Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Black conservationist aims to welcome more people of color to environmental movement


Fred Tutman has devoted much of his life to protecting Maryland's Patuxent River. He's a Black man, which is relevant here because his chosen field is dominated by white conservationists. Mr. Tutman wants to make the environmental movement more welcoming, especially for young people of color. NPR's Julie Depenbrock, take me to the river.

JULIE DEPENBROCK, BYLINE: It's a crisp autumn afternoon, and Fred Tutman is walking along the Patuxent River with his dog.

FRED TUTMAN: Yeah, that's River, the dog.

DEPENBROCK: River the dog is drinking from the actual river.

Oh, and there she goes drinking it.

TUTMAN: There she goes drinking it. She'll also probably jump in at some point, knowing her.

DEPENBROCK: Which is not ideal. She'll probably need a bath. That's because the Patuxent is one of the most polluted waterways in the state, scoring a D on the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay and Watershed Report Card. Tutman knows this well. He's the Patuxent Riverkeeper, part of the Waterkeepers Alliance, community advocates charged with protecting waterways all over the world. I ask him about the stretch of river we're looking at right now.

How clean would you say the water here is?

TUTMAN: Oh, water quality is far from clean, right?

DEPENBROCK: Over the decades, the Patuxent River has faced pollution from farm runoff, mine waste and coal-fired power plants. These days, one of the greatest threats is sewage. Tutman points out that there are 36 wastewater treatment plants in the watershed.

TUTMAN: And there's hardly a day when there's not a problem or a leak or some kind of a glitch in one of those wastewater treatment plants. That's what's killing the Patuxent more than anything.

DEPENBROCK: Because a glitch at a treatment plant can mean raw, untreated sewage ends up released into the river. Tutman has spent 20 years fighting to clean up problems like this. For him, the fate of the Patuxent is personal. Tutman's family has owned a farm near the river since the 1920s. Growing up, the Patuxent was his swimming hole.

TUTMAN: I was pretty much a free spirit out here as a boy. I don't think my mother knew where the heck I was most of the time.

DEPENBROCK: Tutman didn't start out as an environmentalist. He was actually a broadcast journalist. But he says he saw how pollution affected people with less political power. So at the age of 40, he went to law school.

TUTMAN: For me, protecting the environment was about fighting over race and class and access and entitlements, none of which I could touch as a journalist, none of which I could touch as a person whose job was to document and tell other people's stories.

DEPENBROCK: In law school, he learned about the riverkeeping movement and realized the work he really wanted to do was out in nature. As a riverkeeper, Tutman filed lawsuits against alleged polluters and often won. One of those victories shut down a coal waste disposal site that was contaminating local groundwater. He says the key to his work is building partnerships with communities all along the Patuxent and listening to the people who live there, people who often feel ignored.

TUTMAN: I think having the perspective of being a person of color brings you into the ambit of so many people in this watershed who feel frozen out, left out. They feel like they're outsiders.

DEPENBROCK: Tutman has also sometimes felt like an outsider as a Black man working with environmental organizations that are overwhelmingly white, including his own alliance of waterkeepers.

TUTMAN: I had at least one waterkeeper say to me, we let you into this movement and now you want to change everything?

DEPENBROCK: Tutman says he does want to change things.

TUTMAN: To the extent these movements are owned by the people in them, we need more people of color in them. It's just that simple.

DEPENBROCK: He's made that his mission, and he's starting with young people.



DEPENBROCK: A couple of years ago, he founded a summer camp to introduce kids to the outdoors, especially in communities close to where Tutman himself grew up. About 30 kids participated this past summer.

ABBY: I'm Abby (ph) and I'm 15.

CAROLYN: I'm Carolyn (ph) and I'm 13.

CARLA: I'm Carla (ph) and I'm 11.

DEPENBROCK: On a rainy day this fall, many of them gathered for a camp reunion and talked about what they'd learned.

CAROLYN: How to kayak better and not flip over your kayak.

CARLA: Being able to fish and swim in the river.

DEPENBROCK: I asked Blair Spear (ph), mother of 13-year-old Bryant (ph), whether she had anything like this growing up.



SPEAR: No, I didn't get experience like this until I was in my 20s, when I was able to come out and actually learn kayaking for the first time on the Patuxent River.

DEPENBROCK: It's this experience in nature that Tutman wants to share with the kids at camp. And maybe someday they'll put their own stamp on the environmental movement, because as Tutman says, when it comes to fixing these rivers...

TUTMAN: I think they need all the help they can get, all the new ideas, all the new blood they can possibly get. So here we go.

DEPENBROCK: The call to action from this riverkeeper to the next generation of environmental stewards. Julie Depenbrock, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.