FORGING FRESH TRACKS: Bringing America Together through Youth

About the Author

Martin has been an active influence in the environmental movement for the past 20+ years, serving in roles such as: the Senior VP at Islandwood, Founding Board Member and Advisor to the Children and Nature Network, and former National Youth Director of the Sierra Club. He is currently the Managing Director of Innovation for Sixkiller Consulting, a national strategic advisory and government affairs consulting firm.

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What could possibly connect a timid young woman from Compton, California and an Arctic Youth Ambassador from the disappearing village of Shishmaref, Alaska?

It is hard for any young person to see the sun over a cloudy horizon, no matter where you are. Whether in urban centers or on remote tribal lands, where there is a lack of opportunity, support, and hope, our youth face extraordinary challenges to avoid the temptation of gangs, crime, and drug abuse.

In 2015, President Obama visited the Alaskan Arctic. Struck by the beauty of the land and the resilience of the people, he issued a call for bold new programs that would broaden horizons for young Americans facing persistent opportunity gaps. Responding to this call, a coalition of private and public entities worked together to build a program with the potential to deeply impact the lives of thousands: Fresh Tracks Leadership Expeditions.

Fresh Tracks – led by IslandWood, the Children and Nature Network’s Natural Leader’s Network, and the Sierra Club – launched its first pilot expedition in August 2016 in partnership with the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative and the Council on Environmental Quality; community partners like the City of Compton and Alaska Geographic; and business partners like REI and Zumiez.

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Bringing together youth from the LA area and Alaska, the program used the outdoors as a platform to foster civic engagement, hometown stewardship, and respect for each other’s cultures and values. Over an intense two-and-a-half-week period we witnessed these youth participants become a family, working together to reach the highest peak of the Santa Monica Mountains and the top of the Arctic Plateau.

Even the rock climbing experience at the REI Flagship store in Seattle became a transformational moment. Jared Savage from Compton was just a few feet from the top of the wall. He was exhausted and didn’t think he could go further. His peers, however, refused to let him down. He pushed forward and reached the summit, later reflecting: “What I take from that experience, is that I can push myself farther than I think. If I set limits on myself, I won’t be able to reach my full potential.”

For the young adults in this first expedition, Fresh Tracks has created a structure of support, developed their confidence, and helped them identify a path for leadership and agency in their communities.

We see this reflected in our program evaluation, completed by Dr. Sharoni Little of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, which showed increased participant knowledge and skills around key objectives, especially civic engagement, cultural competency, interpersonal leadership and communication, and environmental stewardship and justice.

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But it was the growth in their confidence that struck me most during a recent meeting this December in the West Wing of the White House. Four members of the 2016 cohort – Jared Savage and Stephanie Carrasco of Compton and Kimberly Pincok and Essau Shinook of Alaska –  spoke about how their experience with Fresh Tracks has given them the confidence to be stronger leaders in their community. For example, Kimberly of Barrow, Alaska is now working on a plan to develop a music program that will keep youth in her community away from drugs and alcohol. Jared Savage, who is in pilot school, has a long-range plan to start an exchange program that will fly Compton youth to Arctic Village.

Stephanie’s growth has also been extraordinary. A graduate of Compton YouthBuild, she came to Fresh Tracks already having overcome so much.

When we first met Stephanie this summer she was too nervous to introduce herself to a group of her peers. Last week, she stood in front of Senior Staff at the White House and confidently outlined why Fresh Tracks has been so important to her own development.

“We became a family,” she told them. “From sitting and eating family style at IslandWood, to walking through an urban park in Los Angeles, to flying together to the top of the Arctic, we learned from each other and now I will dedicate my life to the youth.”  

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These participants are all examples of how investing in our young leaders can have a multiplier effect and potentially influence the lives of hundreds, thousands more people.

Today, what connects Stephanie from Compton and Essau from Shishmaref isn’t the struggle or the lack of opportunity – but the support they give to each other and their confidence and commitment to bring about lasting change in their communities.


Additional Reading & Resources from C&NN

White House Hosts “Roundtable on Diversity, Youth, and the Outdoors”
MAKING FRESH TRACKS: Natural Leaders from the Arctic Circle and Urban Los Angeles Partner Up
FROM ALASKA TO AUSTRALIA: A Global Odyssey to Connect Kids with Nature
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

NEW watch the Fresh Tracks video capturing participants’ voices from the August experience
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: Tony Teske; René von Saint George

This blog post was originally published on IslandWood’s website.

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