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Outdoor Nation!

June 19-20, 2010
New York City

Outdoor Afro had the wonderful experience this past weekend to be a part of Outdoor Nation, a youth summit designed to reconnect America’s youth to the great outdoors and inform organizations of what youth care about most. This was also the first official listening session as a part of Obama’s Great Outdoors Conference this past spring.

The event began with a mixer Friday night sponsored by Backpacker Magazine. Leadership from The North Face, VF Outdoors (TNF parent company), The Natural Leaders Network (Children and Nature Network), New York Restoration Project, Student Conservation Association, Bay Area Wilderness Training, New York Parks Recreation, Sierra Club, American Hiking Society, and many others gathered on the rooftop of the Arsenal Building in Central Park. Everyone seemed to enjoy the warm summer sunset, great libation, and engaging conversation that expanded networks, considered the barriers of outdoor engagement, and anticipated the hundreds of youth set to arrive the following day.
Saturday’s events began at noon in the park and the public turnout was amazing! Thanks to much local publicity, many hundreds of people, including several families with children, came and participated in rock climbing, kayaking, trampoline jumping, and hoola-hooping, as part of a treasure hunt to engage with the activity vendors and the various orgs. Each interaction earned stamps in the event’s passport booklet to win prizes. I had a blast working with Kyle McDonald, CEO and founder of Bay Area Wilderness Training at The North Face Planet Explore table to share with the public how to use the social network to connect with regional and local organizations’ events and activities.

Later that afternoon was the official start of the Youth Summit in an outdoor tented area of the park. Nearly 600 youth from all over the Unites States came to town representing several organizations to share what they cared about related to the outdoors. About 35% of those youth were youth of color, many visiting New York City for the first time. Outdoor Afro connected with Brother Yusuf and his stunning youth group from Albany’s (NY) Green Tech High Charter School, Mickey Fearn, Deputy Director of the National Parks, and Bay Area friends Steve Hagler of the Stewardship Council, Zakiya Harris of Grind for the Green, Ernesto Pepito of the Crissy Field Center, and many others for an impromptu reunion.

After an introduction and welcome by event organizers and sponsors, such as North Face CEO Steve Rendle, the youth were divided into various organizational themes or “tracks” to help guide their brainstorming process. Themes such as Diversity, Health and Active Lifestyles, Media and Culture, Careers, Service, and Recreation/Education were matched with issue experts who helped guide conversations that revealed a depth of thought and sophistication these youth had when contemplating how they care to engage with the outdoors – or not. Importantly, ideas generated by these youth can help them to apply for the newly minted Explore Fund,  a $2,500 grant to spark and sustain outdoor youth participation where these kids live. The evening concluded with a youth pizza mixer at the North Face offices hosted by the Sierra Club and Juan Martinez and the Natural Leaders Network contingent.
The following morning, White House officials from the Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Labor and the National Parks facilitated the listening session to brainstorm answers to core questions; identify opportunities, and there were more in-depth track discussions to review and prioritize the top ideas of these sessions. Check out the Outdoor Nation website for more details about the conference outcomes.
It was a tremendous opportunity to hear youth voices, such as the African American young lady from environmentally impacted Bay View Hunters Point (San Francisco, CA) who lamented that she grew up thinking that asthma was normal because “every child in the community had it,” she said. With so much disheartening news related to the Gulf and its recovery, it was affirming to witness a return to the conversation of outdoor engagement among youth as one important step to help ensure a future of environmental recovery, sustainability, and justice.

A very special thanks to The North Face for making it possible for Outdoor Afro to take part in such an important and ground-breaking event.