REI Announces Force of Nature Fund Recipients

Through our Force of Nature Fund, we’re supporting more than two dozen organizations that create opportunities for women and girls in the outdoors.

This year, we launched Force of Nature, an expansive public effort to create more opportunities for women and girls to enjoy the wild. Our goal: Make the outdoors the world’s largest level playing field.

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But we can’t do it alone. So, in 2017, we pledged to invest more than $1 million in organizations that ensure women are equally inspired and equipped to embrace a life outside. About $500,000 has been invested in our current partners, Camber Outdoors, GirlTrek and the YMCA’s GOLD initiative. Through our Force of Nature fund, another $500,000 will support 26 more organizations that applied through the co-op’s first open grant call. With this fund, we looked for innovative programs that utilized the outdoors to empower and inspire women and girls.

After receiving 560 applications, we are thrilled to announce the 26 Force of Nature Fund grant recipients.

To get a flavor for the innovative work that is being done, we dove more deeply into four of the organizations.

Latino Outdoors

Latino Outdoors

Latino Outdoors is a one-of-a-kind Latinx-led and Latinx-serving organization that seeks to connect Latinx communities with the outdoors and bring their perspective into the wilderness narrative. As a regional coordinator, Chela Garcia has been at the helm of establishing the Latino Outdoors chapter in Colorado for the last year and half. “I love the position I’m in because I meet amazing people in the outdoor recreation industry, and I’m connecting my community to experiences they’ve never had or never had the opportunity to explore,” she said.

Originally a Facebook group, Latino Outdoors was founded in 2013 and quickly found a loyal following across the nation. Chela isn’t surprised. She told us Latinx going outdoors is “not something new—our community has a history of being connected to nature and the outdoors. We’re expanding upon that and making it a deeper connection.”

REI’s $25,000 grant will help support the Latina leadership of their nationwide initiative, Estamos Aquí—Expanding Latinx Leadership in the Outdoor Field for Broader Conservation Equity and Inclusion. This program will introduce more girls and women, through a family support structure, to new and ongoing outdoor experiences.

“I think it’s important to get more Latinos outdoors because one, our presence isn’t recognized in the U.S. And two, it is really important to make the connection between motherhood and sisterhood and nature and the outdoors. To tell that story is really important—and Latino Outdoors does that really well,” Chela said. “We’re going to be one of the largest demographics in the U.S. By inspiring more mothers and daughters into the outdoors and connecting with nature, we are inspiring future generations to love and protect our earth and also to connect with our ancestors, history and cultura.”

Get involved! Chela told us it is easy to join the effort: “If you self-identify as Latino and you’re connected to the outdoors, become a role model and volunteer. If you’re an ally, talk to your friends, families and networks about the importance of diversity in nature and the outdoors.”

Rocking the Boat

Photo courtesy of Rocking the Boat director of communications Joaquin Cotten

Young people are innate dreamers. And the dreams kindled in youth have the power to propel a person through their life. Rocking the Boat believes showing young people they can do extraordinary things helps them realize their dreams are extraordinary and attainable.

Established in 1996 as a volunteer boat-building project in an East Harlem junior high school, Rocking the Boat has grown dramatically over the years. From wooden boatbuilding, it expanded to rowing and sailing lessons, and now, to restoring local urban waterways. In 2017 alone, it has served 1,300 youth and counting. That’s 1,300 more people who feel personally invested in the ecological health of their own community.

With a $25,000 Force of Nature grant, Rocking the Boat will support their Girls Education and Leadership Program. It offers middle school-aged girls from the Hunts Point section of the Bronx—the poorest U.S. zip code east of the Mississippi—a dynamic outdoor environmental education. The program takes young women out in boats that their peers have crafted and cared for. The vast majority have never been on a boat, but by the end of the year-long program, they’ll feel comfortable captaining one on their own. They’ll learn about water quality and the history of the Bronx River, and experience hands-on research projects.

“At the end of the program, you’ll see them feel a responsibility to the river. They’ll have the courage to tell people what they learned,” said Assistant Director of Public Programs Jasmine Benitez. She knows this firsthand—her first exposure to Rocking the Boat was as a participant in 2009.

And the successes speak for themselves. Many Rocking the Boat alumni now work for city parks agencies, teaching youth about the environment. “We gain passion and ownership and responsibility and we want to spread this knowledge,” Jasmine said. In fact, that is just what keeps her coming back.

Get involved by joining the community. There are free family-friendly boat rides, youth classes and plenty of volunteer opportunities.

West Town Bikes

West Town Bikes

We all know the adage about teaching a man to fish. But have you heard the one about teaching a girl to build a bike? We didn’t think so. That’s where West Town Bikes steps in. Its mission is simple: Promote bicycling in the city of Chicago. Why? For young people in urban areas, it can be hard to see beyond the few blocks that encompass a neighborhood. But sometimes all it takes to break out is a bike.

Every Wednesday, West Town Bikes opens its doors to girls and women. The $10,000 Force of Nature grant will support Girls Bike Club (GBC), a drop-in program open to all girls and young women in the community. Here, the youth set the agenda—which includes maintaining and repairing their bikes, volunteering to earn parts to build a bike of their own, riding together to local parks, and touring and cyclocross racing far beyond city limits. The program grew out of the need for girls to have a non-threating space where they are comfortable exploring male-dominated interests—like mechanics and cycling.

Ulana Coutts has been a part of West Town Bikes since she was 13 and has been a member of every single program it offers. Today, she’s a mechanic in the organization’s public-serving bike shop, as well as a leader for the GBC and Women and Trans Night. Her passion for the mission is palpable.

“Our youth are impacting real world issues in a very real way. You’re given the responsibility to make decisions that are serious and important. That’s why people who come out of the program do awesome things, like drawing up bike paths or making videos to raise awareness,” Ulana said.

“Anyone who feels intimidated by spaces that are predominantly male can come here. Just walking through the door is empowering. You’re going to fix something yourself,” Ulana said.  “You can walk into whatever kind of male-dominated space you were afraid of before. You can do anything. That’s the kind of empowerment and confidence the girls instill in themselves by walking in and wanting to learn how to hold tools. We just provided the space.”

Get involved by dropping in, donating or volunteering your time.

Insight Garden Program

Insight Garden Program

Photo: San Quentin Rose, courtesy of CDCR

Transforming lives through gardening? If you’ve planted or pruned, you know it’s true. And that’s just what Insight Garden Program has proven, year after year. The Berkeley-based organization empowers people in prison to create gardens and supports them with green jobs when they leave. In turn, the organization says participants have a less than 10 percent re-offend rate, compared to the national average of greater than 55 percent.

Founded as a volunteer organization in 2002, the Insight Garden Program seeks to transform lives by connecting self, community and the natural world. Participants co-design their own garden and build it from scratch. And it’s not just gardening. This 48-week program teaches everything from our impact on global climate change to meditation.

“We want to end cycles of mass incarceration. 90 percent of people who are in prison will leave at some point—we want to provide them with what they need when they come out. We’re a re-entry bridge,” director Beth Waitkus said.

The $25,000 Force of Nature Fund grant will allow Insight Garden Program to create gardens in two women’s prisons, Central California Women’s Facility and Folsom Women’s Facility—it’s a first for the program. Many of the women in these two prisons have been requesting a garden for years—17 years in one woman’s case.

California prisons have been moving from a punishment mindset to one of healing, Beth told us. She says this program helps make that shift.

“When building a garden and planting, we are using nature as a metaphor. It’s healing in an environment that is incredibly tough and oppressive, programs director Amanda Berger said.

How can you help? Just head to this page to learn about fundraising, getting the word out or sign up to be considered as an in-person volunteer.

We are honored to support the work of these organizations as they make a real impact on the outdoor lives of girls and women. Stay tuned—if there are opportunities to apply for a Force of Nature Fund grant in the future, it will be announced in 2018.

In the coming weeks, we’ll continue to spotlight the great work being done by the Force of Nature Fund recipients. Check back for more stories on the Co-op Journal.