Highland Profiles is a series that aims to highlight West Virginia’s exemplary outdoor adventurers, business owners, and community innovators. If you’ve got someone in mind worthy of a profile, drop us a line: email@example.com.
Meet Sheila Coleman-Castells: mother, activist, advocate, environmentalist, teacher, academic, lobbyist, and African American. Her race is mentioned here—last but certainly not least—because while she’s all of these things and so much more, her skin color has undoubtedly played a central and powerful role in her momentous and influential life.
I’ve wanted to profile Sheila for some time but given the heightened state of race relations across the United States, she and I decided the time was right for her deserved appearance in our pages. I met Sheila in 2018 when I joined her in Charleston to lobby against Senate Bill 270 that would have allowed commercial logging in West Virginia state parks. She immediately struck me as a graceful and powerful presence, eloquent yet fiery and ready to take on whatever injustices met her gaze. Through grass-roots activism and coalition building, led in part by Sheila, the bill was pulled and our parks remain chainsaw-free.
Sheila has more degrees than most: a bachelor’s degree in French with a minor in Spanish, master’s degrees in French literature and education, and a PhD in education research. She’s currently pursuing a master’s in theology.
Sheila resides with her son John-Paul in Eglon, a small farming hamlet in Preston County. We met at Cathedral State Park—her favorite hiking spot—to talk about her advocacy and lobbying work, her life as a black woman in West Virginia, and the potential path forward to a racially just and equal country. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What’s your coming to West Virginia story?
People often ask me why I came to West Virginia. – I can’t think in crowded urban spaces where there’s no green.
I’m a native Washingtonian. My son and I often came to the Eastern Panhandle on weekends because he was a little boy who loved anything natural. He loved finding animals and I taught him to fish in Canaan Valley. I always wanted to live here, but I didn’t know how I could do that. An opportunity came up in 2006 and I jumped on it. I was able to relocate my business and begin serving West Virginia organizations with advocacy.
What outdoor advocacy work have you done in WV?
I started life as a teacher, went on to become a professor, and consider myself a researcher in education and labor studies. I use that experience to do advocacy for marginalized people in West Virginia and other states, including women and under-resourced individuals.
I worked with the Boy Scouts for years; my son is an Eagle Scout. I’ve encouraged young people to work in conservation. I especially wanted them to consider the National Park Service.
“If there aren’t people that look like you in our nation’s finest spaces that are interpreting the natural world in ways you can relate to, you’ll feel like it’s not for you.”
The state park logging bill we lobbied against was some of the most important work I did, and it was unpaid. I started to come to West Virginia because of the state parks. It seemed criminal to log our old-growth forests, the very resource people come here to see. I was able to organically get the community together, get a petition signed, and speak to legislators on why this was a bad idea.
I’m currently helping to build an all-access, all-abilities playground in Preston County. Specifically, we want to build an all-natural playground using the contours of land to build spaces that are inviting, interesting, and fit the community. Accessibility is a big problem in our state for the disabled. It’s important to remove racist and cultural barriers to natural spaces, but this isn’t being addressed by anyone.
It’s past due for a collective conversation about race and outdoor recreation. What are your thoughts on the black experience in outdoor spaces?
Generally speaking, we tend to feel like we are not welcome. When we’re not welcome, not only do we keep our children and families out of these spaces, we lose our opportunity to think of these spaces as part of our lives. Think of how many young people have gotten into land and natural resource conservation through camping, fishing, or rock climbing. If these things aren’t available to us because of negative experiences, they don’t factor into our decision making. It’s important to get the full benefit of American life, not just a sliver. Often times in urban spaces, where and how we can dream is limited. If we can bust down the barriers and expose young people to worlds they’ve never seen, then they start to think like I did at that age. To me, opening these experiences to everyone means that we prosper personally and economically. People begin to see they can do so much with their lives in the natural world.
Tell me about your experiences in outdoor spaces.
I learned to appreciate the natural world very early because it was all around me. My father’s family owned land in southern Virginia that we were given during Emancipation in the 1860s. When you’re a kid and safe on your family’s land, you can roam without fear. I was also fortunate to have a family with a home on a segregated beach outside of Annapolis, Maryland. I didn’t have fear of the water; I learned to swim. Because my family had their own spaces, I didn’t develop a fear of being outside, but this was highly uncommon then and still is these days. I was spared that generational trauma.
I remember being a teenager in Washington D.C. and going to a park with a swimming pool with a couple of friends. We rode on the bus for an hour and a half, and once we got there, even though we paid, it was very clear that we were not welcome at this pool. Keep in mind this was in the late 70s. Still to this day, when I tell people I’m going to walk in Cathedral State Park, there are people I know outside of West Virginia who fear for me because they think something might happen to me in the woods. I don’t fear Cathedral—especially with two pit bulls. Between being a woman and being African American, being in secluded places is fearful for many because of how women and African Americans have been preyed upon in the past.
What are some barriers to outdoor recreation?
From the time I was a public school teacher in Washington D.C., I’ve always been interested in getting kids outdoors because urban and suburban kids often don’t have safe places to play and don’t have an understanding of the natural world. The natural world is characterized as unsafe, and to a great extent, that’s true. There’s a legacy of African American kids where these natural spaces have not been available. Legally, they weren’t available until about 50 years ago. When they were available, they weren’t welcome. That leaves an impression not only on individual, but on generations of individuals. If they don’t feel welcome because of the way they are treated, they won’t ever want to go. When you come in contact with the natural world, is it a welcoming and inviting place? That has to start in childhood. For example, many African Americans don’t ever learn to swim, and they have fear and contempt for the water. When they can’t swim, they won’t be canoeing, they won’t be rafting, they won’t be visiting rivers because those places are dangerous and they don’t feel welcome.
“It’s important to get the full benefit of American life, not just a sliver. Often times in urban spaces, where and how we can dream is limited.”
There’s a cultural aspect of what actually constitutes recreation. If you can even afford a vacation, often you go to see family. You’re not spending time in hotels or outdoor spaces, whether that’s the shore or state parks. Many African American kids have never seen the water in West Virginia; they’ve never seen the ocean. They’re lucky if they can get to a lake that anyone would even want to swim in to begin with.
The other issue is it’s not accessible. You need a car, money, and leisure time to venture outside an urban environment. People with lower incomes don’t have the money or leisure time due to the stressors of daily life. And then what do you do when you get there? You don’t have the skills to be able to appreciate the natural world because these things were never taught to you. Things like skiing or whitewater paddling, these aren’t things you’re able to do alone, you have to be taught how to do them.
Many folks have seen the viral video of a white woman calling the police on a black man birding in Central Park. What does this video say about race relations in the U.S.?
There are a lot of different feelings. The first and most upsetting to me is that I have a black son, and the fact that there are white women who would deliberately weaponize the systemic fear of black men who are simply trying to enjoy a natural space angers and disgusts me. People like that need to be prosecuted for their deceit and what they attempt to do, which is calling the police on a man who simply is asking you to put your dog on a leash in a leashed area. I’m at a loss for words to describe how craven that is. I’m glad that video showed there are people who are willing and able to weaponize race in our culture because when we as African Americans say that’s true, no one believes us that it’s happening. They say that we’re playing the race card. Well, who played the race card in that ordeal? It certainly wasn’t the calm black man.
The second thing is that birding is one of those things that is usually a privilege of the elite. It’s only in the past 30 to 40 years that you’ve even seen black birders. That, again, speaks to access and exposure to the natural world. I know that most African Americans don’t consider something like birding to be something they would do. And most of it, again, is lack of exposure to that particular hobby and how it is done. Whether we are people of color or we are white, we should be able to do this. But the reality is that people of color don’t have the full realization of American life; that’s the crux of it. Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we were to have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That pursuit of happiness could be birding. Yet when we try to do that and try to do it safely, we are subject to the weaponization of race. Seeing these videos where we are oppressed in our own country, to the point of being killed under someone’s knee, shows us that Jeffersonian vision isn’t realized. It won’t be realized until white people realize that their opinions and the society they create makes it hard for us to live and prosper.
What’s a potential path forward?
It’s two-fold. For white people in America, it is to check their privilege. Why is it that some white people have unreasonable fears and attitudes about their fellow Americans? What experiences have they had in their lives lead them to believe we are not supposed to be in these spaces? Even the mild reaction of surprise when some white people see us in these spaces, that comes from what they think is normal, reasonable, and customary. If I’m gawked at for being black in Cathedral State Park by white people, that’s not my problem; it’s theirs. The need for white Americans to change their minds and behavior in this is critical.
For people of color, we need to expand our horizons and understand there are different ways of being. Limiting ourselves because of our past limits our future. I’m very clear about what happened to my parents and grandparents during segregation, but I’m determined not to live as a segregated human being, and I’m determined that my son will not live that way. I’m not going to truncate our lived experiences by virtue of what happened to my ancestors. I have a birthright to enjoy the natural bounty of our earth, and I won’t be stopped in any way from enjoying nature.
If you’re interested in joining the fight for racial equity and social justice in West Virginia, please consider supporting Our Future WV, a nonprofit organization working toward equality, justice, and dignity for all West Virginians.