environmental justice, nature play, programs

For Love of Place

I’ve spent much time during the last few years bemoaning “used to be” and what we don’t have. I have grieved for the political system we haven’t had, the compassion unspent and the justice unseen. It has been a topic of constant conversation in my home and with my loved ones. We have kept our eyes on the horizon longing for a sign of hope.

Through it all, I’ve lived in the same place – the same physical location. My son finished high school and began college here in this smallish suburb of metro Atlanta. It has a rich history with which I am still acquainting myself. While tensions ran high across our country and diversity seemed to bring tension and strife in many communities, our little town just “kept on.” For the most part, white, black, and brown folk continued to wave and say “How you ta’day” when they met in the local Mexican restaurant. We don’t know one another by name, but we’re familiar enough to know where we know one another from.

Jason and I like that about our town. We like that the diversity is something that is a part of being where we are physically located in our county and state. It is in harmony with our values, and with who we wanted our children to be when they became adults and had families of their own. We aren’t naive enough to think it always works out perfectly in our community, but we do sense an intentionality here. Our love of this place is one of the reasons we’ve chosen to invest our hearts here in the name of Sparrow’s Nest Play.

The past is our definition. We may strive with good reason to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it. But we will escape it only by adding something better to it.

Wendell Berry

Born of privilege, we realize we’ve had opportunities others have not enjoyed. The realization of those inequities has made it impossible for us to continue on as if we never knew about all people on the margins. Our identification with the autistic community and those who identify as “neuro-diverse” have awarded us opportunities to experience some of those margins ourselves.

COVID has only highlighted areas of drastic inequality. When many schools went to virtual learning, it wasn’t an issue for areas with wifi access or families with technology to support that kind of learning. For others, it was impossible. Some families saw this as an excellent opportunity to try out forest schooling and nature play as alternatives. However, these programs are often expensive and comparable to private school options. For families of lower income, this was not an option.

We realize many parents in our community are working extremely hard to provide for their children. This can often mean working a job and a half, which means utilizing an after school care program to assist with childcare. Sure they’d love to pick up their children right after school and let them go home and play outside in the fresh air, but that option is simply not open to them. For those families, the school after care program is the most cost-effective option, even if it does mean three additional hours each day inside a crowded school cafeteria.

Sparrow’s Nest Play wants to partner with families in our community to change the way children spend their afternoons. Using our town as an educational hub, we want to immerse our kids in nature and creation care every afternoon, engaging them in projects that will enrich their minds and build relationships.

Through a partnership with Rooted Trading Company and the City of Powder Springs, we will be bringing our Nature Play Adventures Program in Spring 2022. We’ll be starting small, with only room for 6 students – but we’ve always believed that it is the smallest of things that really make a difference.

Please consider helping us in our endeavor by sponsoring this program so that we can make it a cost friendly option for families in our community.

creation care, environmental justice, justice, theology

The Violence of Falsehood

Violence against our world and our fellow beings finally cannot be dissociated from the violence of falsehood.

Wendell Berry, On Receiving one of the Dayton Literary Peace Prizes, Our Only World

I’m hardly ever consciously trying to be controversial. Usually, I just mildly annoy people with “my passion” for whatever it is I am speaking into. But occasionally, I really set someone’s teeth on edge by becoming what they might call “political” about a topic. As I’ve written in another blog on Nature and Spirituality, I’m an equal opportunity offender – irritating both the Conservative Right and the Liberal Left. It once bothered me greatly and I would loose sleep at night. Now I sleep just fine.

creek bed along trail

I preface this post with these thoughts because I know my recent research into environmental justice has made (at least) one of you uncomfortable. I can hear you saying, “Why does she have to go there? Can’t she just do her nature play outdoorsy thing and leave well enough alone? None of this really has anything to do with loving and sharing the world God made – that is Creation Care! Leave the justice issues out of it.”

The problem is that leaving justice out of it is falsehood. It is a lie of omission. Omitting the facts about our history of environmental injustices allows us to anesthetize ourselves not only to our past, but also to present and future dangers that share the lives of those we would call “brothers and sisters.”

We must act daily as critics of history so as to prevent, so far as we can, the evils of yesterday from infecting today.

Wendell Berry, On Being Asked for ‘A Narrative for the Future,’ Our Only World

While hiking at a state park just minutes from my home this weekend, I was thrilled to see many black and brown faces on the secluded trail we chose. I met so many diverse people on the trail that as I journeyed, I wondered if the issues surrounding environmental justice might have not already been solved. Maybe these issues really aren’t worth noting and writing about any more?

Suddenly as the trail descended, we were met by a large rock outcropping that I remembered reading had been studied by archeologists as a site of shelter used by Native Americans for several thousand years. I didn’t see any of them on the trail, however, because we relocated the Cherokee from this region a long time ago. And I was reminded that we are all susceptible to the violence of falsehood out of a desperation for a sense of well-being.

rock outcropping used by Native Americans

The hidden truth is, recognizing and acknowledging matters of environmental – or any other kind of – justice will not exclude us from appreciating, enjoying and sharing the good and beauty of a place. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. The joy of being appreciative for a place cannot be disassociated from understanding the history of that place. And understanding the wrongs that have occurred don’t change the way I can appreciate the spicy smell of a hardwood forest.

To fail to enjoy the good things that are enjoyable is impoverishing and ungrateful.

Wendell Berry, On Being Asked for ‘A Narrative for the Future,’ Our Only World

So I will hold both the beauty and the conflict in each hand, allowing myself to always know the tension between what terrible things have happened, so as to more fully know the burning desire to share this beauty now with all peoples. Any other way of pretending is falsehood and violence. It would not be peacemaking.

environmental justice, justice

Just Living: 3 Videos about Environmental Justice

I recently emailed a colleague in the nature play movement about my desire to draw awareness to inequalities in access to nature. Because his passion is also for exposing the gaps in access to green spaces and the challenges faced by urban youth, I knew he would be able be honest with me about just how much a white woman can speak into this issue.

He wrote back that he was simply “humbled” by my interest and acknowledgement of something he has probably known intimately all of this life. More than anything, I want to be the one humbly speaking about this issue, supporting voices of color as they look for support and justice. One of the best ways I can do that today is to share three short videos that outline what the environmental justice movement is, and how it impacts the lives of people I care about.

Environmental Justice, Explained does a wonderful job of explaining how long practiced systems of racism, compounded with pollution and climate change, make people of color highly susceptible to environmental injustice.

And it doesn’t stop with the environment. Watch What is Health Equity? to learn how lack of exposure to green space, affordable and healthy food, lead to health issues that greatly impact quality and quantity of life for millions of people.

And finally, there is perhaps no more respected voice than that of Robert Bullard, the Father of Environmental Justice. In this episode of Chasing the Dream: Pollution is Segregated, this brilliant sociologist details the origin and effects of environmental justice.

True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

environmental justice, justice, nature play

The Nature Gap, Environmental Justice and Why We Care

At Sparrow’s Nest Play, our tag line is Nature Play – Creation Care – Just Living. That last one highlights our focus on justice related issues as they relate to the natural world and its resources. I’ve had the honor of meeting a ton of like-minded people this summer as I’ve completed my Forest School Teacher and Director Training. This training led me to delve into researching programs across the nation, while meeting other nature play leaders from, literally, across the globe.

My research quickly led me to fully realize some great disparities that I’d been ducking and dodging for several years – unsure if they were “real issues,” or just something I was picking apart needlessly. As it happens, those issues are indeed real. They have names and movements and research to which I had never been exposed.

The clues that had frustrated me for years should have been enough to send me on this search years ago. Here are a few of them I experienced daily when I lived near the edge of southwest Atlanta, where I grew up:

  • Our public parks, of which there were few, were run down and full of broken equipment with peeling paint. Most were devoid of grass and sparsely planted with trees. It was never a very relaxing or restorative place to take my small child for the afternoon.
  • Each of the grocery stores in town was small, dirty, poorly stocked and had poor quality fruits and vegetables. I didn’t know “organic food markets” existed until I moved into a wealthier and whiter zip code.
  • Even on our own street, it didn’t always feel safe for my child to play in our backyard – inside our 6 foot fence with our large dog. It wasn’t unusual to hear loud explosions and not be confident if it was a car backfiring or a gun shot. The police department was chronically underfunded, we were told.
  • When the wind blew from a certain direction you could smell the chemical plant – a sickly, sweet smell that left the inside of your mouth tasting like you’d been sucking on a penny. It wasn’t out-of-the-ordinary for a boil water notice to be issued without explanation. One night we were even evacuated to a church on the other side of town due to a chemical leak.

At the time, I reasoned that the neighborhood was just “run down” and due to complete survival fatigue, many of the residents just couldn’t summon up the initiative to change things. What I didn’t realize is that I was living in The Nature Gap – a very real place, duplicated in cities around our nation.

Read more about The Nature Gap:

In the midst of accumulating and ingesting the facts about the disparities in equitable access to nature between wealthier, white populations and those of color, I was also given an assignment to research and cultivate my own philosophy by comparing them with that of Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf. While I will spare you the majority of my paper on the three philosophies, I do want the world to know where the study led me personally.

As I reviewed each philosophy, I found great merit within every one. However, studying the culture and time of each founding philosopher, one may also intuit how their belief system was in many ways a reaction to the societal norms, or even upheaval, of their time in history. In much the same way, I must acknowledge that the culture and philosophy of Sparrow’s Nest Play is a reaction to the trends I see in today’s American society.

So it must be said that I live in a world where:

  • it is widely accepted that children are more vulnerable than adults to the negative effects of environmental toxins because of the fundamental differences in children’s physiology, metabolism, absorption, and exposure patterns that cause children’s bodies to react to and excrete toxins differently than adults
  • increasing evidence suggests that access to nature and green space provides children with a myriad cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits, such as increased ability to concentrate, improved academic performance, reduced stress and aggression levels, and reduced risk of obesity
  • Unprecedented numbers of children in the United States suffer from asthma, cancer, low IQs, and learning disabilities each year
  • Communities of color are almost three times more likely than white communities to live in “nature deprived” areas, those that have less or no access to parks, paths, and green spaces.
  • Discrimination and racism in the United States have had profound effects on human settlement patterns and on the patterns of protections for the nation’s remaining natural areas. Redlining, forced migration, and economic segregation are just a few of the unjust policies and forces that have created barriers to, and a gradient of distance from, the United States’ remaining natural areas for people of color
  • Communities of color are three times more likely than white communities to live nature deprived places. Seventy-four percent of communities of color in the contiguous United States live in nature-deprived areas, compared with just 23 percent of white communities.
  • Seventy percent of low-income communities across the country live in nature-deprived areas. This figure is 20 percent higher than the figure for those with moderate or high incomes.
  • Nature destruction has had the largest impact on low-income communities of color. More than 76 percent of people who live in low-income communities of color live in nature-deprived places.

Sparrows Nest Play must be a place where children, regardless of ability, race or socioeconomic background…

1. Have a safe place to learn and grow.

2. Learn to care for creation through sustainable agricultural and consumer practices.

3. Learn the value of small things, such as small acts of love, kindness, and justice. 

4. Experience being part of a membership with one another and with creation. 

5. Develop and practice tools for peacemaking and reconciliation. 

I’m sure we can utilize methods from all three popular philosophies to do this, but we’ll also love our neighbor as ourselves, while we are serving and preserving the world we’ve been given. And all will be welcome, but we just can’t ignore the gaps any longer.