Sound & Vision: Jourdan Imani Keith Asks, Are You an Endangered Species?

Sound and Vision
08/13/2020
Emily Fox

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Jourdan Imani Keith’s life as a poet began as a kid, while she was at camp, being swarmed by bugs on top of a mountain in Maine.

“What I did was close my eyes just to escape the moment because the counselor had told me not to bother her. So, I quieted myself. And when I opened my eyes up bird flew by at eye level. And just in that moment, everything changed. I was stunned at seeing that happen,” says Imani Keith. She thought about depriving her other sense. She covered her ears and smelled new smells. “I actually experienced a natural high.”

After that, she went to her diary and wrote her first poem.

“And it was a poem about the clouds and God crying and it was really bad. It was really bad poem, which I promptly showed to my counselor, who was kind, but that that was the first time that I wrote a poem that wasn't an assignment,” she says.

Today, Jourdan Imani Keith is the Seattle Civic Poet and her work explores the intersection of the natural world and identity. She was the Seattle Public Libraries first naturalist in resident and founded the environmental justice organization, the Urban Wilderness Project.

She spoke with Sound & Vision host Emily Fox about he work with that organization and seeing the world throught the lens of a naturalist and poet.

On a question she asks herself and others, are you an endangered species?:

Looking at what are the social, political, emotional factors in your life, what is your access to water and space look like? And to ask the question individually, are “you” really does mean “you.” Are you an endangered species? What's happening in your life? Pay attention and protect yourself. And then look outside of yourself and see collectively, through other people in your community and your family in your neighborhood, those same things that put them at risk.

On whether she considers herself an endangered species:

Yes, I am. I feel that I am. And it bothers me. I live in Seattle and drink the water here in Seattle because I know it's safer than other places in the country, so that, I feel, reduced my risk significantly, which isn't the case for everywhere in the country. And yet there's things that are impacting the rest of the natural world that I can't control. Toxins are being released into the air and water. And then I am a black woman. As the Black Lives Matter movement has made it abundantly clear by the very disturbing images that we see that physically, my presence is considered a threat to people who feel threatened by me. And then my gender and as a woman, regardless of my ethnicity, but more so because I'm Black, there's exposure to toxins in the environment that disproportionately impact us as women. We carry some of the same things that put other species at risk, like our bodies are meant to hold fat and a lot of the toxins that are in the environment are stored in fat. So, there's a lot of different levels that I feel aware of.

On her article “At Risk” and the work of the Urban Wilderness Project:

What Urban Wilderness Project did was to make sure people had the gear that they needed to be comfortable, to have the right layers of clothing and that that wasn't on them to purchase and buy. So, we're moving barriers to access. There are emotional barriers to access. There's emotional access that we worked on with Urban Wilderness Project to make sure that young people weren't experiencing the wilderness in a group where they were ethnically isolated — they were the only Black person there. The only Native American person, only Latino, only Asian person on the trip. So, changing the dynamics of what an outdoor trip looked like, trying to make that a cross cultural experience to build unity across ethnic lines but also to not find yourself culturally isolated when evening time comes.

On her favorite moments as Seattle Civic Poet:

I wrote a poem that I did not know would be so prophetic, but it was based on research. It's called “Let Seattle Be Seattle,” and it is modeled after Langston Hughes’ poem "Let America Be America."  And I feel that that poem has reached people in a way that I could not have known that it would about the history of our of our city. And I'm calling all of the beauty of our city and all of the ways that this city is broken. And and one of the things I love about this city is that it constantly, as I said in my poem, it constantly fights itself to undo its present harms. It recognizes ancient homes and it's a fight within itself. But there are a lot of places that that don't wrestle. And Seattle's not new to that. So, I'm proud of that.

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