Shifting Definitions of Environment to Engage Youth Outdoors

< Back
Author: 
CJ Goulding

At the SHIFT Festival in Jackson Hole this week, IslandWood’s Martin LeBlanc and grad student CJ Goulding will be leading a breakfast discussion about how to better engage youth in the outdoors through collective impact, cultural relevancy, and by breaking down cultural and economic barriers. They will be joined by Juan Martinez of the Natural Leaders Network, Christopher Rutgers of Transforming Youth Outdoors, Eloise Russo of City Kids Wilderness Project, and Graciela Cebelo of Latino Outdoors.

CJ is a Natural Leader and a student in the inaugural class of our new Urban Environmental Education graduate program. We connected with CJ in Jackson Hole in advance of the session to get his perspective on youth engagement outdoors.

What experience in your own life/childhood inspired you to start working to get more young people, particularly in diverse communities, connected to their environment?

CJ: For me, it took place in two stages. First I was introduced to how powerful a space the natural environment can be for creating change. That change in my own life started right in Grand Teton National Park. The second stage of inspiration hit home when I was able to do the same for others, helping to transform the perspective and outlook of diverse youth while canoeing and backpacking in the North Cascades. I realized that developing a connection with the natural world around a person empowered them to develop their connection to their own growth and their communities.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles to engaging urban youth outdoors?

CJ: I believe that some of the biggest obstacles we face in engaging urban youth outdoors lie in being relevant to who they are and where they come from. As long as the outdoors and the environment are seen as something "out there," youth will have wonderful experiences in pristine and wild places, but may return home leaving growth and positive connections attached to the wild places where they found them. Never one to point out obstacles without solutions, we can bridge that relevance gap by continuing to support young and diverse leaders who understand both the communities they serve and the organizations striving to do this work. In supporting these leaders, other obstacles may arise, like resistance to change in the way things are normally done, reluctance to share decision making power, and the risk of such investments delivering unexpected results. But a slate of individuals diverse in thought, age, ethnicity (or any other identity), operating at many levels of organizations, communities, and governments, is central to any progressive and successful movement!

You’ve been involved in work related to youth engagement outdoors for a while, but we’re curious…has the Urban Grad program at all changed your perspective on the issue or brought to light any opportunities or new approaches you didn’t see before?

CJ:The Urban Grad program has brought me to the belief that environmental education and youth engagement outdoors are not lenses that you can view people and communities through. While we are grateful for the example of conservation leaders who have set the stage for the work we do today, copying and pasting the ideas and strategies of Mr. Muir and the Muries will not have the same effect on today's world as it did on their own. Instead, as we view the environment and outdoor engagement through the eyes of the people, we learn so much from urban communities while integrating tools and strategies to further benefit the communities we work with. The engagement becomes beneficial on both ends and not a process where we provide a benefit to them.

What role do you see urban environmental education playing in increasing the engagement of diverse youth in outdoor recreation and conservation?

CJ: Urban environmental education can lead the shift in how the outdoor rec and conservation worlds define environment, while broadening the spectrum of approaches to the natural world. In a time where over 50% of the world's population lives in cities, urban environmental education attempts to work hand in hand with cities and communities to ensure that solutions are not developed from one side and thrown at the other without collaboration. Urban environmental education allows leaders to immerse themselves in an urban community, where they learn about the relationships people have with their environment, and use those relationships to educate and empower wholistic community growth. The outdoor rec and conservation worlds, focused on this idea of youth engagement as a wholistic process and not isolated within a connection to nature or wild places, will develop a relationship and find a community that supports and participates just as much as it is supported.