I just got back from Washington DC on Monday after participating on behalf of the Outdoor Afro community in the first ever America’s Great Outdoors conference. This event was designed to bring leaders from around the country to discuss ways to re-connect Americans to the Great Outdoors and hosted the historic signing of the Presidential Memorandum on the topic.
Last Thursday night was the pre-conference mixer at the Department of Agriculture, where we heard from the Department of the Interior (Ken Salazar), Department of Agriculture (Tom Vilsack), Council on Environmental Quality (Nancy Sutley), and the Environmental Protection Agency (Lisa Jackson). Following a brief program, participants had the opportunity to pre-register for the conference and network among environmental, recreational, retail, and government related leadership from all over the United States.
A highlight of the trip was reconnecting with the historic Breaking the Color Barrier Conference alumni, a subset of a larger group of individuals who represent organizations that work year-round to connect the outdoors to underrepresented communities of color.
The following Friday morning conference program was held at the Department of the Interior and well orchestrated for both attendees and television audiences, with more networking opportunities.
President Obama, who stood mere feet from where I was seated, impressed upon us in his speech that reconnecting all Americans to the outdoors honors our collective national heritage. The President said “few pursuits are more satisfying to the spirit than discovering the greatness of America’s outdoors,” which referenced his personal family value of outdoor recreation.
We heard from panelists ranging from the federal government to state leadership, such as New Mexico Governer Bill Richardson; key local influencers such as Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey, and Ernesto Pepito, Youth Program Director of Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.
The single most poignant message to emerge from these talks was the imperative to connect urban, underrepresented communities and youth to the outdoors. Pepito, a young Latino male, remarked in his panel that youth need to be represented at the table in leadership talks such as these, and also be introduced to conservation career pathways versus one-time volunteer opportunities. And Gov. Bill Richardson underscored the need for more people of color to be reached, especially in light of America’s changing demographics.
After the morning talks from the stage, participants met in smaller groups to discuss in greater detail the most pressing challenges and share solutions — and senior White House staff was on hand to take notes.
This conference was just the beginning, and as it concluded, many of us felt a tremendous boost of hope and inspiration for the work we already do that is now supported and made visible in a new national agenda. And we learned that in the months ahead, members of this administration will host regional listening sessions across America. They will meet with everyone from tribal leaders to farmers, from young people to businesspeople, from elected officials to recreation and conservation groups.
“And the ideas from these meetings will help form a 21st century strategy for America’s great outdoors to better protect our natural landscape and our history for generations to come, ” said President Obama.
Outdoor Afro was honored to be at the table for these inspired and ground-breaking conversations that will result in more Americans discovering a deeper connection to the outdoors, and ultimately to themselves.