August 2016 will always stay with me. It is the month I watched the sun fade over the Yukon Flats above the Arctic Circle with youth from Compton and Alaska, and swam in the Southern Ocean off the coast of Western Australia.
There, and at points in between, I engaged with different cultures and people whose stories will impact me for the rest of my life. As I begin to process this extraordinary month, the thought that keeps returning to me is how nature can be a bridge to connect us to each other regardless of race, culture, background, or even language.
Fresh Tracks, a cultural exchange program inspired by President Obama’s trip to Alaska in the fall of 2015 and led by IslandWood, Children and Nature Network’s Natural Leaders Network, REI and the Sierra Club. During this two-week leadership expedition, I joined young adults from Compton, California and from Alaska on a journey to IslandWood here on Bainbridge Island, the Los Angeles area, and Arctic Village, Alaska over 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The month began with
Our Fresh Tracks participants came from vastly different backgrounds. But from our first activity of climbing the rock wall at the REI flagship store in Seattle to our final hike to a bluff above the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they showed resilience, joy and excitement. It was uplifting to watch them support each other especially during outdoor recreation challenges like hiking Sandstone Peak in the Santa Monica Mountains, learning to surf with the Surfrider Foundation at Zuma Beach in Malibu and trekking thirteen miles beyond Arctic Village.
My favorite Fresh Tracks moments were when participants showed us their communities. Such as when Cameron Martin from South Central LA gave us an evening tour of the Crenshaw Arts District during which he explained how mentorship had changed his life and made him want to invest in himself and his community. Or when Jaysanna Wiel showed us around Arctic Village, Alaska (pop. 150), highlighting the role elders played in empowering the youth by helping them see how vital caribou and their native language were for the community.
During Fresh Tracks, nature was a platform for bringing very different communities together and creating a new generation of globally-minded environmental and community leaders.
After the two weeks of travel for Fresh Tracks, I had a week off before flying to Freemantle in Western Australia to speak at the Nature Play Western Australia Conference. The 25-hour flight, which took me through the mystical city of Dubai, led me to one of the most gorgeous parts of the world. With its white sand beaches and wildlife, Western Australia is idyllic. Yet, the region is also experiencing the same disconnect between families and the outdoors that we see here in the US.
The Australia conference, led by Griffin Longley of Nature Play Western Australia, brought together government agencies, educators, and sports and recreation advocates to work together to get kids outside. On the first Sunday of the sold-out conference, I was blown away by how engaged the 300 individuals in attendance were, as well as their commitment to working together collaboratively across sectors.
Following the conference, we met with leaders from different Australian government agencies who were interested in learning about Fresh Tracks and President Obama’s Every Kid in a Park initiative, which IslandWood supports.
Our hosts from the Sports and Recreation team of Western Australian Parks and Wildlife were kind enough to take us on a hike of Bald Head, on the southern point of Western Australia. While hiking, surrounded by crashing waves and sublime coastline, I listened to the laughter of our hosts and their stories of their adventures in nature. I noticed that nature was, once again, connecting us with each other.
Now back home in Seattle, I am trying my best to process these experiences. But when I close my eyes and recall the natural beauty of Southern California, the mystical features of Arctic Alaska, or the rugged coastline of Western Australia what I hear is the laughter of Natural Leader’s Juan Martinez of Los Angeles, of Fresh Tracks participant Eaasu Sinnok of Shemnarath, Alaska, or of Nature Play WA’s Griff Longley of Freemantle, Australia.
These three individuals could not come from more different backgrounds, but they share a passion for connecting the next generation to nature. Interestingly, none of them are doing this work just for nature’s sake. They do it for the love of their community, as all three have as much pride in where they come from as anyone I have ever met.
More than anything else, this extraordinary month has given me hope because I have met people who are inspired and are working – as author Richard Louv says – “to create a cultural atmosphere where getting outside and connected to nature is a norm in every community.” In truth, I have never felt more hope that we have the people in leadership positions to restore our connection to nature and to each other in every community from Alaska to Australia.
Additional Reading & Resources from C&NN
MAKING FRESH TRACKS: Natural Leaders from the Arctic Circle and Urban Los Angeles Partner Up
NATURAL LEADERS LEGACY CAMP: One Young Man Decides to Give Back the Way His Father Did
BEYOND LEGACY CAMP: What C&NN’s Natural Leaders Do When They Get Home
WE’RE READY! C&NN’S Natural Leaders Pledge to Support National “Every Kid in a Park” Initiative
THE LIGHT OF NATURAL LEADERS: Young People Move the New Nature Movement
Additional Reading & Resources
Youth Partnership Between the Children & Nature Network, IslandWood, the Sierra Club, and Zumiez Highlighted in Official White House Announcement
IslandWood FreshTracks2016 Travel Blog
Nature Play WA’s inaugural Children and Nature Conference
Every Kid in a Park Initiative
Photo Credit: Martin LeBlanc