This is a Red Trillium. It exists here because a beetle pollinates it, an ant disperses it, a deer eats it, trees shade it, and a rich soil nourishes it. Year after year, this trillium and all members of its ecological community thrive because of a shared imperative of diversity, and interdependence on that diversity.
Such are the lessons to be learned outside. Here at NBNC, our north star and our mission is “Connecting People with the Natural World.” We believe that a rich relationship with nature is instructive, therapeutic, developmentally critical, and a foundation of healthy and flourishing lives.
We are experiencing an increasingly heartbreaking chapter of American and world history, where we are becoming more and more aware of pervasive, systemic injustice in our nation, long experienced by many, and newly tangible to others.
Some of us have been seeking solace in nature to find the emotional resilience, physical fitness, and mental clarity to confront life’s challenges. When outside these days, we have been experiencing an immense humility and gratitude to be able to access wild spaces, an immense sense of disappointment that many people cannot access a safe place in nature, and an immense duty to do something about it.
NBNC has been advising everyone in these times to “get out in nature,” but that isn’t a realistic option for many people. Some in our community do not have access to nature. And that inequity is disproportionately felt by those routinely disadvantaged by the ever-present, systemic injustice in our society. Racial injustice, yes. And also the inequalities in the form of income, disability, age, religion, and the list, unfortunately, goes on.
Access to nature, we believe, is a human right. And for many, there are real barriers standing in the way. At NBNC we call this the Nature Equity Gap. This gap manifests in many different forms: Lack of transportation, lack of time and flexibility, lack of money, lack of mobility, lack of education, or lack of access to natural areas near home. For some people of color, it is a lack of ensured physical and emotional safety in accessing a predominately “white” space in a society where spaces are coded by systemic racism.
Unlike the Red Trillium’s ecosystem, our human social-ecological system is in disharmony, and all who silently benefit from that disharmony are complicit in its reinforcement. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge this culpability, so we won’t mince words: North Branch Nature Center has been part of the problem. Our staff and board — currently entirely white — represent the dominant narratives of many systems where injustice has been most deeply felt, including race, ethnicity, gender, religion, politics, and socioeconomics. Furthermore, we haven’t engaged deeply with indigenous people, nor reconciled with the violence against them which ultimately enabled our ownership of the land we call NBNC today.
We acknowledge that we need to change, and that we can do better.
So what’s a nature center to do?
Right now, we are listening, paying attention, learning, and recommitting ourselves to the first of our four pillars that uphold our mission of Connecting People with the Natural World:
NBNC is committed to closing the Nature Equity Gap. We believe all people need and deserve access to nature and nature education, and we understand that real barriers exist. We are committed to better understanding the needs and challenges of under-served populations and crafting programs that are relevant, engaging, affordable, and enjoyable for all.
This goal, as laid out in our 2020 – 2024 Strategic Plan, includes several action steps that NBNC will be taking:
- Staffing up: We will budget to appoint and fund a part-time staff Equity Lead and establish a community/staff focus group to better understand barriers and community needs.
- Reaching out: We will develop partnerships with organizations representing populations we’ve failed to serve. We will survey our community to gain a more diverse perspective on who we are/aren’t engaging and why.
- Looking in: We will revisit our recruitment and hiring language to explicitly identify our goal to diversify our staff. We will pursue staff professional development opportunities, including training on unconscious bias and inclusive program design.
- Building up: All of this work will be brought to bear on how we design programs moving forward, and how we manage the NBNC property for accessibility and equality.
Lisa Perez Jackson, a former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, wisely said, “It’s time to be clear about this misconception that environmental issues are incompatible with civil rights issues. The truth is that environmental issues are civil rights issues.”
In our work ahead to make the natural world inclusive and welcoming to all, we hope that NBNC can help our community by building new relationships, asking uncomfortable questions, thinking critically, and reflecting honestly.
We hope you will share in this journey with NBNC as we begin the real work of listening to, learning from, and elevating voices that have traditionally been silenced. And we hope that the lessons we learn while in nature may inform how we treat one another in every aspect of our society.
North Branch Nature Center Staff and Board of Directors