The 40 Acre Conservation League
Had America kept her promise of 40 acres and a mule back in 1865, Black Americans would have an additional $326 billion lining their coffers today. It was during the conclusion of the Civil War when Commanding Union General William Tecumseh Sherman determined that true freedom could not exist without land ownership and property, thereby issuing Special Field Orders No. 15 outlining “each [newly-freed Black] family shall have a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground.” In a tragic twist however, within months, President Andrew Johnson rescinded the order, returning all property to its pre-war, White owners. According to Reuters, this devastating loss has caused irreparable harm and damage - it is a leading contributor to the Black/White racial wealth gap in the United States that continues to plague our society today.
“When considering how much land loss we have experienced… there's been a lot of systemic barriers that have prevented ownership for Black people,” shared Jade Stevens, co-founder and Board President of the 40 Acre Conservation League, a Black-led organization focused on eliminating barriers that prevent participation in the outdoor economy for people of color. “I think the biggest one is that we don't enjoy the outdoors. We love the outdoors, but there've been unfortunate situations that have caused fear that has physically prevented us from participating. This is through loans, through access, and through education that has really put us behind when it comes to enjoying the outdoors.”
Founded in 2021, the 40 Acre Conservation League is a nonprofit land conservancy on a mission to acquire and conserve natural and working lands to foster greater human connections to nature, especially among underrepresented groups. The League hopes to garner more access to the various resources and opportunities contained therein by eliminating land ownership as a barrier to participation in the outdoor economy. Intending to preserve more than 25,000 acres of land by 2030, the 40 Acre Conservation League has its work cut out for them. Because the outdoor economy is valued at half a trillion dollars, and less than 3% of Black Americans are currently participating, Stevens and her team are hoping to change the narrative.
“Looking at what I've seen in the headlines here locally in LA, and the way our communities of color are thinking about land and their impression of the outdoors, it's all unfortunately peppered with unpleasant experiences,” Stevens laments. “We've all had really great experiences with the outdoors, but unfortunately, when we enjoy it too much…” her voice trails off. “I know we’ve all heard about Bruce’s Beach.” Referencing 2022’s heavy news coverage about the grave injustice against the Bruce family’s stolen plot of land in the early 20th century and the ensuing fight it took to regain ownership succinctly captures so much of what the League’s conservation and education efforts are all about.
In 2021, having spent much of the pandemic cycling throughout much of Southern California, Stevens couldn’t help but notice the lack of melanated faces on her rides. Riding the PCH up and down the coastline, from Santa Barbara all the way down to San Diego, while taking in beautiful views of the coastline and nature, Stevens was aware she wasn’t always welcomed. “I found this was not unique. Black cyclists all have stories of having some unsafe or very uncomfortable experiences.” She soon began asking questions. “Why is this the case that there are not many people who look like us working in the outdoor economy? Who owns these outdoor recreation sites? Why aren't they owning land… why did the Bruce family lose theirs?” And finally, “It got us challenging the question of what 40 acres and a mule means.”
By partnering with several entrepreneurs who were just as passionate and are the League’s founding board members - including Blake Milton, Reuben Stewart, and Cameron Stewart - and leveraging her existing legislative partners - including Mike Gipson, Sydney Kamlager-Dove, and Anthony Rendon - the idea of land ownership and conservation became a reality. “It was during this time when California announced they had a budget surplus coming out of the Pandemic. Thank God the stars aligned where we were able to find a way to have an important conversation - a real conversation - around how more people of color can enjoy the outdoors, and it can be through land conservation.” The 40 Acre Conservation League was born.
“There's many studies that show that Black and Brown people are very concerned about the environment. They're very concerned about climate change because they also know that the direct impact will be in their community. So they are paying attention, but there's this disconnect due to us only going to places where we feel safe,” shared Stevens, dispelling the myth that Black people have no interest in the great outdoors. “We take these trips to Jamaica or other countries, and we're standing under waterfalls and getting in kayaks. In other countries, we're willing to go into debt to go to someone else's place to experience their outdoors. We just don't feel safe in our own backyard.” America’s national parks are no reprieve. “When we're talking about going to Yosemite and some of these national forests, it doesn't feel like that's a place where we are welcomed, prioritized, or celebrated. These parks are free, but we choose to pay thousands of dollars to go somewhere else to enjoy the outdoors.”
In addition to land ownership and participating in the outdoor economy, the 40 Acre Conservation League is also on a mission to inform the community about all that is at stake. Over the last year, they have hosted virtual summits and events and a Black Climate Exchange that honored Black changemakers who have impacted environmental justice. Next is Black Conservation Week, May 8-13, 2023, the inaugural event to celebrate the League’s success while celebrating their ancestors.
“We will be talking about everything from the importance of land ownership, to how to rethink and rebuild our connections to the community, what land conservation looks like, and educating those who are interested in potentially acquiring acres of land.” In addition, several grassroots environmental justice leaders will be celebrated, various discussions and panels will be held, and a larger announcement will be made outlining the various events the League will be hosting throughout the year. “Different things that we do outdoors will be showcased, from visiting wineries for wine tasting to going outside and cycling through different routes, to show how all of this is connected to land ownership.”
Creating these safe spaces where people of color can learn how to enjoy the outdoors and build a life is important. For Stevens, she has found a few places throughout LA that have become a refuge where she can let down her guard and simply enjoy the vibe. Post & Beam and Mel’s Fish Shack are her immediate go-to’s for a great meal, while the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook captures an unforgettable view she can’t get anywhere else. “You can see literally all of LA. If you look one way, you see the beach; [if] you look another, you see Downtown. And if you look the other way, you're looking at the 105. It's perfect.”