THE NATURE OF EQUITY: An Interview with Dr. Gail Christopher

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

Dr. Gail Christopher
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DR. GAIL CHRISTOPHER is vice president for policy and senior advisor at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and an international thought leader on issues involving health equity — including the access of all children to the health benefits of experiences in the natural world. In this role, she serves on the president’s cabinet that provides overall direction and leadership for the foundation. She has also been a longtime supporter of C&NN and the children and nature movement, and a personal friend. We’re delighted that Gail will deliver one of the keynote addresses at the Children & Nature Network 2016 International Conference and Cities & Nature Summit, exploring the role of nature in mitigating the effects of racial inequities. I recently (virtually, from San Diego) sat down with Gail to explore her views on the importance of connecting all children, families and communities to the natural world. — Richard Louv

Having known you for many years, I understand how deeply you care about children’s connection to the natural world. What draws you to this issue, personally?

I am a holistic doctor — a licensed naprapath and a nutritionist. My professional training causes me to respect and understand health from a holistic perspective. But, when I was a teenager, I was given the privilege of visiting Chautauqua in New York. It was the first time I was away from an urban area and in a community where I was, maybe, one of two people of color.

I found myself getting up every morning, going to the wooded park, and just feeling connected and at peace in the park. Sometimes, I would get up early enough to watch the sun rise. And the fear and the anxiety — the feeling of not belonging — went away when I was in nature. That was really when I began to feel that nature was healing, and that being connected to it and being in it was a stabilizing and balancing force in my life.

I know from our past discussions that health equity — and racial equity — is very important to you. I’m wondering where you see nature fitting into that concern?

We know that experiences in nature help child development on all levels. It helps children physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. We know that nature can be a nice counter to exposure to adverse experiences.

So I understand the science behind it. I understand the physiological impact that being in nature has on a child’s well-being. Because I am a holistic doctor, I know that there’s nothing more important in the development of a child than minimizing the physiological, biochemical and biological stress responses in the developing years. I believe it is one of the most important components of healthy child development. When you consider the disproportionate level of exposure to adversity, trauma and stress that children of low-income families and children of color experience, they deserve to have that balancing force in their lives and to have that resource to help ensure healthy development.

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What is your vision for creating some sense of opportunity or equity in nature-challenged neighborhoods?

We have to start with clear intention and clear understanding of the value of access to nature. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough of that in terms of city planners and educators. They don’t understand the importance of it. I think the work that you and C&NN have done in helping people understand the importance of the health effects of nature is important. We’re still in that awareness-raising stage. But once we help people understand it and develop the passion, then we should make sure that every child gets that opportunity in terms of their schoolyards and educational experiences.

At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we fund the National Park Foundation and work with the National Park Service because we believe that every child should be connected to nature. Our country has this brilliant infrastructure of national parks. We want to see the level of engagement by children from urban areas and children of color grow exponentially so that every child feels connected to these parks and develops their own sense that the parks belong to them. That they can be in nature. They can be in parks.

The gardening movement is a part of this in terms of reinforcing that food does come from the earth. It’s connected. So we envision children being more involved with gardens and in green school settings and the national parks. We’d like to see that happen. We’d like it to be the norm, and not the exception, that urban children are connected to the parks and to nature.

I’m sure you know about C&NN’s partnership with the National League of Cities. There are 19,000 mayors and other municipal leaders in the National League of Cities. What role could mayors play in connecting families to nature? Do you see enough of that happening?

We certainly don’t see enough of it. Of course, mayors’ plates are pretty full these days in terms of violence and the criminal dynamics in cities. But there is science to support that when adolescents, in particular, have access to nature you see less hyperactivity, less reaction and ultimately less violence. I think mayors could do a lot more to build exposure to nature, as a priority, into their budgets and into their plans for the city — into their bully pulpit, so to speak. They can do more to make sure that cities are designed and funded in a way that optimizes children’s opportunities to be connected to nature.

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I’m very excited to hear about C&NN’s partnership with the National League of Cities. As always, it’s about how you connect the dots. I think that ultimately our challenge as leaders is to help our partners and our peers understand that the dots do connect.

And we just have to get them to see that there’s a relationship between the environments in which children are allowed to live and grow and thrive and their ultimate success in both school and in society.

We all know that leadership works in different ways. It works top-down as well as grassroots-up. Do you have ideas on how to activate the grassroots specifically within those neighborhoods that are the most challenged in connecting nature with kids and families?

Ultimately, and this is just my bias, you have to find the person who has that understanding in their heart and soul. If for instance, you go to Detroit, you’ll find that the leaders of that (local nature) movement are people who have gardens and who also “get” the need for nature in the community. You find ways to nurture those who have the passion and then you have to support them in their leadership.

We probably could do more to connect the dots between movements as well. Take, for instance, the Black Lives Matter movement. Frontline protesting is one of the most stressful and debilitating commitments. You are out there putting yourself on the line. Those organizers need retreats. They need to have the opportunity to be in nature, to be renewed and refreshed.  I think one idea might be to take some of these leaders from other movements and put them in natural settings and in retreat spaces so they get to personally experience the healing power of nature. Couple that benefit with the opportunity to connect these leaders with the leaders in the nature movement, to help them understand that access to nature should be a part of what they are demanding for these communities.

Would teachers be one of those groups who could benefit from such retreats?

My own sensibility reminds me that it’s the lived experience — when a person knows the power and they know it in their heart and their soul and their body — that makes an advocate successful. So these emerging experiences, in which people feel a difference, are essential to building and sustaining leadership.

How do we develop more of cultural capacity in the nature movement and secondly, how do you do that without facing the problem of cultural appropriation?

Most importantly, it’s the authentic engagement of diverse people. If you have diverse people as part of the work, as part of the movement, as part of the leadership, as educators, as part of the outreach people, you don’t appropriate. If in fact there’s a true diverse table that’s been set and people are there

So that’s the most important thing— to engage people authentically from diverse communities. Now, that’s a little challenging because of the trust issues. So you have to work at it. You have to hear the authentic stories of people that are different from us. You have to want to know those stories, to want to listen to them and become engaged in ways that allow those bridges of trust to be built that can cross from one group to another. Once you build the relationships, and the relationships are authentic and are built on trust and respect, then the natural tendency to honor one another follows.

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I’d like to you thank you for agreeing to give one of the keynotes at the 2016 Children and Nature Conference in Minnesota. If you could sum up, in one or two sentences, what the core message you hope that audience takes away from your speech, what do you think it would be?

I’ve watched you build this movement. I’ve watched the leaders of the movement come so far in a relatively short period of time. I think it is time for a movement 2.0 or even 3.0 from the standpoint of showing the relationships and leveraging the relationships that are out there. The equity movement has grown as the children and nature movement has grown. I think we’re at a point where we can connect the dots in very concrete ways. I will try to illustrate those ways in my talk.

But, most importantly, to show what I would consider an exponential increase in the return on those investments of time, energy and dollars, I’ll talk about how we need to accelerate the engagement of philanthropy. At W.K Kellogg Foundation, we were able to play a role but it is not big enough. We have to find a way to get all of the health philanthropies to see the importance of this work.

I have a different passion for this issue now than I did when we first met 15 years ago. I’m even more convinced that it’s a spiritual work. It’s important to the soul of America in ways that are not as measurable and concrete. But ways that are essential to our survival as a country.

Come see Dr. Christopher in person at the 2016 Children & Nature Network’s International Conference May 24-27, in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

 For more on equity and natural cultural capacity, please see:
C&NN Resources

C&NN’s International Conference on Children & Nature, May 24-27
C&NN/NLC partnership, Cities Connecting Children to Nature
C&NN’s Nature Clubs for Families Tool Kit in Spanish
C&NN’s Natural Leaders Tool Kit in Spanish
C&NN’s Nature Clubs for Families Tool Kit in Simple Chinese
C&NN’s Nature Clubs for Families Tool Kit in Traditional Chinese
C&NN’s Research Library

Learn more about The W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Dr. Gail Christopher receives MacQueen Award for innovation in maternal and child health

Bottom Photo Credit: Stocksy

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