This week I attended the Children & Nature Network’s 2020 Inside-Out Leadership Summit, a forum where leaders in the movement to connect children with nature can share big ideas and advance action agendas. Although the Summit was originally scheduled as an in-person event in Atlanta, GA, more than 500 attendees adapted to the need to go online by using Whova, Zoom, and Google Docs to take our big-sky thinking to the virtual clouds.
I was struck by one word I heard in almost every session—“legacy”—and how the themes that emerged are relevant for any organization doing place-based work.
This was the first conference I’ve ever attended in which speakers shared not only their name, pronouns, and location, but also on whose stolen land they live. A Land Acknowledgement is a formal statement that recognizes and respects Indigenous Peoples and the enduring relationship that exists between them and their traditional territories. The Native Governance Center notes, “It is important to understand the longstanding history that has brought you to reside on the land, and to seek to understand your place within that history. Land acknowledgements do not exist in a past tense, or historical context: colonialism is a current, ongoing process, and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation.”
At Healthy Places by Design, we have long highlighted the importance of understanding a community’s context as part of our work. The legacy of colonialism, and the ongoing health, social, and economic disparities it has caused, is part of that context. The Children & Nature Network set an inspiring example of how acknowledging this legacy can create a tone of respect and meaning when talking about place-based work—because when we talk about places, we’re also talking about people. For example, one youth leader’s icebreaker was to ask each person to share their name, location, and a story about an ancestor who taught them to appreciate nature. Despite the remote setting (and inevitable Zoom fatigue), the session felt animated and personal because of the emphasis on each person’s relationship to place.
Hanaa Hamdi, Director of Health Impact Investment Strategies and Partnerships at New Jersey Community Capital, acknowledged another painful legacy: “We’re talking about nature connection during a time of heightened awareness about the history of racism and how that history has been institutionalized in every sector, including philanthropy and the outdoors movement.” She noted that the oft-cited naturalist and “father of the national parks,” John Muir, was also racist, and how people of color still can’t go birding without worrying for their safety. In a powerful remark, Odetta MacLeish-White, Managing Director at TransFormation Alliance, reminded us that “An unburdened relationship with natural places is a form of privilege.” I’ve previously written about how inequitable park access is linked to a history of racism, so it was encouraging to be able to talk about these issues with a group of people who are determined to improve things for today’s youth and for future generations.
On the final day of the summit, conversations shifted toward action: what impact do we want to have individually in our communities and collectively as a network? As a communications professional, I paid close attention to conversations about messaging and storytelling. Three themes in particular resonated with me:
First, we acknowledged a need for easy-to-share data about the benefits of nature connection, while also underscoring an even greater need for more storytelling. In just two sessions on the Health and Well-being track of the Summit, we heard compelling stories from youth leaders who shared how spending time outdoors changed their lives. Storytelling also showed up in practice throughout the Summit, through Land Acknowledgements and sharing about our ancestors, the places where we grew up, and where we live now.
Second, we explored how to reframe the conversation to recognize nature-connection as part of seven vital conditions for well-being, and how to redefine the movement’s goal as “thriving people and places, with no exceptions.” Some suggested that access to nature should be considered a basic human right, and others highlighted how the Children & Nature Network is a natural ally for youth across the globe who are on school-strikes to raise awareness about the climate crisis.
Finally, Bobby Milstein of ReThink Health highlighted the potential of shifting our language from talking about “systems-change” and “long-term impact” toward talking about legacy. He said, “We’re not lacking in solutions—we’re lacking political and public will to enact those solutions.” This lack of public will is in part a failure of communication. Terms like “systems change” are jargon to the average non- public-health person.
But leaving behind a legacy? That’s something everyone understands on a deep level.