As I look around at the youth chatting, laughing and pulling at each other’s life jackets, I can’t help but smile ear to ear.
I am smiling because despite bias in adventure advertising and the lack of access to outdoor recreation for low-income and youth of color, I see kids from a variety of backgrounds getting ready to board two 29-foot canoes for a paddle with the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.
And I, a young Black woman, am leading them.
Two years ago, three staff members from the Estuary Partnership went through an 8-month training with The Intertwine Alliance to assess the organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion within its policies, program implementation, and workforce culture and composition. Their findings: people of color were underrepresented on the board and staff, and the organization needed to significantly improve its work with communities of color.
Since then, the Estuary Partnership has made some changes. They are refining hiring processes, and have established a summer internship program providing job training opportunities to employees of color, including myself.
As far as program delivery goes, they have begun tracking information on school demographics in order to prioritize schools with high populations of low-income and students of color, and are reaching out to community-based organizations with free summer paddle opportunities. As a next step, the board and senior staff will undergo more extensive diversity, equity, and inclusion training through the Center for Diversity and the Environment.
Today's paddle with Urban Nature Partners PDX (UNP) and Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) is part of this same effort—to provide access to on-the-water experiential learning to those who have faced historical barriers.
The forest was a safe place for my father—where he could find refuge from his chores, and the only place he could meet up with his White friends to play in the Jim Crow South. It was an escape from the constant reminder in town that he was Black and therefore less than.
UNP has addressed the challenge of outdoor access to youth in Portland for four years now. Through long-term 1:1 mentoring, youth from underserved Portland neighborhoods explore urban greenspaces weekly with their mentors, receive basic outdoor gear and resources, and connect to scholarship opportunities for outdoor summer camps.
Kristin Bowling, founder and executive director of UNP, explains how the partnership with BBBS evolved: “The Forest Service has a program called Outdoor Explorers that they piloted in Missoula [Montana], and they wanted to pilot the program in the Pacific Northwest. They ended up choosing Portland, and when they found Big Brothers Big Sisters, they also found us, as sort of the outdoor experts. So, [the Forest Service] contracts with them and us.”
This is not Urban Nature Partner’s first time on the water with us. For the past three years, we have provided free summer paddles with their mentee-mentor pairs. When asked about how our partnership began, Kristin said, “We were looking for low-cost water outing options for summer and also the additional advantage of having a guide. I found the Estuary Partnership online, and this is the third year we’ve worked with them. It’s great to use the giant canoes and is a wonderful introductory way to get kids on water. It’s a really good match for us.”
A great match for us, as well! Partnerships such as this one are mutually beneficial and help us embody our values around diversity, equity and inclusion.
As I answer questions about water quality and nesting eagles, my smile returns in response to the youth’s energy and inquisitiveness. Some of them paddle confidently with a steady rhythm. For others, it is their first time in a canoe; they paddle timidly and with furrowed brows as they try to get used to the repetitive motion.
I walked among ancient giants, avoided the prickles of poison ivy, tasted the fruit of the native paw paw, and said hello to the popping seeds of jewelweed.
My primary goal as an outdoor educator with the Estuary Partnership is to create a positive experience. I hope participants will continue to explore outdoor spaces in awe and that awe will develop into love and a sense of responsibility for the Columbia River and our local natural areas.
I inherited a love of the outdoors from my father. He grew up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in the 1950s and 60s, and has told me many stories of the fun that he, his siblings and friends had running around in the forest—swinging from large vines, catching snakes and rabbits.
The forest was a safe place for him—where he could find refuge from his chores, and the only place he could meet up with his White friends to play in the Jim Crow South. It was an escape from the constant reminder in town that he was Black and therefore less than.
That narrative of safety and freedom from my father, combined with the vast medicinal plant knowledge from my grandpa, put me in the richest soil to grow my love of and respect for the outdoors.
In the summer of 2012, my love took on a sense of wonder during a Rhodes College Fellowship with Overton Park Conservancy. In this 142-acre old-growth jewel nestled in the middle of Memphis, Tennessee, I walked among ancient giants, avoided the prickles of poison ivy, tasted the fruit of the native paw paw, and said hello to the popping seeds of jewelweed.
My fellowship task was to create tours of the forest based on Tennessee education standards.The tours combined the seldom-told history of the park (steeped in segregation), with concepts such as seed adaptations and succession that we could observe first hand.
The opportunity to learn, create and lead made for an ever-changing and exciting fellowship. Feelings of satisfaction and joy washed over me as everyone who took our tour learned something new, whether they were five and gleefully climbing into tree hollows, or 60 and learning that jewelweed is a natural remedy for poison ivy.
From that summer of 2012, I knew this was a career I could never tire of.