Date August 18, 2022
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Victor Beck: Healing forests and underserved communities in northern California

Under the shade of redwood trees, Victor Beck and other queer students of color from Brown are working with a Black and Indigenous land collective to restore and steward a 900-acre forest.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Sometimes, Victor Beck’s identity feels like a heavy weight.

Beck, a rising junior at Brown University, is Native American and queer. On his home Navajo reservation in Piñon, Arizona, Beck said, many residents have limited access to medical care and mental health support and grapple with food insecurity. He often faces discrimination due to his sexual orientation, and he has watched many LGBTQ+ peers struggle with their mental health.  

But in water, Beck feels weightless. He learned as much when, in June 2022, he traveled to a remote forest in Sonoma County, California, and floated in a peaceful creek, surrounded by other queer people of color.

“There’s so much weight and tension in our bodies as queer, brown and Black peoples,” Beck said. “Water takes away that weight. Being in community with each other takes away that weight, too. They are both healing elements.”

Nature, community and healing are the prominent themes of Beck’s summer. He is one of five Brown students who are completing a 10-week fellowship at the Shelterwood Collective, a new Black and Indigenous land stewardship organization that Beck says acts as water in a stream for queer people of color — lifting them up, offering them rest, and instilling in them a reverence for the natural world.

Co-founded in 2021 by a forester and climate activist duo, the Shelterwood Collective is dedicated to promoting sustainable land stewardship and land-based community building. On the collective’s 900-acre forest in Cazadero, California, volunteer workers, local community members, students and artists-in-residence — most of whom identify as queer people of color — work together to restore a parcel of land that has seen centuries of extractive cultivation and neglect. Drawing on land stewardship traditions from Indigenous peoples and the African diaspora, the collective is not only protecting the acreage from future droughts and wildfires but also promoting a new way of living with the land — one that protects people and non-human species alike.

Under the shade of redwood trees, Beck and his fellow students are immersing themselves in more than water. They’re also diving into 10 weeks of applied learning about responsible forestry and traditional Indigenous conservation practices, all while helping to build a retreat center where Black, Indigenous and other people of color can gather and bond for generations to come.

“As an Indigenous student who cares about responsible land stewardship and building queer communities, I wanted to do something that put theory into practice,” Beck said. “The Shelterwood Fellowship gives queer people of color a way to do the hands-on work of restoring land in a place that feels welcoming and relaxing, which we sometimes struggle to find in our daily lives.”

For Beck and the other Shelterwood fellows, no two days are alike. On one day in early June, he and his fellow students took a botany tour of the land, where they learned how to identify the area’s native trees and discussed the many ways in which surrounding plants and animals depend on trees for sustenance, nutrients and shade. The following week, a handful of fellows built and installed bat homes near the property’s retreat center to help keep indoor insects at bay. And in mid-July, a few fellows and volunteers worked together to thin out Douglas fir trees on the property, bringing native trees more light and water and decreasing fire risk in the forest.

As Shelterwood’s Right Relations Fellow, Beck — who is mulling a sociology concentration at Brown — created a series of founding documents that will steer the collective’s work for years to come. Guided by conversations with others at Shelterwood and the local Kashaya and Southern Pomo Indigenous peoples, he sought answers to three complex questions: How can Shelterwood nurture and strengthen interpersonal relationships? How can its people live in harmony with the forest? And how can it create mutually beneficial relationships between humans, plants and animals?

“ I think that for a lot of Indigenous and Black people, fostering communities around land feels like an act of reclamation. ”

Victor Beck Class of 2024

Beck also created signage that introduces visitors to the collective’s land, shares the Indigenous names for many of the plant and animal species found there, and describes Shelterwood’s mission. His signage could provide inspiration for future artists-in-residence, who will focus on creating work that inspires people to interact with the environment in new, sustainable ways.

“A lot of my work involves defining what it means to be in good relationships — with each other, with the land and with all non-human beings,” Beck said. “It is my job to provide resources for people who want to unlearn so many harmful colonial ideas about what land is and what it should be used for. I think that for a lot of Indigenous and Black people, fostering communities around land feels like an act of reclamation.”

Indigenous and Black communities have much to reclaim, said Myles Lennon, an assistant professor of environment and society and anthropology at Brown who started the fellowship program as part of his long-term ethnographic research at Shelterwood. For centuries, white settlers in North America used violence to uproot Indigenous peoples from their ancestral homelands, decimating their populations. And after Reconstruction, most Black Americans didn’t receive the “40 acres and a mule” they were promised in recompense for their enslavement, nor did they get a fair chance to own property due to nationwide redlining and racist housing programs throughout the 20th century. By providing a cooperative-style retreat for those whose ancestors were dispossessed, enslaved and killed en masse, Lennon said, said the Shelterwood Collective’s work addresses the persistent legacies of early settler colonialism in the U.S.

“The violent displacement of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral homelands, and the repurposing of those lands for plantation slavery, set in motion the environmental destruction that led to climate change,” Lennon said. “This forest is approximately six times denser than it was when the Kashaya and Southern Pomo stewarded it, and that density, coupled with rising temperatures, has caused wildfires to ravage the West Coast. And so we really see bringing people back into the right relationship with the non-human world, guided partly by Indigenous and Black ancestral knowledge, as a key strategy for promoting climate resiliency and addressing climate change.”

Lennon said that Shelterwood’s founders also wanted to make the collective a welcoming space for queer people, who often have to create their own families when blood relatives don’t accept them. Building a community from the ground up as a queer person, Lennon said, feels a lot like rethinking humans’ relationship to land after so many centuries of detachment from nature: It requires time and intentionality, but it’s rewarding.

“Victor and all of the other summer fellows here identify as queer,” Lennon said, “and it was important to us to give them the opportunity to not only form a chosen family with each other but also to build close relationships with the non-human world here.”

Beck said he hopes his work at Shelterwood inspires many more people like him to take to the outdoors and reclaim it.

“This is just the beginning of the story,” he said. “Years from now, this will be one of many places where queer people of color can go to deepen their relationship with the land and deepen their relationships with each other. Black and Indigenous people of color, queer people — we are the land’s future stewards and leaders.”