Children & Nature Network: Creating Bridges to the Outdoors


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I am an African American “Natural Leader,” which means I lead others in connecting to the outdoors. While there are many people of color working in the environmental movement, black and brown faces unfortunately aren’t seen as much as they should be in leadership roles, or simply enjoying our public lands. I stand with a group of diverse Natural Leaders around the country who are working to change that.

In the few years that I have been involved in connecting people with outdoor spaces, there have been numerous occasions where I am the only person of color in the program, or the only African American leader. Growing up, there were very few people from my neighborhood traveling, hiking, canoeing or spending time outdoors in these ways unless it was a part of a structured program.

CJ Goulding

Photo by Tony Teske.

Today, I lead by being true to myself and enjoying the outdoors without subtracting any piece of my culture or the community I come from. So as I #OptOutside, on my feet will be Jordan Bred 11s, the only pair of Michael Jordan’s brand of sneakers I have ever owned. Jordans are a status symbol in the neighborhood I grew up in, a memento of importance and significance.

In my role with the Children & Nature Network, I strive to train and support young, diverse Natural Leaders who work to connect their communities to the outdoors. They serve as a bridge to the natural world for people who face barriers of access and awareness or haven’t traditionally spent time outdoors in typical outdoor recreation. Our Natural Leaders are expanding opportunities for children and families to opt outside so that they can experience the many benefits of nature.

Children & Nature Network

Photo by Tony Teske.

In August, I was honored to work with my Children & Nature Network colleagues, REI, Islandwood and Sierra Club to launch Fresh Tracks: Leadership Expeditions, a 16-day cultural exchange inspired by the Obama Administration’s commitment to connecting more young Americans to nature. Fresh Tracks brought together emerging leaders from Los Angeles, California, and all across Alaska (as far north as the Arctic Circle), to experience each other’s cultures and communities and the power of exploring the outdoors. Watch “Fresh Tracks: The Video” to learn more.

Study after study confirms the value of an outdoor life. REI’s #OptOutside campaign, now in its second year, reminds us to reconnect to the outdoors, to a natural world that allows us space to connect to ourselves, to other people, and to the bigger mysteries of life. It’s about making getting outside a habit and a lifestyle.

Opt means “to make a choice from a range of possibilities.” With that in mind, and thinking about the culture I grew up in, I can appreciate that I have the liberty to choose my adventure, a choice that we can agree should be available to everyone. I am also aware that there are obstacles that limit the possibilities available for people to easily make the same choice to spend time outside.

I am working to make that choice easier for others, by working with programs to provide opportunities for outdoor exploration to those for whom that “range of possibilities” may not have existed.

Children & Nature Network

Photo by Tony Teske.

My choice to #OptOutside while staying true to my culture and who I am makes me a bridge and an example of how someone can stay connected to their community and culture while taking steps into the outdoors. And it makes a difference. At the beginning of Fresh Tracks, Cameron Williamson-Martin stepped off of the plane and into the forest of Bainbridge Island, Washington, wearing his own pair of Jordans. Even after the trip has ended, we are working together to figure out how he can continue that connection and bring others into the outdoors with him. The instant connection from our similar footwear and life experience combined with the opportunity to explore the outdoors validates the doors REI is opening through the #OptOutside campaign and by supporting programs like these.

Children & Nature Network

Photo by Tony Teske.

My Jordans are now falling apart, worn from adventures in places like the Grand Tetons and the Grand Canyon, hiking through the topography of Los Angeles and Arctic Village. This goes directly against how people “should” wear them and what people “should” wear outdoors. But I wear them wherever I go to remind me of the fact that though there are two worlds, I am a bridge. We can all use our influence and reach to create similar opportunities for others.

This fall, as #OptOutside gets into full swing and as Natural Leaders across the country connect their communities to the outdoors, I am affirmed of my commitment to that mission and confirmed in my approach when I see another young leader like Cameron follow the footprints of my Bred 11s into the woods.

To learn more about what Natural Leaders will be doing across the country to #OptOutside, follow Natural Leaders on Facebook. Also follow the Children & Nature Network for ideas for connecting to nature on #OptOutside day and all year long.

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