RAISING NATURE’S TIDE: Strategies to Engage Communities 

About the Author

As the Founder and Executive Director of Wilderness Inquiry, Greg Lais has directed its growth and development since 1978, collaborating with many individuals and organizations to build a pioneering program that has directly served more than 375,000 and touched the lives of millions more.

Youth participate in Wilderness Inquiry's Canoemobile in Detroit. Photo credit: Wilderness Inquiry
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Youth participate in Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoemobile in Detroit. Photo credit: Julia Schweitzer, Wilderness Inquiry

The movement to connect youth to nature has evolved with the help of many allies over the years. Most recently, with city governments through a new partnership between the National League of Cities, the Children & Nature Network, Wilderness Inquiry and other partners.

Two great Mayors, Chris Coleman of St. Paul and Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City, are inspiring city leaders across the U.S. to increase nature connections in low-income communities. At a recent gathering in Salt Lake City, Utah, Mayor Becker underscored the need to evolve strategies that give political leaders of all stripes something to hang their hats on.

Here are three suggestions for how we can do that. These suggestions have grown out of an initiative called the Canoemobile, which engages communities in connecting urban youth to nature in cities across the U.S.

1. Start with a Big Hairy Audacious Goal: A BHAG

Young girl participating in Canoemobile. Photo credit: Wilderness Inquiry
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Young girl participating in Canoemobile on the Detroit River. Photo credit: Wilderness Inquiry

A BHAG is a vision that inspires us so much that we want to be a part of it. The term comes from Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. It’s part of his prescription for how companies become great, and I think it pertains to movements and cities as well.

So, we should start by asking: What Big Hairy Audacious Goal can you create for your community? Think in terms of what a world where everyone has a meaningful connection to the natural world would look like.

If you are not using words like all and every, or numbers in the thousands, your goal is probably not big and hairy enough. While this may not seem like an issue for strategic community partnerships, I suggest it is the central issue—think big, and engage your partners in the thinking.

We started the Canoemobile by collectively setting a BHAG to connect 10,000 kids a year to the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities. There was no one organization that could pull that off alone, but it resonated with the community and got many people, including our Mayors, to step forward. Seven years later, the Canoemobile has reached over 100,000 youth in more than 40 cities.

Remember the words of Daniel Burnham, a 19th century city planner from Chicago who said:

“Think no small thoughts, for they have no power to stir men’s souls!”

2. Think beyond the usual suspects, and figure out how you can help them meet their goals.

It’s natural to start with existing outdoor and environmental organizations, but to really engage the community we have to invite other groups—organizations who are dealing with issues that can be addressed through this movement to connect youth to the outdoors.

For example, when we set the initial goal to engage 10,000 kids in the Mississippi River, there was really only one way to do that—through public school districts, because those institutions are the only ones with equitable access to that many kids.

We approached Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools, and collectively we saw that by engaging kids in learning outdoors through summer school, we were addressing one of the biggest issues they face—the academic “achievement gap.” between white kids and kids of color. We didn’t know it at the time, but Minneapolis has the highest achievement gap in the country. As one teacher put it, we were “tricking” these kids into learning.

This alignment—of enhanced learning through formalized outdoor classrooms—has become a major theme of our efforts to connect thousands of kids throughout the United States. And it’s brought hundreds of schools to the table, allowing us to connect them to local environments through nature-based learning.

Another group we engaged is a nonprofit called Ka Joog, which is one of the largest Somali youth organizations in the country. Among other things, Ka Joog is thwarting attempts to have Somali youth from Minnesota recruited by terrorist groups—as stated by CBS news, “keeping the tug of foreign terrorism beyond reach.”

Youth participating in Wilderness Inquiry's Canoemobile. Photo credit: Wilderness Inquiry
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Youth participating in Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoemobile. Photo credit: Wilderness Inquiry

We simply wanted Ka Joog’s leadership to let us take some of their kids outdoors, but they have totally embraced the strategy of connecting these youth to public lands in the U.S. as a way of meeting their overall strategic goals. Now, among other things, every year we bring young Somali women to Yellowstone National Park. They want to grow up to be Park Rangers.

These are but two of many examples of going beyond the traditional “outdoor” community to engage the broader community. It wasn’t about us telling them to embrace our agenda; it was about them asking us how our agenda helped them.

3. Frame connecting youth to nature as a social justice issue.

The National Association of Social Workers describes Social Justice as:

the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities. Social workers aim to open the doors of access and opportunity for everyone, particularly those in greatest need.”

We need to develop this notion more fully, but if access to the natural world through public lands is, to paraphrase Wallace Stegner, “America’s Best Idea,” then we have to consider that access a basic right for all Americans. Public lands are here for the benefit of everyone, and should be shared equally, just like the right to a public education.

Stegner may have been referring to National Parks, but I think we can generalize this “Best Idea” notion to all public lands, starting with city parks and green spaces.

Several years ago we took the Canoemobile to the Bronx to take kids paddling on the Harlem River. These kids lived in towering apartment buildings ringing this urban park. They could see the river out their windows, but they never had direct access to it–the banks of the Harlem River are a canyon of concrete and barb-wire fences.

Nature was hard to find in that environment and it took a while to get the community to trust that their kids would be safe with us. After some cajoling, they started to come. First a trickle of school kids, then hundreds of families.

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Photo credit: Wilderness Inquiry

Watching 2,000 children leap for joy when they finally had the opportunity to get out on the river was when I realized that equal access to nature for all is a social justice issue. This is strategically important because it sets the framework for engaging the entire community, and it gives the movement widespread relevance.

Mayors Coleman and Becker understand that city governments are in a unique position to play a leading role in connecting youth to nature, as cities can facilitate that critical first step into green places for every resident. We need to supply these Mayors with bigger visions and bigger boats that can carry all city residents to greener places.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb

Additional Reading

TOWARD A NATURE-RICH URBAN FUTURE: Five Ways Houston or (Insert Your City Here) Could Lead the Way


THE BOTANICAL CITY: Could Where You Live Become the Most Nature-Rich City in the World? Part 1.

C&NN Resources

Cities Connecting Children to Nature

In the News

New Initiative to Help Cities Increase Nature Access for Children Launched By League of Cities

4 Trailblazers Working to Increase Diversity in The Great Outdoors

Detroit River Canoeing Events Connect Youth, Families with Nature


1 Comment

  1. Here’s to having BHAGs in your eyes and canoes as jackhammers – busting through concrete canyons – freeing rivers for a ride.

    Nobody does it better than Wilderness Inquiry.


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