Urban ecology education, African-American and Latino youth

For 4 years, We have run a summer biodiversity camp for middle school students in Hartford CT. It is a week long investigation of flora/fauna in the field and lab, with a particular emphasis on entomology (my background, Dave Wagner’s (UConn) expertise). It is a rich experience, both for the students and instructors. Each year, I had the intention of recruiting kids from the city, which in Hartford generally means poor, african-american and latino students. I generally failed, for a number of reasons: 1) Most campers were white and suburban, so the social environment among them was skewed to their backgrounds; 2) The instructors were white, without strong connections to minority communities (though two of us taught in an urban schools, so knew many of those students in an academic setting), 3) Buy-in from parents was difficult - they had little frame of reference for what a “biodiversity camp” might be; 4) kids in urban environments have little contact with nature, or with people that celebrate it.

On the plus side, we assume that if we can get an urban kid to participate, and find out how many ants and bees are present in a city, and how beautiful these organisms are under a microscope, that we can add something positive to the urban experience, and perhaps entice some students into the ecology-related fields that are currently so uniformly white.

We would like to make another attempt at involving students of color in an exploration of nature, using iNaturalist as a central resource.I believe we need two elements: 1) partnership with people or organizations that have recognition and credibility with urban youth; 2) a camper roster that is exclusively from unrepresented youth communities, so that the social setting is familiar.

What we’re after is not easy. Every en.
vironmental organization is interested in broadening their reach to minority communities. Most run up against the same barriers I’ve referenced here. My question: are there good models for what we’d like to do? I will certainly reach out to BW Birders. Are there other nature education efforts successfully engaging urban minorities in biodiversity education?

Thanks for any ideas or leads.

David Cappaert
92 Lancaster Rd
West Hartford, CT
734.635.7750

cappaert@comcast.net
http://davidcappaert.weebly.com/

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Welcome to the forum!

It’s been a while since I was involved full-time with environmental education and nature-based summer camps, but for quite a few years I taught after school nature/science classes for pretty much every social/economic/racial group in San Fransisco (much of it grant funded in communities and schools with fewer resources). My colleague and I also taught some nature photography summer camps for middle schoolers, and we were able to bring aboard some campers from immigrant communities via scholarships. However, they knew us from our teaching throughout the school year, which was a big help in getting buy in from them and their families. I think those camps were the most fun I’ve ever had as an educator.

We also partnered with ROCK for a time, to provide some nature and biodiversity based options for their outings with middle schoolers.

This is all mainly to say that I have some experience here, and it’s an area I feel quite passionate about, so as an iNat staff member I’d be happy to work with you on our end. Unfortunately I’m not familiar with any successful models at the moment, but happy to ask around. If anyone else has some suggestions, please chime in.

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Hi David,

I can’t give you any advice from a professional standpoint but I was once an underprivileged youth of colour, living in Toronto, Canada. I’ve always been interested in nature and biodiversity and currently have a 7 year old who also shares that passion, which is how I found this app and forum. I’m going to try to list some of the obstacles faced by urban youth when it comes to joining such a camp. I can only speak of my experiences or things I’ve personally seen, but I hope to be somewhat helpful and give you ideas of things to consider.

Transportation: How will your campers get from their home to you? Is it safe walking distance? If they have to take transit, can they afford it? Is there a convenient transit route? For me this was the biggest barrier. I didn’t have anyone available to drive me to the location of the activities so if there wasn’t public transit nearby or close enough for me to bike, I couldn’t participate.
Cost: Not just the cost to participate in the camp itself but also special clothing, lunches, transportation etc. If the youth you are targeting have younger siblings and parents rely on them for care while working, there is an added cost of a babysitter, or hassle of finding someone to watch the child for the week.
Time: How many days a camp runs but also the hours. You mentioned people not having a frame of reference for a biodiversity camp. Maybe a full week (I’m assuming Monday-Friday) is too long. Is it possible to do a one day biodiversity crash course camp? It could run each day so participants have options and flexibility when to attend. Half day camps or late afternoon/early evening sessions will also open you up to more youth.
Connections: Having people of colour (especially women of colour) on staff would definitely be helpful in attracting the demographic you’re after. You can also let people know who you are and what you’re doing. Is there a local green space? Can you set up a few people, signs, or posters? Allow people walking by to safely engage and show curiosity. For example, a few years ago the organization I worked for started running programs for parents, babies, and preschool children. We set up tables and posters near a public transit hub where people had to change buses to make transfers. From noon until around 5pm we tried to let as many people know about us as possible. Even if we couldn’t talk to them, they saw our signs, saw our faces, and had a general idea what we were about. We were there one day a week for 3 weeks and saw a very noticeable increase in visitors to our programs within a month.

I hope this helps. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

Jezabel

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welcome to the forum! :)

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welcome to the forum to both cappaert and jez_j!

just for reference, i have no background in education, but i have helped with various programs in schools (mostly K-5), and also with organizations that bring school classes to natural areas (mostly K-5, but occasionally high school) or offer camps or supplemental home school kinds of programs, and i’ve even helped to get a story time program up and running at a local park.

nature-related educational programs for middle school students that operate without a connection to schools (for staffing, transportation, food, etc.) and occur during summer, breaks, weekends are a little bit of a blind spot for me. i’m not aware of any such programs in my area that explicitly serve underprivileged youth in that age range, though there definitely are such camps filled with privileged children. the closest thing i can think of are nature-based social programs like scouts, which still has relatively strong Latinx participation in my area, though participation drops quickly as kids get older. there are also various nature experience programs that don’t explicitly aim to provide education. for example, there’s a kayaking on the bayou program here that occurs in an area with a population that is mostly black and brown. my understanding is that though their goal is not specifically education, they do want to be a gateway to environmental science, and sometimes their facilitators will provide nature education as a bonus. (i think similar kayak programs are relatively common throughout the nation, and some places trade the kayak for a horse or something else like that.) locally, one popular subset of these kinds of experiential programs that target urban youth in this age range and includes a little more classroom instruction involves urban / community gardening + cooking. the gardening instruction often includes simplified ecology, though the flora is restricted to cultivated plants. it looks like there’s a program in St. Paul that adds a conservation component to that. here’s a fund in San Francisco that seems to give to a good range of experiential programs, though none of these look like they have a strong focus on education: https://sff.org/make-an-impact/give-new/yan/.

oh… and there are also programs that offer bite-sized bits of education + nature. locally, the State of Texas offers weekly programs at a state-run park, and it looks like NYC has a Rangers program, and i’m sure there are others around the nation… since each of these events is relatively short – maybe 1 to 2 hours – it’s not really a camp experience, but maybe if you add them all up, they can be substantial. i think these are generally open to all, not just disadvantaged youth, but at least in these parts, i do see disadvantaged youth taking advantage of these kinds of programs.

in general, i think you’re headed on the right track. partnerships are always helpful, and i think making sure your campers will be able to easily relate to other campers is definitely important. i’m not sure what the cost model is for your campers is, but i think if you’re intending to attract underprivileged youth, you definitely need to have a source of funding to cover their costs. and then just going the extra mile to prepare parents and children so that they get a better understanding of what to expect in the field and in the lab before they arrive will probably be helpful.

more details (it looks like jez_j above has many similar thoughts):

regarding partnerships, i think you definitely do need to have community partners to connect you to your target audience, and i think it also might be helpful to have other partners who have complementary programs to share resources and knowledge. for example, suppose you had a kayaking program like the one i described in your area. then your programs could work together. if you both incorporated iNaturalist into your programs, you could rotate/share the same set of mobile devices instead of both groups having to acquire their own set. you could write grant applications together. you could maybe let them get the kids excited about being outside the first week, and then you could take the same set of kids the next week and really dive deeper into insects in the field and in the lab.

speaking of insects, i’m going to go on a short tangent and mention a minor idea over at another thread that could be something you might be interested in and uniquely capable of pulling off, in conjunction with others who work on black advocacy:

it could be something along the lines of Black Lights for Black Lives (Minds?) – “we’re looking for moths. and equality.” or “black people at night leads to science.” or something more creative, as long as it doesn’t come off as too gimmicky or as misappropriation. it could be a one-time event in an urban park or something like that, appealing to all ages. (i haven’t met a person yet who doesn’t like to see various things fluoresce under UV and also look at all the interesting creatures attracted to such lights.) bonus points if you can provide food from a neighborhood establishment. this kind of thing might build a bond with the community and provide a gateway to kids becoming interested in science and science camps…

back to your camp, i don’t think your camp roster necessarily has to consist entirely of underrepresented youth, but it might help to make sure that each such child comes in with at least another 3-4 children who share the same background and preferably are already friends (just as a fallback, if they aren’t able to make new friends quickly). (when i see privileged kids arrive at camps, often they already know many of the other kids who arrive and so don’t have to put a lot of effort into forming new connections.) being very intentional in getting the kids to break the ice with each other and with staff might also be helpful, especially for middle schoolers.

regarding cost, as far as i can tell from my experience, just about any cost would strongly deter low-income families from sending their children to a camp, leaving you with only children of privilege. so when you’re seeking funding, make sure to think about not just the cost of your camp, but also things like the cost of transportation/parking, the cost of basic gear like a reusable water bottle, etc. in my area, there are some specific challenges that i’m not sure how to overcome – like during summers, a not insignificant number of children are expected to work with their parents or take care of younger children while their parents are at work. there may even be more challenging family dynamics. so if you needed to overcome those kinds of barriers, you might need more specialized help for that.

preparing children and parents for the field and the lab is probably critical, especially for kids who have no existing concept of field or lab. i’ve seen more than one boy show up at for a nature center field trip in pressed clothes and brand new shoes. obviously someone cared a lot for the boy and took extra effort to make him look good. but then he spent a lot of time worried about getting his shoes and clothes dirty. (it’s possible this is related to the cost/gear issue. are those his only pair of shoes?) i notice that kids who have been exposed to nature before usually seem to be more confident and get more out of the experience. so at least a note with some extra guidance, if not a personal phone call to parents to discuss the finer points and to answer questions and work out issues in advance is probably helpful.

oh… and if parents are interested in knowing what kind of practical jobs your camp might lead to, you might need to be prepared to answer that. at least in my area, there are a lot of black and brown folks working in public health, with good, respectable jobs related to mosquito control, air and water quality, health policy, etc. when i’ve talked to such people, more than one has said that they got into it because their communities are disproportionately affected by, say, asthma or cancer or lead poisoning, etc., and by working to make the air and water clean, or by strategically planting trees to reduce heat islands, etc., they are improving their own neighborhoods and improving the lives of their children. so i bet if you can find someone locally like that, he or she might be a good person connect all those dots (camp->education->job->community uplift). such a person might even know of some kids who might be interested in your camp or be willing to help in other ways (partnerships).

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Jezabel - thanks for the detailed reply. All of your points are a helpful checklist of things I should consider. Of course we would need a person of color, and women as instructors. In fact, the best arrangement would be one where my role would be to get funding, and teach/demonstrate natural history content, while someone with more community identity would lead. My problem has always been that people with your background and interests are hard to find. If you were local to me, I would recruit you for sure. Again, thanks.

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pisum - Thanks for the thoughtful reply, which reiterates some of Jezabel’s points. I am most likely to follow the tangent on black lighting, which is central to the biodiversity camp. If you were to set up a light sheet in a city park - Hartford has a significant piece of forest in the city - you would have a spectacle that might impress kids and parents. You could start with this informally, just invite folks out, and then see if you can make connections that could become a “camp.” It will take me a little while to absorb the rest of your suggestions, thanks.

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I have some experience as a poor white kid on the periphery of a middle class white culture. I didn’t feel particularly excluded, just that their world of camps, trips, exchanges etc was completely outside my experience and I would no more have signed up to one of their events than I would have thought of flying to the moon.

The root of the problem is in the underlying question of what can “we” do to get “them” involved in “our” activities. It’s not going to happen.

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I think that feeling of us verses them and exclusion is the main problem. Being a naturalist is a ‘rich white people’ thing so why would a poor kid be interested? If we can remove some of the barriers and let people know that exploring nature can be for everyone, it will allow people who are interested to feel comfortable getting involved.

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I worked once with a group of undergrad students, recruited from unrepresented groups–mainly African-American–to work on ecological projects at a biological station. They did not engage with the research in the same way as typical U of Mich students who came from families that had traveled to national parks, watched NatGeo, went to summer camps, etc. They had more lively interactions among themselves, and a stronger sense of novelty in discovering things about fish behavior, or the like. None of them were likely to become ecology grad students. But the chance that their own children might be open to that kind of career was much higher than otherwise. Of 100 white students, quite a few are open to studying nature. Of 100 urban black students, there might be two. We’ve got to nurture the potential for those two. I have seen this work.

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Is there anyone active on iNat, in your area, that you could consider recruiting?
Perhaps someone who engaged in the City Challenge, then drifted away and went quiet on iNat? Your expertise combined with their enthusiasm?

When lockdown is over and Kirstenbosch is open again, they have a busy programme for school kids. I see it costs R20, that is a nominal amount.
https://www.sanbi.org/community-initiatives/kirstenbosch-nbg-biodiversity-education-programme/

We also have a charity / research group which teaches township kids to swim. And about sealife and pollution. Swimming lessons and access to pools are taken for granted for the privileged. With a very real risk of drowning for non-swimming kids at the beach.

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just before Covid-19 shut my city down, the NYC parks director came and talked about equal and inclusive public spaces. he shared a story of how after updating and reopening a neighborhood park, he noticed that a boy was reluctant to come into the park. when asked why he wouldn’t come inside, the boy said he didn’t think that a space so nice could be for him… he just needed to hear from someone that of course it was for him. https://youtu.be/Vj3zByOlFSg?t=1860

it’s worth watching the whole video if you’re interested in the topic and you’ve never seen Mitchell Silver talk about it.

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Good idea about City Challenge, I will look into it.

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Thank you so much for your detailed reply! I took notes as I’m working on ways to make the membership of the food co-op I belong to more reflective of the actual community we are in. Some important things for me to look at!

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David, first Jezabel’s comment that, the “feeling of us verses them and exclusion is the main problem” really spoke to me having worked (briefly and long long ago) in outdoor education with kids from urban CT and having taught in Queens for a long time. Kids can get fascinated in anything if they are connected to it. I understand that “connection” is also the struggle. I do remember gleeful hunts for fungus through the cold March woods in western CT with a group from somewhere urban in CT. The program was cheaper in the colder months when there was “less” to see in the outdoors, but somehow (I don’t really remember how, I was really young) this one group got really interested in looking for the mushrooms that were available at that time of year. There was a lot of running and laughing and real interested and engagement involved. This came from the kids, not from me.
Second, my own involvement with iNaturalist started in the industrial “wasteland” of an urban creek between Brooklyn and Queens (a superfund site). I (somehow?) got involved with a survey of the plants on the creek being done by a local education and conservation group and it kicked off my plant and iNat interest. Because even in the most urban environments there is a lot of biodiversity to be found, the trick is learning how to look. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we think about Nature as “out there” or separate from us, rather than the air breathe right where we are, street trees, sidewalk “weeds” house spider, etc. So much to learn from urban weeds and invasives! Which plants survive in the harshest of conditions? Why? Where did they come from? What is the story of the plants that arrived in the ballast of ships? I’m getting a bit off topic here but Maria Thereza Alves’ **Seeds of Change: New York – A Botany of Colonization at Parsons taught me so much.
I don’t know the answer to this question, but how can we go to what kids already know and build from that (which could go anywhere! The kids who get hooked will be capable of forging paths we can’t imagine for them) or meet them in the middle instead of needing them to come all the way to us?
Finally, because this is way too long already, I have recently started reading Carolyn Finney’s Black Spaces, White Faces: Re-imagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors and am learning a ton.

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Hi, I’d like to comment on this. I’m in Salt Lake City, a fair sized urban area that abutts a lot of natural area. I’m also an entomologist working in a museum. I used to work with the kids brought to the museum for our (somewhat pricey) summer camps. I still do but I realized that I what I really wanted to do was reach out kids who weren’t getting those opportunities. So I started a small nonprofit and started partnering with organizations that had kids in programming already (you might think Boys and Girls Clubs, after school care, kids in domestic violence shelters). What I found is that children in deeply stressed families (new to the country, very low income, trauma impacted for a variety of reason) do not have the ability to give their kids nature experiences. Though in SLC we are a 15 minute drive from some great trails, families are just not taking these kids out and they really need it. I’ve had some astouding experiences: with 9 year olds who had never seen a ladybug in real life, with many kids who didn’t know what the word “creek” meant, with kids who were terrified of bears and wolves just a few minutes outside of the city. Once these kids feel comfortable, and relax, it’s amazing to see them feel free to explore and play in nature. I go without a curriculum but just give kids a vocabulary for what they are interested in while we are there - flora, fauna and processes. And sometimes I do bribe them with candy to learn the names of trees - lol.
Anyway, I’d be happy to tell you more about our work. My non profit email is paloutside@gmail.com But in summary my advice is: #1 - partner with organizations that already serve your demographic and #2 - actively recruit educators that reflect the community you want to serve. They may be non-traditional environmental educators but for kids to see nature educators from their community is more important than a deep knowledge base.

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Nature deficit disorder