In Celebration of Black History Month, Bernheim’s Field Ambassador interviewed folks prominent within their communities and asked them to share their connections with land and heritage. In today’s interview, we share and welcome the stories of a respected Construction Trainer at YouthBuild Louisville, DeMarcus Keene. DeMarcus grew up in an urban environment in the East Russell Neighborhood near downtown Louisville. He spent quite a bit of time outdoors as a kid and during his profession with YBL. Outside of YBL, DeMarcus helps community members, operates his personal podcast & clothing brand, as well as spends time with his family. The summarized transcription below reveals a shared experience of urban Black folks with nature.
Alrighty! Can you tell me a little bit about your family and where you’re from?
My name is Demarcus Keene and I was born and raised in Louisville, KY. That I know of my granny and her kids are from Louisville – my granny made good hot-water cornbread! I’m unsure where her parents are from, but I grew up in Village West on 10th St. over by Beecher Terrace. I grew up in the remnants of red lining and during a time when people were leaving the community. We just never talked about it though. Still, I can say that I am learning about how my old community used to be a part of the Black Walnut St.
Growing up did your family have any outdoor traditions?
For Labor day we all used to go to Deam’s Lake in Indiana [Borden, IN]. When I was a kid, we used to get together as a family, but outside of that we went to neighborhood parks all the time and would be outside often – I was always outside as a kid.
We really used the outdoors and parks as social-gathering areas. I would meet my friends and family at the park. We would just hang out, meet for social events, or just chill. Oftentimes we would go to the parks for sports too. I remember we would go to play ball, football, or even just throw rocks and stuff!
I want to backtrack to mention how your family used nature spaces for social events and activities. I feel that’s something many urban Black people can relate to because that is something we are accustomed to doing as kids. We don’t really define or sometimes resonate with nature and nature-based spaces in a scientific or exploratory way. Often when we interact with these spaces, we are excited to be outdoors and engage in cookouts, family reunions, or other events at the park. That’s a unifying way of how we connect with nature and expose youth to the outdoors.
Is this a practice that you want to continue on with your kids?
Ah yea! My son LOVES nature and the outdoors! He’s 14 now but between 6-8 he loved all the animals, grass, and everything! My daughter too, she loves the outdoors. I remember when we used to go to Waterfront Park and hang out. Now that’s a big tradition for any Louisvillian – white, Black, or whoever. We would go to the walking bridge and let the kids play in the sprinklers. So many good memories were made in that area. It was such a great opportunity to be able to enjoy in that space! I will never forget the first time I took my daughter out there, she wanted to go back EVERY day.
When I was younger, we had to go outside instead of having all the technology my kids have today. So, I appreciate that they are able to find joy and respect for nature. And, if they ever wanted to gravitate or steer themselves into a nature type career, I will help and support them do that.
How would you define connecting with nature?
We got the physical aspect of nature – a leaf that came from an oak tree, birds and their chirping, and all of that. Then we have the art element and meditation component – calming down, being at peace. When I reflect on what’s nature and how we interact with it I keep thinking of how we use nature for meditation and mindfulness! I’m replaying the sounds of animals outdoors, oceans waves, and trees outside. In my mind, that’s all nature and we use it therapeutically.
Before we did the interview, you were a little hesitant because some part of you felt like you didn’t have enough meaningful connections with nature to talk about.
Just based on your own definition and recapping on your experiences with nature What are some of your experiences?
Well, you know in our community, it’s spiritual to connect with nature! Spirituality is a big thing! I want to clarify that I’m not speaking on the religious aspect of it. That’s a whole different thing separate from this spirituality piece. It all manifests from a spiritual realm first, then all the other aspects [the physical, arts, and meditation] are connected into that. All in all, it helps you grow and develop into an adult.
But I used to walk! I didn’t walk in the “woods” but I used to walk everywhere to different places. I would put my headphones on and just start walking. I know we’re in the city, but during these walks I would still be out in nature. We live in an urban area but it’s important to recognize the nature around us, listen to the birds, breathe the air, and let go.
Now I’m a little older than you but perhaps you did the activity where you trace different items from nature? We would take leaves and acorns from outside to notice the different textures. Then we would put a sheet of paper over the leaves or acorns and shade around it. We did this in elementary school too! It seemed woodsy to me.
As a kid we would learn about different plants and trees at the community centers. I’m unsure of their titles but people would come to the community centers and show us different plants. From what I remember, most of everybody that worked at the center was black.
Was it common for youth to join boys and girls clubs or community centers, to be active outside of home?
Ah yeah! When we were coming up in the boys and girls club settings, we had a bunch of role models. That’s where we hung out! That’s where most of us [youth] got saved. I’m talking about not going to jail, getting into as much trouble, or even getting killed. We had an option to get out and go play on the basketball team and take on jobs at the YMCA – to be exact the 10th Street Y[MCA]. We did a bunch of community service there too. That’s a great tradition that’s gone now!
Now, you work at YBL [YouthBuild Louisville] and spend a lot of time outdoors with the young adults at different construction sites or even at YBL with the Workshop being an indoor-outdoor space. Even during my year with the UCC [Urban Conservation Corps] Team, I remember members from the construction team asking questions and trying different produce from the garden.
Do you feel like your team is benefiting more from working closely outdoors instead of 100% inside?
Right, definitely outside of our work responsibilities and safety [training] we take time to enjoy the outdoors on a sunny day. We might get together in a work circle and do a little Kumbaya. I am realizing just from this conversation with you how much nature is involved in everything. We build garden beds for people all over this city! We literally help people to connect with nature and soil. We meet loads of people who are passionate about planting and nature.
Just having the UCC program at YouthBuild makes us more conscious of nature. It makes us happy that we can cook and eat the produce from the garden. It makes us all proud that we grow our own food. Just earlier today, a student said they wanted to join the UCC program after they finished their Construction PACT and the YouthBuild Graduation.
There are many definitions and thoughts about nature and green spaces that were given to us. To be honest, we don’t always associate with them.
There were so many things that I thought Black people just didn’t do like kayaking, hiking, and jumping out of planes. With time, I am seeing my friends do some of these things and they look fun! It makes me consider having those experiences and sharing them with my wife and kids. I want them to have the best and most experiences.
It wasn’t always that way for me because sometimes my elders had prejudices that put me in a box. I know sometimes they were unintentional, and the elders wanted to protect us but I don’t think nature was put here to harm us. It was put here to help us. This mentality helps me step outside of my comfort zone and try to be involved in nature when I can.
Is there anything else you would like to share in this conversation about nature?
We take for granted the impacts of nature. Whenever I visit my family’s block and I see litter on the ground I pick it up! Their homes are like my home. I respect the nature in the space. When we can respect nature and spaces then we can protect it. We need to understand that this could be anywhere – the forest, the front yard, the park.
Dang that was deep! I never really thought about myself as a nature person or a steward, this is just what I did. It’s all coming to me! I don’t even know what a nature person is anymore. You are making me think about my experiences in nature is helping me see that I actually am more connected to nature than I think.