Growing up, AmaRece Davis (pictured) didn’t have the most-positive outlook. In fact, it was the same outlook as most of the young men in Homewood, one of the most economically depressed, crime-ridden areas of Pittsburgh, Pa.
Drugs, gangs, poverty, lack of opportunities. The turf is as familiar as the routine. Two of his older brothers got caught up in that routine and are serving life sentences for murder.
“There were a lot of negative influences present,” Davis explained to me when I called him this week. “Every day when you wake up you hear about someone being shot.”
With AmaRece, though, the routine wasn’t the focus, it was the turf.
At 15, he became involved with an organization called the “Student Conservation Association” (SCA), an organization that places young people in activities that help preserve the environment, giving them internships in parts all over the nation.
It was his chance to express a desire to rebuild his dilapidated community literally from the ground up.
His work with the SCA, landscaping trails, clearing bush, digging, planting, building, and cultivating around Pittsburgh got him a shot working in Seqouia National Park in California. For a kid who never had any exposure to the outdoors other than a camping trip, AmaRece took to conservation like a fish to water.
“I just realized how free I was in that environment, and you don’t have to be trapped in that environment.”
In the park, he sat under trees that shot as far in to the sky as his dreams. And he began to see possibilities. Not just for himself, but for the place he came from that so many had given up on, even its residents.
I sat at the base of one of these giants on my 18th birthday and thought about all of my friends and relatives who had never been out of Pittsburgh and of others who hadn’t even survived to be 18.
I came home a different person. I had found something larger than myself, figuratively and literally. I never used to care about litter, for example, and based on all the trash on the streets where I lived, neither did anyone else.
AmaRece wrote those words for an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He said he realizes what planting a little greenery can do for people who normally only see it as weeds growing through cracked concrete. Knowing he had to take action, AmaRece started a recycling program at Westinghouse High School and earned the nickname “Recycling Rece.”
The school has some of the lowest test scores in the country. No one expects much from the kids who go there — and believe me, the students know it — but other students saw what I was doing and offered to help and prove the skeptics wrong. Imagine what could happen if there were more role models in our neighborhood. Kids here would grow up with hope instead of hopelessness.
He said there are some parks and gardens in his community, but people don’t utilize them and preserve them the way they should. People where he lives just use them as a place to hang out, but it doesn’t have to be that way, he says.
“Its a resource to bring people together to have events there to keep them united. I was finding out about these things because of the SCA. There were so many parks and trails to go to for free.”
Now that he’s completed an SCA internship at the African Burial National Monument in New York, AmaRece, now 18, is planning on a career as a park ranger, of which there are few African Americans.
In fact, participation among African Americans in outdoor activities is particularly low. Research done by the Outdoor Foundation showed that in 2012, outdoor participation between ages 13 to 17 was highest among Whites at 64 percent, but lowest among Blacks at 46 percent. In fact, in their survey, when asked what keeps them from participating outdoors, 36 percent of Blacks simply said they have no interest.
But if AmaRece has his way, that will change.
He knows that his studies and his work will take him away from Pittsburgh, but he eventually wants to return to his home, committed to its establishment as an urban environmental beacon.
“I used to want to sit in the ‘hood all day and do nothing with my life,” he said. “Becoming a park ranger is something I can do to achieve something in my life and have a better outlook on it.”
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter:@madisonjgray