How COVID19 has uncloaked equity gaps in nature access
By Juan Martinez
As the incoming tide of social distancing and quarantine orders were put in place, we heard frequently that the best defense against COVID19 was something we could all do: stay home and practice social distancing. In addition, we’ve heard how important it is to spend time outdoors while following local shelter-in-place rules. These statements are blind to the systems of inequity locked in place long before the coronavirus pandemic showed up.
A report by the Economic Policy Institute points out that “less than one in five Black workers and roughly one in six Hispanic workers are able to work from home.” And it is well documented that communities of color and economically challenged neighborhoods have less access to quality, nearby greenspaces. Working from home, and having safe access to nature, are privileges not available to all.
In our rush to recover post COVID19, we have to be mindful that policies being put in place do not amplify existing disparities, especially when it comes to nature access. While it is true that nature does not discriminate, the policies, systems and organizations that steward public lands can.
In a recent article for High Country News, conservationist and Latino Outdoors founder José González wrote, “I’m concerned that our decision to limit and close off park and outdoor access will take a disproportionate toll on the communities that need it the most, even as we debate the issue in our privileged spaces.”
José’s statement applies not just to the here-and-now. COVID19 has uncovered what has been true for some time; that access to nature’s benefits is inherently inequitable. This will continue to be true moving forward, unless we rethink nature access right now.
The recovery side of the pandemic curve offers an opportunity for the children and nature movement to take a close look at equity gaps in nature access and the policies that have perpetuated these gaps. In order to change systems of inequity, we need to support efforts that grow and strengthen leadership pathways for those who are most impacted--especially the next generation.
Too often, advocacy opportunities for systems change are siloed by geography, community, culture, and race. While some programs build leadership platforms for youth who are impacted by these drivers of inequity, they often focus on one ethnic group, one particular system, or one place. Movements to heal divides, improve systems, and build community need leaders who can reach across silos and draw on the strength of diversity. An intentional cross-cultural approach can support a more powerful recovery, and more equitable access to nature, post COVID19.
Children & Nature Network partnership initiatives such as Cities Connecting Children to Nature with the National League of Cities and Fresh Tracks with The Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions are working to create the future we seek and the reservoir of hope we all need. These programs work directly with communities, cities, and towns to identify policies and strategies that increase equitable access to nature’s benefits--and with the rising generation of leaders who will have to navigate a “new normal” to increase equitable connections to the natural world.
I believe the outdoors has the power to create a safe and supportive environment --free of judgment -- so that we, as a people, can bring together cultures, acknowledge and heal from trauma, and begin to dismantle persistent disparities while recovering together, with youth and community-driven solutions at the center.
Juan D. Martinez is a Senior Advisor to The Children & Nature Network overseeing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. His passion to empower individuals and youth led him to direct Sierra Club’s first environmental justice youth leadership academy in Los Angeles.