National conference focuses on connecting Black children to nature

C.J. Goulding
C.J. Goulding (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

First in a multi-series

“The growing disconnection of children from nature,” especially among Blacks and other children of color, was recently discussed at a national conference in downtown St. Paul.

Saint Paul RiverCentre was the site of the 2016 Children & Nature Network (C&NN) International Conference and Cities & Nature Summit May 24-27. Over 650 leaders from 14 nations along with federal, state and local policy makers, educators, health officials, conservation leaders, urban planners and others were in attendance.

Clarence Anthony
Clarence Anthony (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

“One of the goals of this conference is to find a way to reach deeper to all communities, and to engage every child in terms of nature and empowerment,” said National League of Cities CEO Clarence Anthony to the MSR.

St. Paul is one of six U.S. cities that the C&NN is working to improve nature access to all children, especially Black children and other children of color. “One of the things that we have found is the access and use of the environment [and] parks has been minimal for people of color,” states Anthony. “We have to have a real conversation about race and equity in America. Being able to pull nature, and children into this conversation is important.”

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman told the MSR, “It’s absolutely critical that we expose all of our children to nature…but particularly children of color. Too many of our kids are growing up disconnected from nature, disconnected even from their own backyard. Spending seven hours a day in front of a screen, and seven minutes a day if they are lucky to be outside.”

Nature in Black communities “means something different…than it does to Asians and it does to Latinos, than it does to Whites,” said Louisville, KY health professional Stevon Edwards, a conference participant. “So when we talk about nature are we using a White definition of nature? Are we talking about Yellowstone or Yosemite, those places where African Americans don’t have regular access to…whatever that access means?

“Are we talking about connecting children to nature that live right next to a big forest and have one in their backyard? Or do we make sure that all children, no matter where they come from — violent street corners, apartment-living area — can have that same opportunity to go out to the forest and experience the mental health aspect and the physical benefits, and all the benefits another child might get,” asked Edwards. “So is nature the basketball court in the middle of the field or the park? Or is nature the back yard? [Or] is nature the worn-out trail you take across the yard on your way to school?”

Blacks historically have been connected to nature and nature “is part of our culture,” said Edwards. “We didn’t escape from the South using GPS. We knew the land and knew what nature was. So when you are talking about connecting children to nature, our cultural attitudes about nature obviously have shifted. We have to change that conversation. Kids aren’t running free anymore.”

Stevon Edwards
Stevon Edwards (Photo courtesy of Stevon Edwards)

When asked about the few Black faces seen at the C&NN conference, “The voices aren’t as many,” said Edwards. “It’s noticeable. Not everybody can get here because it is expensive. There should be African American connections in everything we do.”

“I love the outdoors,” she continued. “My own connections to the outdoors go way back. I am not that big of a fan of camping, but after I leave, I am really glad that I went.”

Edwards then referred us to Outdoor Afro, founded in 2009 originally as a blog that now has over 60 leaders in 28 states, according to its website (

“Outdoor Afro has partnered on this connecting children to nature project, making sure that equity is a piece,” said Edwards.  “I think Outdoor Afro would have found me or I think I would have found other like-minded [Blacks] and would have evolved from there.”

CJ Goulding of Seattle, Washington was among the conference planners. He told the MSR, “I am trying to broaden the movement. There are so many factors and so many other things that need to be done and that need to be addressed” where Blacks are concerned.

One of the conference speakers was Dr. Gail Christopher of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a nationally recognized leader in health policy, as her organization’s vice president for policy and senior advisor since 2007.

“I’m always talking about doing that work, but hearing it said by someone as prominent as Dr. Christopher…means a lot,” said Goulding. “People here are taking her words to heart, and keep doing that work…and looking out for those things that concern African Americans. It is really important.”


Next: Excerpts of Dr. Gail Christopher’s speech at the C&NN conference and the MSR’s interview with her.

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