On Tuesday, February 21, in Washington, DC, nearly twenty stakeholder representatives crowded the REI Community Room to discuss how to engage underserved communities in DC’s green spaces.
The gathering, facilitated by The Center for Jackson Hole’s Emerging Leaders Program alumni Taimur Ahmad and City Kids’ Ryan Sarafolean, was the first time the SHIFT model had been exported outside Jackson, Wyoming.
Takeaways from the discussion included the need for a unified front between youth engagement, land management, conservation, and outdoor recreation allies to complement one another’s engagement efforts. The meeting also identified the need for a health impact assessment of time outdoors and more community engagement in the process (for example, a meeting space closer to the communities whose needs they seek to address).
Stakeholders present included representatives from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, City Kids Wilderness Project, Groundwork USA, Groundwork DC, Latino Outdoors, National Park Service Outdoor Afro, Patagonia’s Earth Conservation Corps, REI, and The Wilderness Society.
Representatives were given space to introduce their organization and work, and speak on the importance of youth engagement to their organization’s mission.
The conversation then opened up to identify barriers to outdoor access faced by DC youth.
Curt Collier, Deputy Director for Groundwork Hudson Valley, cited pollution in the Anacostia River as one of the ways environmental degradation in DC prevents access. Collier argued that restoration of the urban environment is key to providing quality outdoor access opportunities.
Several participants noted that parks simply aren’t viewed as safe spaces among communities of color. Ronda Chapman, Executive Director at Groundwork Anacostia, noted that before urban green spaces can hold an appeal for fulfilling a marginalized community’s unmet outdoors needs, larger structural and societal issues of social justice facing many people of color must to be met, or at least worked on in-tandem with expanding outdoor access for minority populations.
Other representatives noted barriers for job opportunities facing urban youth. Javier Folgar of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy flagged the role of insurance can play in the equation, as liability issues can complicate efforts to engage youth as volunteers in outdoor spaces.
Tyrhee Moore of City Kids Wilderness Project identified the need for additional programming and pipelines to serve urban communities in order to promote job opportunities.
Steve Coleman at Washington Parks for People proposed that the definition of environmentalism must be broadened to include the potential for recreationists to revitalize the spaces where they play. Coleman argued that the way we treat our land is the way we treat our people, and both are often marginalized.
Ronda Chapman flipped the notion of environmentalism entirely: to succeed, in her mind, we must reframe the problem away from the environment and towards health, jobs, and human needs. If we prioritize personal wellness, says Chapman, we’ll naturally view the outdoors as a player in sculpting community change, and nurture it accordingly.
For Ahmad and Sarafolean, a DC collective that unites the participants of the discussion presents a solution. Such a collective can reconvene throughout the year and continually engage the community in outdoor access.