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An Interview with Wild Earth Program Director Esperanza Gonzalez
by Evie Toland
Nature is calling urgently for our attention–and our action. Wildfires are raging across the West and hurricanes pummel the Southeast in record numbers. Sea levels and temperatures rise worldwide, and water, air, and soil quality continue to degrade. Environmentalists, social activists, politicians, and concerned citizens alike continue to ask the question: What can we do? The late historian Lynn White, argued in his influential 1967 paper, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” that the root cause of our ecological crisis is the belief that humans are separate from and superior to the natural world. If one follows this argument, then the solution seems clear and simple: get people to see themselves as intricately part of the well-being and health of the natural world.
The hard part is how. How do we cultivate a connection to nature while living in a capitalist society primarily focused on consumption and inundated with technology? Many environmental advocates would argue that one answer is to reintegrate nature into our education system. In 2005, Richard Louv wrote The Last Child in the Woods to describe how children today are experiencing negative effects from a “nature-deficit disorder.” He argues that the fast growth of technology, standardized and sedentary form of education, and overly structured time in a child’s life, have caused children to grow up without any time spent connecting to nature–and that they’re suffering from this absence in the form of increased ADD and ADHD, depression, and anxiety. This book served as a catalyst for educators and environmental activists alike to see how the reintegration of nature into education can have a huge impact on tackling both our environmental and social crises. Nature preschools, outdoor pre-K, forest kindergartens, and nature connection nonprofits began popping up in communities all over the country. The Natural Start Alliance, a network of organizations, educators, and parents formed in 2013, says that the number of “nature-based preschools” has grown at least 500 percent since 2012.
One of these organizations is Wild Earth, a nonprofit organization founded in 2004 that works to empower youth in the New Paltz and Kingston area through nature-based programming. But Program Director Esperanza Gonzalez says that creating a generation of environmental activists isn’t Wild Earth’s main goal. Instead, the organization sees nature connection as the backdrop for what is truly needed: holistic and healthy communities. In other words, from their perspective, nature connection is not just about getting kids outside. It’s about teaching youth how to resolve conflict in healthy ways; finding each child’s unique gifts and encouraging authentic self-expression; understanding and fighting racism and inequality; acknowledging the history of displacement and oppression of indigenous peoples; and providing opportunities for children to develop a deep love for nature. All of these skills are required if the next generation is going to heal our complex, intersectional, dynamic ecological crisis. Each component enhances the efficacy of the other, and leaving any component out would reduce children’s capacity to effect meaningful change.
If that all sounds like a tall order, well, it is. But Wild Earth is finding that it can be done effectively and meaningfully, even if it’s just during a twenty minute school recess. Here, Gonzalez explains how.
Can you give us a brief overview of the founding of Wild Earth, your role at the organization, and its core mission?
Wild Earth was originally founded in 2004 in New Paltz, NY by a few families who wanted to get their kids out into the woods. Our founder and current executive director, David Brownstein, along with a few other families, started a very small summer camp, maybe 1/2 dozen kids going out into the woods a couple days a week. It was a huge success. They were noticing a change in their children getting off devices and into real, authentic connection. They decided next to launch a debris shelter building workshop, and it turned out 75 kids–they didn’t even have enough instructors for that kind of turnout. And that has been the sustained legacy of Wild Earth. Now, we run programs in the public schools and, in a similar fashion, we are met with overwhelming interest–more than we could ever fill.
I started working at Wild Earth 13 years ago and my role has changed a lot over the years. I am now the program director serving in an operational role, making sure we work within our mission, and within our budgets.
Right around the time I came on as staff, we were confronting a lot of questions around if our programming was actually accessible and equitable. At that time, our few core families were primarily privileged and white. There was a lot of claiming that our programs were accessible–we never turned anyone away–but what true accessibility means is complicated. We were serving some children, the children who could afford it, the children who had access enough to know about us and get the gear and transportation together. So we began to do the work to understand who we are, why we’re doing this, who we’re doing it for, and how we’re going to do it. We decided to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion work, and are now always leading from that center place.
What kinds of results are you seeing in the youth and adults who are attending your programs?
A lot of what we see is not quantitative; we can’t always measure it. And the children are still working within a system, and there are a lot of systems–there’s institutionalized racism, poverty, sexism, gender inequality. There’s so many institutions that the children are inundated with daily. We know we are making an impact, but we also know that they are going back into the world the second they leave our bubble, and that’s a lot to be up against as a young one.
There are some measurables and other impacts that we see over time, though. 4 years ago, we began doing a guided recess and an after school program, where we would go into schools and provide nature connection activities that the children can choose from such as herbal tea making, natural cordage, nature table work, and a lot of games. We found that that program is one of our most successful programs because it satisfies such a need. The children are sitting at their desks all day long, cooped up, and then they have 20 minutes, or less, to go and run, and with very little guidance. There is usually staff on the yard watching their behavior and managing that, but not supporting their social and emotional health or managing conflicts that arise in a peacekeeping way. When our staff is there, we are able to get in between conflicts and support healthy resolutions instead of the school staff needing to go right to disciplinary actions. In a study conducted by the Benjamin Center to measure our impacts and outcomes for students, they found that when Wild Earth is not at the schools, the children are 3 times more likely to get a referral or in-school suspension. This is telling us a lot. We are bringing children in and collaborating with them to see the issue and find the solutions together, instead of being a top-down hierarchical authority that tells them when they’re right or wrong. And in this, we are creating healthy conflict resolution and supporting actual, authentic connection.
What is the difference between nature connection and recreation in the outdoors, such as biking, hiking, or playing sports?
The latter example, i.e. biking, hiking, etc., is more about the activity that’s happening, while this [nature connection] is more about the relationship that’s being formed. Our goal is to provide safe mentorship and tools for children to discover themselves, find agency and inspiration, and manage and understand their relationships in a healthy way. And not just their relationships to their peers, but their relationships to the world at large, to themselves, to feelings that come up, and to the natural world.
We don’t anticipate that we’re forming an army of environmentalists. But we are trying to understand who the children are, who they want to become, and how to give them tools so they can step into who they are becoming. We hope that the children who grow up out of our programs are change agents and leaders in the specific way that they were always meant to be. We have doctors, artists, political activists, teachers, and environmentalists all graduating from Wild Earth, but that’s not the end goal for us. It’s about recreating a whole community by having authentic connections that are place-based, and socially and emotionally guided. It’s not really what we’re doing, it’s all about how we’re doing it.
How do you see your work at Wild Earth fitting into the ecological and climate crises we are currently facing?
I’m a firm believer that kids need to love nature before they learn to fight for it. So that’s first and foremost, providing rich experiences where children can form bonds with the natural world around them. And that naturally extends to a desire to protect. When you fall in love with something, you want to take care of it.
Honestly, though, I think one of the biggest ways our work contributes to climate activism is by teaching ourselves, our networks, and the youth in our programs how to fight racism. The intersection between racism and the climate crisis is tremendous. It’s not just about the rivers and mountains, but also about the people and the way that marginalized communities are going to be, and are already, and have been for some time, so much more negatively impacted by the climate crisis. My hope is that our organization can support other nature connection networks and schools to be actively fighting racism, and that those worlds will collide and support one another.
We are also talking about and looking at the world with the kids. We are not in the business of ignoring what is going on in the world and we will have those conversations as they are ready. My hope is that having these conversations from a place of love, connection, and caring for one another will naturally extend to being a freedom fighter, in whatever way that may be.
Many nature connection organizations today own what was once indigenous land. They also teach the same earth-based skills that indigenous peoples were once persecuted for using. How does Wild Earth work to acknowledge or address this context in your programming?
Even though we’ve been at it for years, we are at the beginning phases of that work. We acknowledge the land and the people who lived there. We work with various organizations to pursue land justice, like the Kingston Land Trust, and we work with folks from some different tribes to support their work and provide spaces in our programs so they can relearn the skills that were taken from them. We are putting relationships first.
Though, most of the work is in the ongoing education and decolonizing of our minds and our language that we are doing with the staff, the kids, and ourselves. When I first started, there was a lot of singing these faux native songs and no one knew what their origins were. It was tremendously uncomfortable for many of us, but it was a lot of work to understand how to step out of that lineage that we had received. Now, if we are singing a song, telling a story, or teaching a craft, we want to do the work of researching where that came from and understanding what peoples that belonged to and to name that, so it’s not just erased from our history. It’s hard because, at the end of the day, everything we do is borrowed from another culture. We want to continue doing this work, but how do we lead bow drill fire making in good conscience when it was something that was illegal for native people? It’s a constant conversation.
How has your life been personally impacted by this work? What has changed in you?
This backdrop of nature connection in the world of racial justice and equity has been hugely impactful for me. Specifically, in understanding that nature connection is a privilege, and one that has been afforded to certain people and robbed from others. Now more than ever during COVID, I am seeing what is happening for those living in large housing complexes, nursing homes, or hospitals, and nature is not really accessible for them. And even on a normal day, it’s the same situation. It has provided me a lot of opportunity to see my own privilege, to examine my own mind and how it’s been colonized, and to center equity work in everything that I’m doing, but specifically in this nature connection movement. That’s one of the treasures and challenges that I’ll always be holding, that nudge towards real equity and real representation and justice.
We are all remote from each other in a lot of ways right now, but the natural world is one of the things that is still there. How can people increase their connection to the natural world at this time?
Everyone’s natural world looks so different, so that feels like the most important thing–just learning what you have around you and going for it. Even if you’re in the parking lot and you’re surrounded by people, that’s still nature. There’s always the sky, or a weed growing up through concrete. Nature will always find its way.
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