Tamika Jaja loves the outdoors. She spends as much time as she can in forests, swamps, and creeks, volunteering to net birds with the Huron Clinton Metroparks or monitor frogs and toads and sample for benthic invertebrates with the Friends of the Rouge.
She often brings her son with her during these endeavors. She likes to expose him to nature and science. But sometimes, she admits, she brings him along so people might not be afraid of her.
That’s because the majority of the people she encounters on hikes, cleanups, and citizen science projects are white. And as a Black woman, Jaja wants to make sure she “seems less of a threat” while she’s outdoors enjoying the flora and fauna, waterways, and wetlands.
“I don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable,” she tells Planet Detroit. “I am definitely self-aware and self-conscious about that. And it’s definitely an issue.”
Jaja fell in love with the outdoors while in college in Wisconsin. A strange twist of fate in the form of a research project on the sleep patterns of fruit flies (yes, you read that right) led her into an entomology lab, and she never looked back. Bugs are her thing.
And while she’s had a few jobs in the environmental field, she currently works for a medical supply company. So she loves to get outdoors and volunteer for conservation organizations as a way to feed her passion. Netting birds with HCMA is especially fun, she says.
“I get the chance to learn the setup, and the whole process of getting the bird out of the net, weighing it, removing the band, checking for different health statuses, and identifying it,” she says. “And while all this is going on, we’re looking at bugs and plants. It’s very, very educational.”
Jaja says she’s never had an overtly negative encounter with anyone over her race in the out-of-doors in Metro Detroit, but she often feels out of place.
“I’ve come in sometimes, and people look shocked, like, you know, they don’t get to hang around Black people, and so when they see one it’s kind of like, they do a double-take.”
Jaja says she’d like to see more Black and brown people venture into the outdoors and become involved in local conservation efforts. But for that to happen, she says, conservation organizations may need to become more welcoming to people of color.
“I think that representation is very important when hiring staff,” she says. “Making a more conscious effort to seek people of color to hold those positions would help people feel less intimidated. There are definitely friendly white people, but especially when younger people see that there are people of color, they’re like, ‘Oh, you know, this is something that I can do.’”
She’d also like to see leadership within nature-oriented conservation groups become more diverse. “When the whole board is white, it’s kind of discouraging,” she says.
Jaja thinks she’s had an impact on some of the white people who may have had racial stereotypes in mind when they first met her.
“I think a lot of times people don’t hang around Black people, or they’ve never interacted with them, so whatever they know is what they see on the media,” she says. “And so when they get a chance to say, ‘Oh, you know, I’ve seen her here a couple times, she’s been volunteering, maybe, she’s (laughs) not on drugs or on welfare. Maybe she’s okay’.”
She also says she’s aware she may have it easier in these situations because she’s a woman.
“America has this whole fear factor with black males being rapists and killers and robbers,” she says. “So they couldn’t be out in the woods with anything good going on. It definitely makes me angry. My personality is very timid, and I’m very soft-spoken. But when I hear these things, it’s heartbreaking. It really chips away at you to hear stories about Black people just doing normal everyday things — nature walking and jogging or just walking down the street, living life — and people feel that this space isn’t for them, that these are white spaces.”
Jaja would rather focus on learning the names of native insects than being distracted by how she may be perceived by others, but knows that it’s likely not a luxury she’ll have any time soon.
“Being a Black person, I have two states of consciousness — how I perceive myself and then I’m always worrying about how others perceive me.”
Despite that, she intends to stay focused on her nature endeavors, and teach her kids to do the same.
“I will continue to learn about birds and continue to contribute and volunteer,” she says. “And I will teach that to my children — that no matter what obstacles or fears you may have going in, you just gotta get up and do it.”