It takes a community
Last week we took our final group of teenagers climbing 150 feet up into an old-growth tree. Each Outdoor Ambassadors Trip brought something new to each individual; getting into a harness and ascending into an old-growth tree, snow-shoeing, learning about the Pacific Crest Trail, and what opportunities exist on public lands. For one youth from Milwaukie, Oregon, the Outdoor Ambassador trip on June 22nd 2014 was his first trip into a forest. “This is just all very new to me. I’ve never been around so many trees,” he says, wide-eyed.
Getting into the forest is something that I had taken for granted. As a child my dad would take my brother and I out into the woods about once a month; pointing out trees and plants, teaching us how to stay warm and dry, and how to walk on soft, uneven ground.
I’ve learned a lot over the past 10 months serving an Americorps term with Northwest Youth Corps and the Willamette National Forest. I’ve learned a lot about our public lands, their uses, their controversies, their locations, and the many different careers involved. I’ve met many wonderful, passionate people at both organizations who have dedicated their lives to studying, protecting, and managing the land that we are blessed to live on.
As a Community Outreach Liaison, my role at both organizations was to connect diverse, urban communities with the forest; whether for recreation, careers, or just general awareness. I struggled a lot with the word “outreach”, and how it conjured up notions of, “hey you people, we have something that you should know about and you probably need our help.” I think that notion is pervasive amongst many agencies and organizations that are predominately white and middle class and trying to connect with communities of color and other diverse communities. This notion of “outreach” also ignores the fact that access to the outdoors was not historically, nor is it currently equal across race, gender, ability, and income. Furthermore, numerous studies show that while people of color support environmental issues at a larger percentage than the general public, that they are vastly underrepresented in natural resource and environmental organizations and agencies. Having had access to the outdoors my whole life as a middle-class, white person with no disabilities, I was humbled by my own ignorance about how far we have to go in creating equal access to nature.
Humbled, and hopeful. As a part of my service, I became involved with the Forest Service’s Civil Rights unit, a group of folks that are part of the Forest Service’s Cultural Transformation effort. The Cultural Transformation mission is to:
-Better understand, represent, and reflect the diverse citizenry we serve;
-Place high value on inclusiveness in our workforce where all employees are treated with the utmost respect;
-and to leverage our unique talents and diverse perspectives to simply be the best we can be.
Indeed, if we want to make sure that our organizations are serving the multicultural populace, we must have multicultural organizations and teams. Outdoor Ambassadors would not have been successful without the collaboration between local youth and community organizations and multiple outdoor organizations. With funding from Merrell and Outdoor Nation, and a collaboration between the NAACP of Eugene Springfield, Juvented FACETA, Youth MOVE Oregon, The City of Eugene Parks and Recreation Outdoor Program at the River House, Northwest Youth Corps, and the Willamette National Forest, we held three fun and educational field trip for 29 youth. You can see a video summary of the project here.
So, instead of “outreach” let’s focus on how we can connect with one another. Let’s connect AND listen. Let’s find ways that we may be perpetuating the dominant power structures created during our colonial history, and explore new ways of sharing power and ideas in a multicultural society. Let’s work together to make sure that all people, regardless of gender, race, ability, or income can access and enjoy nature.
~ Sara Worl, Americorps member
Fore more information about diversity in the outdoors, check out this article by Marcelo Bonta and Charles Jordan.
 Bonta, Marcelo, and Jordan, Charles. 2012. Diversifying the American Environmental Movement