?
There were several things that happened that lead me back outside. Without getting into the specifics of it all, I believe that my heart was leading me. In many ways feeling entrapped by buildings and classrooms, needing space to clear my mind, and wanting to listen more deeply to my internal compass, I went outdoors. It was a search for pleasure and honestly, some kind of escape. I found desire and also the police. It was no escape. In any case my mind started working with my heart and my hands and answers presented themselves in various color combinations, sounds, and found objects.
Now, I’m writing about the connections between Black girlhood and nature. I’ve written a lot of poetry. I had the awesome experience of taking classes from one of my colleagues at UIUC, Ryan Griffis and became introduced to the language of the Anthropocene. So much is coming together for me and like much of the research I most admire, I love when scholars make connections between commonly assumed unrelated topics. I’m thankful to the research of Dr. Treva Ellison, Dr. Chelsea Frazier, Dr. Fikile Nxumalo, Dr. Sarah Jane Cervenak and Dr. J. Kameron Carter who have all written so powerfully on various aspects of Black ecology and whose work I was really glad to find when I began my own study.
What is the biggest obstacle young black girls face when it comes to spending time outdoors/in nature?
The biggest obstacle young Black girls face is what bell hook’s refers to as the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. June Jordan’s Poem About My Rights, makes this argument in a way that's tangible. When Black girls and women are outside surveillance is heavy and our identities are assumed suspect. We are expected to modify our behavior to keep the social order as is. I want to change the social order so that there are no obstacles young Black girls have to endure to do what they want to do with their own bodies. Our very presence changes the climate and policies that regulate all things outdoors so often do not anticipate Black women and girls showing up with enough care and specificity as they should. I know that safety is an illusion. I really interested in histories of conservation and preservation because it says so much about who and what is considered valuable.
How can the outdoor industry as a whole improve in this area?
I think the industry can and should listen to activists. The industry must confront their complicity in Indigenous and Black land dispossession. The industry can learn from the ways Black women and girls do relate to the outdoors. I love a good hike but I hike differently.
How can our local organizations like our park districts, outdoor stores, schools, and local governments help?
I want to talk parks as shelter, unsafe, and conspiring. I want to redo parks with Black girls at the center of design. I want more public sculptures by Black women artists. I want community lead government planning where people, especially the most marginalized among them are first considered in the ways space is made and used. The education system across all levels is in need of a complete transformation. I would like to see Black history seriously taught in school. I’d love for Black and Indigenous expertise to be a part of all improvement efforts. Stores can commit to NOT profiling customers by age and race and hire diverse employees. Local governments can allocate even greater resources to park districts, recreation, and education and listen to the officials, activists, and community members who have really good solutions to persistent inequities.
When the Champaign Outdoors store moved and I saw a vacant building downtown, I actually had a really bold and dynamic vision. I think it would be really cool to build a social justice nonprofit teen center operated primarily by young people. I think they could use a space of their own and do wonders for improving environments of all kinds. Also, C-U is just really in need of more places where youth of color experience belonging in ways that allow them to dream bigger.
Why is it important that women of all ages and races are represented more in the outdoors?
For many of us, the outdoors is significant to who we are and how we want to live. Plus, many of us already have a relationship with the outdoors that does not need to be sold back to us in ways we do not appreciate nor really understand. Representation has a direct relationship to how we live our lives. It’s so important to reach out, inquire, and celebrate diverse perspectives just as you’ve done with this campaign. My hope is that it will enlarge our collective imagination and allow for some critical dialogue and reconsiderations.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Revolutionaries must never be in too much of a hurry…” –Assata Shakur.
What’s at the top of your bucket list?
I really want to go camping with my family in at least seven different countries.
Is there a project that you are a part of that you're most excited about right now?
I’m finishing up a conceptual performance art project called “Bubble Letters”. Bubble Letters is meant travel to various parks, woods, and forests and features Black women’s writing on nature, walking mediation, and remixed signage all for the purpose of making sure Black girls of all ages feel invited, welcomed, and appreciated.