In the work of conservation and nature education, we are increasingly focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion. What do those words mean? How can we implement programs that are truly inclusive? How can we create truly equitable experiences, access and opportunities? How can we raise up diverse leaders? I just spent days at a conference discussing these issues and learning how to put words to my own work. The most influential session I attended taught participants to include communities in the origination and planning of the programs that the organization is considering starting. What do they want? How would they do it? To start, leave behind your own well-baked plan and enter the community with an open mind and listening ears. C&NN's Director of Cities and Nature, Monica Lopez Magee, explained that when you consider the knowledge and ideas from the community you want to include in your program, instead of coming into that community to do what you have planned, you will raise up leaders and you will have a richer, more inclusive program. This is excellent advice for including communities that are currently under-represented in conservation work.
But there are others who are also under-represented that we rarely include in our discussions. In the US, unlike many other countries, most of our outdoor education programs are divided by gender. Boys and girls are separated and offered different programs and experiences. Why?! Girls can camp and hike with a backpack (I do!) and boys frequently love to create nature art and learn the leadership skills that girls’ programs commonly focus on. If we include all genders, we suddenly include everyone who doesn’t feel that they are part of a binary gender system. It is increasingly common that youth are questioning or trying to discover who they are and how they identify. And they are SO much more than their gender! Their gender identity or who they love is not their defining characteristic. They are also campers, hikers, photographers, writers, marine biologists, ornithologists, rock climbers, artists, and fishers. Why do so many of our outdoor and youth programs create a division and a wall that prevents participation where a divide is not necessary?
Everyone everywhere needs nature and nature needs all the love it can get. Our environmental and outdoor ed programs should focus on what our youth want to contribute, on what they are passionate about in the outdoors, and how we can foster the next generation of conservationists. Not on the singular aspects of gender, gender identity, and sexual preference. There is no reason those aspects of a person should be their over-riding defining characteristic when humans are so much more complex than that, with so many varied and beautiful talents to offer the world. Everyone is able to participate in and contribute to conservation and outdoor recreation. Nature needs everyone.
Heather Kuhlken incorporated her experience as a teacher and biologist and her passion for nature to found Austin Families in Nature in 2008. Since then, Kuhlken has guided AFiN’s growth into a 501c3 non-profit (Families in Nature).