A New Call to Conscience: How The Teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Call Us to Reclaim Our Interconnectedness and Challenge Us to Fight for Outdoor Equity and Opportunity
By Rev. Andrew Black
“All I’m saying is simply this: that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commencement address to Oberlin College in June 1965
I was reminded of these words from the great civil rights leader when I recently led a camping trip for low-income youth and families from New Mexico to the Valles Caldera National Park Preserve. Many of the families came from Santa Fe’s Southside, a densely populated area that is 77% Hispanic/Latino and whose family annual median income is less than $13,000. As New Mexico’s largest Land and Water Conservation Fund acquisition, the Valle’s Caldera’s 89,000 acres of pristine public lands offered the perfect spot to teach kids fishing, archery, and camping. Loading up the food and gear into the vans we provided, you could sense the anticipation and excitement since many of the families had never been hiking, camping or fishing much less even visited the nearby mountains.
As we arrived at the Valles Caldera that evening, I’ll never forget my conversation with Carmen, a single mother from Santa Fe’s Southside who brought her 9 and 12-year-old daughters on the trip. As I helped the family set-up their tent, Carmen told me that she was working two jobs. With tears in her eyes, she said she had always wanted to go camping, but just didn’t have anyone to take her or teach her family the necessary skills. Carmen said this two-day camping trip was the only vacation the family could afford for the year and how grateful she was to come to such an amazing place. Listening to the elk bugle under the star-filled sky, Carmen told me that this was the peace her family needed. As she watched her daughters smile while roasting marshmallows with the other kids, she said, “this is who my daughters are meant to be.”
The Struggle and Challenge of Outdoor Equity
For many kids and families throughout New Mexico and across the United States, each season brings new opportunities to hike, camp, fish, bike, ski, and do so much more on our public lands. But, too often many of our youth and families miss out on these opportunities. Often the barriers to camping, hiking, fishing, rafting, skiing or simply wildlife viewing are too numerous and too systemically ingrained to overcome. Many of America’s families and kids have to contend with a whole host of issues that can prevent them from getting outside, from a lack of transportation and resources to a lack of basic gear and access to outdoor-education programs. Many of the youth we work with often don’t have anyone in their lives who want to introduce them to the enchanting natural world, to take them on a hike or go fishing, to show them important outdoor skills, to build their confidence or help them get or understand how to use the basic gear needed to have fun and be safe.
All of America’s kids and families deserve an opportunity to take advantage of the incredible outdoor recreation and education opportunities America’s public lands, parks and green-spaces have to offer. Research has shown that getting kids outdoors is important not only for recreational purposes, but also makes them smarter, happier and healthier. Ensuring equal access and opportunity for all children to get outdoors and to personally experience the majesty of creation and the interrelatedness of all life are critical to ensure that every child has the opportunity to grow up and live into the fullness of who they “ought to be.”
Outdoor Equity: A National Model and Advocacy Opportunity
Seeking to address these challenges, state leaders in New Mexico recently signed into law a dynamic legislative idea that creates an Outdoor Equity Fund. The Outdoor Equity Fund is administered by the Youth Conservation Corps for the sole purpose of serving underserved youth up to age 18 in New Mexico’s urban, rural, and Native American communities. So far the fund is the only one of its kind in the nation and is designed to spur the development of New Mexico’s next generation of conservationists.
Gabe Vasquez, who helped draft the outdoor equity legislation and founded the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, an initiative focused on getting at risk youth and communities of color outdoors notes, “the spirit and teachings of Dr. King inspire us, as conservationists and outdoor recreation advocates, to do more to share these experiences and transformational moments with those who may not otherwise ever have the opportunity. Imagine a world in which caring for our air, land, and water, is a shared value across diverse communities across the entire country. To achieve that, we must ensure that all of youth, families, and communities get a chance to love the resources we are asking them to care for. That starts by building equity into the way we experience public lands and the outdoors.”
The Outdoor Equity Fund originally asked for an initial appropriation of $100,000 from the state, and invites private industry, foundations, individual donors, and outdoor retailers to also pitch in. Microgrants then will be disbursed to local and municipal governments as well as to Native American communities and non-profit organizations to help support programs that serve at least 40 percent low-income youth. Although small, these microgrants can have big impacts on underserved youth and can mean the difference between buying 20 tents for a camping trip or having to sleep outside. They can mean the difference between buying kids fishing poles or having them stand on the dock watching other families fish. They can be the difference between visiting a local park or national forest or staying home because there’s not enough transportation money in the family or youth organization’s budget. As the fund has begun to shape and transform communities, outdoor equity advocates in New Mexico are actively working to encourage other states to follow New Mexico’s lead by creating more resources and opportunities for all children to get outdoors, have fun, be healthy and enjoy the beauty and wonder of creation. To date, New Mexico’s Outdoor Equity Fund has received $265,000 in private and public funding and in its’ first year funded 25 diverse organizations, including those that serve youth with different abilities. The Fund is now administered by the New Mexico State Office of Outdoor Recreation.
Federal Legislation To Get Kids and Families Outdoors
While innovative legislation focused on outdoor equity has been transformative at the state level, there has also been significant steps at the federal level to help get kids and families outdoors. In the spring of 2019, U.S. Congress passed The Every Kid Outdoors Act as part of a larger public lands package. This Act provides America’s fourth graders and their families free entrance to all national parks, federally managed lands, waters, and historic sites – more than 2,000 sites in all.
Written by U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and with strong bipartisan support, The Every Kid Outdoors Act seeks to remove the financial barriers of admission so kids and families will get outdoors and experience America’s public spaces through healthy activities and educational programs. Additionally, the Act also encourages public/private partnerships between public land agencies, schools, and private and non-profit organizations. As a forerunner to this legislation, since 2015, the Department of the Interior has offered fourth graders and their families free entrance to many federally managed public lands. In doing so, the program leveraged over $2 million in private donations and volunteer hours, and created hundreds of partnerships with schools, non-profits, and private sector businesses to support outdoor education programming and recreation opportunities for underserved youth.
U.S. Senator Heinrich also recently welcomed the launch of Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E., a national outdoor equity initiative created by Black, Indigenous, and leaders of color from states and organizations across the country. The new initiative follows the lead of two groundbreaking outdoor equity programs first developed in New Mexico, and later, in California. Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E. aims to address the chronic and systemic inequities that exist in this country that prevent underserved youth and communities of color from engaging in meaningful outdoor recreation and educational experiences on public lands. The initiative will ensure that underserved youth, regardless of income or zip code, have an opportunity to explore the great outdoors and to reap the health, educational, and career-building benefits. As Angel Peña, Executive Director of the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, said: “When Black, Indigenous, and People of Color lead, we can create the change we want to see in our communities and in the outdoors. Every disadvantaged young person in this country deserves an opportunity to dig their hands in the dirt, to experience the rush of a roaring river, and to see the natural world outside of the built environment. This project will help create the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts, conservationists, and people to care for our air, land, water, wildlife and climate. It starts with a plan, and it continues with targeted investments in our communities. Nuestra Tierra is proud to work on this groundbreaking project.”
Dr. King’s words on interrelatedness are an important reminder of a fundamental principle of conservation, that everything we do impacts both others and our environment and that even minor actions have big consequences within the larger interconnected web of life. Although the Outdoor Equity Fund, The Every Kid Outdoors Act and Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E.once started as modest ideas to meet the practical needs of families and local communities, these ideas–if fostered, supported and expanded–have the enormous possibility of transforming the youth of our nation. By creating more access and opportunities to get kids and families outdoors, we also support communities that foster leaders who care about climate, air, water, wildlife, and natural resources from a diverse array of perspectives and backgrounds. Getting kids outdoors may also open their world to a deeper sense of vocation and economic opportunities as they encounter careers in wildlife biology, conservation, ecology as well as outdoor-recreation. To put it succinctly, when America takes care of all its youth, it takes care of its future!