My name is Alicia and I carry many identities- I am Black, a woman, a scientist, an educator, and a community organizer. Over the last several years I have learned that there are very few spaces in which I am able to honor and uplift the plethora of me’s. I am fortunate to say, however, that I have found my space in the outdoors.
Since I was a child, I have been attracted to the outdoors. I played in creeks, forests, and fields often stubbing my toes on the many rocks concealed by infinite shades of green. However, as I grew older, the world showed me that people like me shouldn’t exist. In the science labs where I worked, I rarely saw other women of color. I took a lot of science classes, but never had an African American teacher. And when I opened outdoor magazines, I never saw anyone who looked like me. Rather than be discouraged, however, I chose to act. Those actions included moving 2,300 miles across the United States to the Education for Environment and Community (EEC) Graduate Program at IslandWood, and to Outdoor Afro, an organization with the mission of uplifting and inspiring black connections to nature.
When I began the EEC program at IslandWood, I could not have possibly known how transformative the experience would be. It wasn’t until I had my first “difficult” student that I recognized the tremendous opportunity before me. He was an African American sixth grader whom came from his home school with a history of disciplinary problems, and acted no differently towards me. By day two, I was at my wits end, but by day four, he was my best student. What caused this change? I would love to say it was all me, but I’m only partially responsible.
The IslandWood community instilled in me the ability to recognize my students’ needs and to work alongside my students to create a pathway to success. The IslandWood community also encouraged me to recognize how my identities resonate with those of my students and that honoring identity is a first step to powerful teaching and learning. This student and I developed a bond based in common understanding and respect for one another. And from there, we both flourished.
Throughout the year, I taught many more students of color. I saw the looks of surprise, happiness, and relief when they saw someone who looked like them serving as a leader in such an unfamiliar place. As I taught about science, nature, and teamwork, my students taught me about their homes, cultures, and communities. Together, we demonstrated that people with our multitude of identities belonged outdoors too.
After I graduated from IslandWood, I wanted to continue my personal growth while sharing my love of the outdoors with the greater community. Luckily for me, I came across Outdoor Afro. This tremendous organization, founded by Rue Mapp, unites the Black community in celebration of our long-standing connections to nature. As an Outdoor Afro Leader, I am able to share my love of the environment while creating safe spaces for people of color to engage in outdoor leadership. I am able to have genuine conversations about the state of the Black community in America in beautiful natural spaces filled with restorative power. I have also gained access to a network of individuals dedicated to shifting the conversation around equitable engagement with the outdoors.
I am fortunate that I have found spaces that honor my identities. And I am grateful to IslandWood and Outdoor Afro for helping to shape these spaces for myself and untold numbers of folks to come.
Alicia Highland (EEC ’15/UW M.Ed. ’16) is now working as the Educator and School Partnerships Coordinator at Woodland Park Zoo.