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Duluth photographer's book part of school pilot program

Dudley Edmondson, photographer and author of "The Black & Brown Faces in America's Wild Places" (Photo submitted by Dudley Edmondson)

The work of a Duluth wildlife photographer who aims to connect people of color with the outdoors has found its way into the classrooms of one of the biggest school districts in the state.

Dudley Edmondson's book, "Black and Brown Faces in America's Wild Places," has been adopted by the St. Paul school district as the basis of a course being piloted at two of its six high schools.

Instruction is through the district's AVID program, an elective college readiness class that targets students in the academic middle.

Edmondson says he hopes his book will help bridge a gap he sees between outdoor recreation and people of color, particularly blacks.

If it goes well, the curriculum will spread to all district high schools next year, said Tara Steele, the AVID coordinator for the district who helped write the curriculum.

The Duluth News Tribune sat down with Edmondson to talk about the program and his book, which chronicles people of color who have careers connected to the outdoors.

Q: How did you get the idea for this book?

A: I've been traveling as a wildlife photographer for a couple of decades now, and I find that whenever I go to public lands or national parks I don't see a lot of people who look like me there, particularly African-Americans. I know that public lands belong to all Americans, but for whatever reason, this segment of the population hasn't seemed to really latch onto it. I wanted this book to create a set of outdoor role models that could help African-Americans get more of a sense of ownership about our public land.

Q: Why do you think African-Americans are disconnected from nature?

A: I think part of it has to do with the fact that African-Americans never had an outdoor recreational component in their lives. Whenever they were outside it was related to basically putting food on the table and working as slaves, as sharecroppers. The outdoor experience that most African-Americans know of comes from that generation of people, from the generation of cotton pickers. It wasn't a very pleasant experience. ... If you think about the way your own relationship started with the outdoors, maybe it was because you had a cabin, or you went fishing. No one they knew had a cabin; there was no leisure. Those kinds of stories never happened for African-Americans.

Q: How do you think your book can help change that?

A: It is showing African-Americans people who look like them that have positive things to say about nature and the outdoors. It's not another story from a grandparent who picked cotton for 14 hours a day in the hot sun and barely got any water to drink. ... These are positive stories about how the outdoors has helped people they relate to mentally and physically.

Q: Why is it so important to have a connection with the outdoors?

A: I don't really think you can be human and happy mentally and physically without a connection with nature. You may not think about your connection on a regular basis, but it's there. If we didn't have clear air, clean water, good-quality soil to grow crops, there wouldn't be a single human being on this planet. ... Human beings are every bit as dependent on the environment as a tiger or a wolf or a bumble bee. We need to see and appreciate and understand how we fit in to the web of life, so to speak.

Q: Why is it so important for people of color in particular to have a connection with the outdoors?

A: There will be a shift in who heads up conservation, and that responsibility will fall on people of color as their numbers increase, so we have to make sure that group of people understands what's at stake. I think people sort of protect what they love and understand; and if people have no connection to nature and the environment, then how can you really expect them to want to protect it?

Q: How does it feel to know that your book will be in the hands of hundreds of students in the St. Paul school district?

A: It feels amazingly gratifying.