I’m willing to bet that each person reading this can agree that greater Portland’s superlative collection of urban greenspaces are one of the most important reasons we love living here. When I moved to Portland for grad school after 15 years of living inside national parks, I thought for sure I’d want to get out of the crowded city as soon as possible after graduating. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, and easy access to the outdoors was the single most important reason I stayed.
If, like me, there’s a little bug under your skin about how we can share these amazing resources more equitably among all the members of our community, please read on.
When I started working in a SUN after-school program in outer Southeast Portland, I began to realize something important—use of the urban greenspaces seemed skewed toward folks who were whiter and more affluent. At Harrison Park School, I worked with many youth and families who lacked a few basic things: available time, reliable transportation, outdoor clothing, knowledge about the outdoor opportunities in their own neighborhoods, and knowing they’d feel comfortable and welcome when they got there. Those seemed like pretty low barriers to them enjoying what I enjoy, so I decided to do something about it.
When I went looking for an organization to work for, I found many public and nonprofit programs doing a great job serving diverse and underserved high school students and young adults— Portland Parks & Recreation, Audubon Society of Portland, Groundwork Portland, Metro and the Blueprint Foundation, among many others. But aside from Outdoor School and other in-school and curriculum-based field programs (awesome as those things are!), no one seemed to be providing informal, longer-term outdoor access and resources to the youth closest to my heart, those in the upper elementary and middle school grades.
I remembered how important safe and unfettered access to outdoor spaces was for me at 10 and 12 years old, when my parents were divorcing and I needed a place to just be. And I knew that unless kids have had significant positive outdoor experiences by the time they reach high school, they are unlikely to be open to joining a nature-based program. I knew I had to fill this gap myself, so I founded Urban Nature Partners PDX in January 2014.
What now exists in that gap is a small but growing program serving 4th-6th graders from three outer Portland schools. Each is matched with an outdoor mentor, a caring adult who meets weekly with them to make being outside a regular part of life, not an extra. At least once per month, family members join us on group outings where we all get to try something new at a greenspace close to home, from paddling a kayak to tracking animals to planting trees.
There’s no agenda for what mentor pairs do on their one-on-one time—we intentionally provide time and space for young people to develop comfort and interests at their own pace. And we’re intentionally inclusive of families so that outdoor time becomes a regular benefit for everyone, one that’s relevant to their culture and interests.
Over time, our youth are able to go off to outdoor summer camp, design their own leadership projects, and see the natural progression to one of the great teen programs available in our region as real possibilities.
Mentoring-based programs are hard work! In 2+ years, we’ve served 18 youth, 15 of whom are still with us, and we’re recruiting 10 more as we speak. That might seem like a small impact, but it’s a very deep one—one with the potential to not only make significant change in the life of a young person over the years they are with us, but to have ripple effects in their families, neighborhoods, and the environmental profession and outdoor recreation communities as a whole.
It’s a lofty ideal that we’re chipping away at, one youth at a time. And Urban Nature Partners PDX depends almost entirely on a volunteer labor of love to get the job done.
So here’s the pitch: If you’ll be outdoors in our local greenspaces for 10 hours per month anyway for at least the next year, and you have a reliable vehicle, won’t you consider taking along a young person who otherwise wouldn’t get to go? We need 12 great adults to join our fourth cohort right now. Males, environmental professionals, folks from diverse backgrounds, and Spanish speakers are especially in demand as matches for our amazing youth.
If you’re as busy as most of us, and this sounds like too big of a commitment for now, you can help with these other needs:
We look forward to seeing you on the trail, on the water, in the snow, or at camp—and knowing that you care just as much as we do that Portland’s urban greenspaces are for everyone.