I recently attended a summit where summer fellows from the Alliance for Watershed Education presented their capstone projects. The Alliance for Watershed Education, funded and supported by the William Penn Foundation, consists of 23 environmental centers in the Delaware River Watershed aiming to build capacity and increase their collective impact within the watershed through center collaboration. As part of this Alliance, the centers launched a fellowship this summer for youth aged 18-23 to increase center engagement and action. The room was filled with excitement and community as the fellows shared their summer experiences. For many of these fellows it was their first time diving into environmentalism. The group represented vast academic interests outside the realm of environmentalism, but they brought to the fellowship their own personal stories of interacting with the environment, whether that be forested or urban.
The majority of the fellows were both people of color and members of the centers’ local communities. Through interactions with visitors and trail users, surveying local residents, and community outreach, many of the fellows' capstone projects revealed that communities were unaware of the vast programming and resources readily available at these nearby centers. Beyond increasing general center visitation, the fellows and centers have begun to look at what subgroups of the community are underrepresented in center visitation and more broadly, environmentalism.
According to the U.S. Census, Philadelphia is 44.2% Black or African American and 14.4% Hispanic or Latino and 7.4% Asian. For environmental education to be a community priority, it needs to a priority for communities of color. Yet people of color are typically underrepresented in both environmental recreation and the environmental field. The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations report by Dr. Dorceta Taylor found that not only are ethnic minorities severely underrepresented in the environmental workforce, but also as members and volunteers of environmental organizations. The disconnect between communities of color and the natural environment resonates with my own childhood experience. I grew up in a community primarily of Mexican, Central American, and Southeast Asian immigrants. My parents, a homemaker and a laborer, were often too tired and too economically constrained to plan family trips. But I remember taking weekend trips to the park where family friends would get together to play soccer. This is, in part, where I discovered my inadequacy in sports and my dissatisfaction with our neighborhood parks. The parks were often simply empty grass lots with a few trees on the edges. I was unaware that I was a couple of hours from giant sequoias and redwoods and didn’t start exploring them until I was a teenager. While just a short two hour drive, my parents have yet to see the breathtaking Tunnel View of the Yosemite Valley.
For me, all it took was one trip into the Sierra Nevada to love the beauty of nature. People of color represent a growing portion of the U.S. population. Their lack of engagement with the environment does not need to represent an unchanging disinterest or indifference. For my dad, the majority of my life his adventures were limited to the commute to work and back home. The environment interacted with our family through the water in our tap and the air surrounding us. But camping in the Sierras was a luxury too complicated to coordinate.
As next year's summer fellows continue to examine how to increase the environmental centers' engagement with the community there needs to be a keen awareness of what barriers prevent communities of color from engaging with environmentalism. While it took me years to realize I have the entire Sierra Nevada in my backyard to endlessly explore, the natural world has always played a role in my life providing me and my community with drinking water. The connection between any community and the environment already exists. As communities become more aware of what fits into their definition of "my environment" I see engagement with environmental education being included in that definition.
Karina Herrera is a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science specializing in Water Resources Management. Before graduate school, Karina served as an AmeriCorps member engaging Fresno State undergraduates in science and mathematics in research and internship opportunities and managing a volunteer program to increase early education literacy rates in the Fresno Unified School District. Her interests include groundwater quality and management, sustainable development, and environmental justice.
 “Quick Facts”. United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/philadelphiacountypennsylvania/PST045216
 Taylor, Dorceta E. “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs Foundations Government Agencies” Green 2.0. 2014. http://vaipl.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/ExecutiveSummary-Diverse-Green.pdf