Detroit Outdoors Is Breaking Down Barriers to Nature

Imagine this: Children climbing trees, picking dandelions, making snow people, splashing in puddles, jumping in a pile of leaves, and swimming in a lake. These are everyday experiences and critical moments in a child's life that are shared by environmental stewards, environmental scientists, and nature enthusiasts. As children grow, they begin to understand the world around them. They use their experiences to form their identity, develop a sense of purpose, and understand their role and impact in their community. As children spend more time in nature, they not only benefit from the cognitive, psychological, and physical benefits but are also able to form ideas about themselves. With continual engagement in nature, they can transform their curiosity into action and spearhead and advocate for changes around the world. 

However, not every person is able to have these experiences, and often some are unequally shouldering the burden of living in an industrial area with limited green space. Disproportionately, people of color and low-income families are less likely to live near green spaces or regularly spend time in nature. Without these environmentally rich childhood experiences, as adults people may not partake in the benefits of nature, and ultimately, may be impeded in becoming stewards in their communities. These obstacles have motivated me to create opportunities for underrepresented youth to get outdoors, encourage them to explore, become environmental stewards, and change the face of conservation. 



Documentary about Ajee's work to connect youth with the outdoors in Detroit

After joining the Detroit Zoological Society in 2016, I became the facilitator for the Environmental Stewardship Internship (ESI). ESI is an opportunity for 16 to 19-year-old Detroit youth to explore careers in the natural resource and conservation field, build their employability skills, and explore recreation opportunities in the state of Michigan. We also focus on meeting developmental needs and supporting  engagement with nature through activities such as beekeeping, conducting water-quality surveys, and camping. During our eight-week program, I am also able to observe our interns' behavior over time.

In the past, youth have shared how constant access and engagement to nature has inspired them to change their behavior and then pass on that knowledge to others. Our interns spoke about how they no longer swat bees, use sustainable products, and are becoming ethical consumers. These seemingly small changes are catalysts to getting other underrepresented youth outdoors and comfortable with nature, as well as involving communities in caring for the environment. They also attest to the capability and eagerness of our youngest generation of environmental stewards. What a great honor it is to witness these changes and the moments when our interns learn how capable they are in creating ecological changes in their community. 

For the past six summers, the Detroit Zoological Society has participated in the Summer Youth Employment Program which supports programs like ESI with grants from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. ESI also receives additional support from Comerica Bank. Since the start, Garrett Dempsey and his team from Detroit Outdoors have been a community partner in the program and have supported the program by educating the interns and fostering their understanding of environmentally sustainable camping. Detroit Outdoors is a collaborative effort among the Sierra Club, Detroit Parks & Recreation, and the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit. The mission? Focus on connecting youth to nature by training group leaders and providing the appropriate camping gear for their trips at no cost to the participants. In 2018, I became one of 80 trained leaders in the Camping Leadership Immersion Course and hosted camping experiences in 2018 and 2019 for the ESI interns at Scout Hollow in Rouge Park. Until recently, Scout Hollow was an abandoned campground. Detroit Outdoors spearheaded the renovation and reopening of this area and past ESI interns have contributed to the development of the trail system. Today, it is the only campsite in Detroit.

Programs like Detroit Outdoors and ESI are critical to supporting the next generation of change agents and gaining access to nature for everyone. And we can't do it alone; everyone has to be involved. We need politicians, scientists, enthusiasts, mentors, urban planners, doctors, conservation officers, and the public to make environmental changes and foster a welcoming environment in green spaces around the world and our communities. We must recognize that nature is a human right and ensure not just access but a sense of belonging for all.