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Place and Diverse Communities: The Search for a Perfect Fit

A Sense of Place

0ver the last four years, I've been designing and implementing urban environmental education programs for a New England-based, non-profit, recreation and conservation organization called the Mountain Club (AMC). In the past, we've struggled not only to find the most appropriate participant group for our programs, but more importantly, to find the right setting, or "base," from which to conduct our work. For example, should our programs focus on one particular Boston-area park, or should they incorporate parks across the city? Should we work with one neighborhood in particular, or should we work with community centers city-wide? We've been struggling to define and establish a sense of place for our programs within the culturally diverse urban arena.

As perceptions of the “urban environment” have evolved and expanded, so have urban environmental educational programs. Once we believed that the urban environment simply meant green-spaces within the city. Our education offerings mirrored that view. Today we see our program's base and future as resting in what is called “community conservation work.” In fact, environmental education and conservation organizations nationwide are also terming their programs “community conservation work.” Currently, many of these “community conservation” initiatives are struggling through their own attempts to establish a sense of place. Just as definitions and perceptions of the urban environment have evolved, so have the definitions and perceptions of what makes community and what makes for community conservation work.

AMC has a strong history of running outdoor education workshops in the White Mountains of Northern New Hamp-shire and Maine. The organization has been promoting the protection and responsible use of this region for more than one hundred years. We have overnight facilities and trails in the mountains which give us an actual, physical stake in the region. We have a constituency of members that supports our conservation and research efforts. We also have a strong vision for the future of our programs in the area. Our organization's history, physical connection to the land, supportive members, and a vision for the future have created the solid sense of place from which our North Country education programs can develop and flourish. This sense of place can give any develop-ing program the direction it needs to push past obstacles and succeed.

For over 25 years, AMC had been successfully running the Youth Opportunities Program (YOP), designed to train youth workers in outdoor leadership so they, in turn, would be qualified to lead their kids on hiking and camping trips through the mountains. YOP remains a fantastic program. However, its coordinators see in it one significant short-coming: kids have a great time in the woods, but the reality is that most of them live in the city. How can we involve and engage them where they live? The answer: The Urban Trails Program, the program which I coordinate.

Inner-City Youth and Empowerment

It seems as though with each new funding cycle there is a certain key word or phrase that comes into vogue. During the year Urban Trails was conceived, there were two phrases, “inner-city youth” and “empowerment.” Thus, Urban Trails was drafted as a program that would help to empower city youth by paying them an hourly stipend to build and maintain parks in and around Boston. On its best days, youth participating in Urban Trails would set stone steps, create water bars and clear trials. These projects worked – when they could be found.

In designing Urban Trails, we were not able to establish a sense of urban place comparable to the sense of North Country place that helped YOP grow. In the mountains, there was always trail work to be done. It was accomplished by a combination of professional trail crews, supervised volunteer trail crews and many committed volunteers who worked on their own. We rather naively assumed that in city parks there would also always be plenty of trail projects at hand, and that the land maintenance agencies would generally be competent and helpful in using the aid of inner-city youth. These assumptions didn't hold. The program depended upon the existence of substantial work projects that challenged youth and taught them new skills. However, in city parks there are not many trails to blaze and bridges to build. In search of new work projects, I was constantly moving from one land maintenance agency to another, continuously reestablishing myself and the program. The program was headed towards failure. This was mainly because we did not begin with a good sense of place. We had neither history nor understanding of the physical and bureaucratic nature of city parks. We did not have any physical stake in one particular urban area; and with no history or clear fit for this program within our organization, it was a struggle to push beyond obstacles.

The Contradictions of Ownership

At the end of my first summer with Urban Trails, we knew that for the next funding season we would have to focus on the idea of “ownership” for our organization to proceed. What we needed was one particular urban green space. This way, we as an organization could take ownership of the space, along with the young people who worked on the land. Questions arose: Which green space should we choose? What neighborhood would it be in? Can you just decide to take ownership of an area? Or is ownership something that takes to you?

AMC is a New England conservation organization but because we're headquartered in Boston, we felt an obligation and a commitment to better our city environment. If, for instance, we had been a YMCA located in one particular pocket of the city, then it would have made sense for us to have adopted the nearest park. But we're not located in a small, urban neighborhood; we're located in the center of the city, in its wealthiest, best manicured and most “coalitioned” neighborhood. So I began to look to the surrounding neighbor-hoods for “ownership opportunities. We developed a handful of successful projects, such as clearing side lots and planting seeds near our youth centers. Although neighborhood-lot work engaged the youth, it really didn't make sense for AMC as an organization. There were already other city organizations that specialized in turning lots into playgrounds or gardens. They had successful histories and clearly stated mission statements that established them in the urban environment. They had place. In addition, vacant lots really didn't fit with profile. Our mission states that we are committed to the "protection, enjoyment and wise use of the mountains, rivers and trails of the Northeast." Of course we supported efforts to revitalize urban lots; but direct involvement in the process seemed to be outside of our mission.

We needed to take ownership of a place that made sense for our organization. I located an urban riverway, envisioning neighborhood kids building and caring for trails along their river. This is when I received my first real lesson in urban environmental politics. A representative from the local land maintenance agency had been taking me on site visits to the river and helping me sketch plans for trail construction. There was definitely a need for a greenway that could connect neighbor-hoods and alleviate some of the traffic from other over-used riverways. I had assumed that if no work was being done on the area, we could just jump in and take ownership. I was completely naive as to the amount of time required to secure construction permits (even for trails), and build neighborhood constituencies. Apparently, a major Boston urban environmental organization had already been working on the above. It had just appeared as though nothing was being done along the river. At the same time the representative from the maintenance agency was taking me on tour, he was also negotiating with the other group. When I finally learned of their advanced stage of involvement, we backed off from the riverway. Although I felt discouraged after this experience, I held an underlying belief that when we finally found the right programming place, it would truly be ours.


That season ended by our doing a series of large clean-up and trail building events on Boston's harbor islands. We built these events around the popular concept of “diversity.” The trail work days became celebrations with barbecues, games and free T-shirts. Rather than have youth groups work alone as the “janitors” of the city, these events involved people of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of physical and mental ability in discovering and caring for the islands together. This model successfully carried the program through several years. By concentrating our work on the islands, we were no longer moving among various locations and land maintenance agencies. The islands were common ground, belonging to not just one Boston area neighborhood, but all the local neighborhoods.

Despite the growing number of participants at each of these island work events, I still felt as though something was missing. I was sure that if volunteers were working on project sites that were close to them, places they could revisit on their own, we could accomplish so much more. I was still struck by that word "ownership." I wanted a work project with a connection to one particular community.


This time I did a little more homework and found another urban in the city of Chelsea, where no other Boston-area environmental organization seemed to be doing any work. However, after struggling for several years to find a programming place, I was cautious about myself. Communities such as Chelsea have been burnt by the unfulfilled promises of zealous outsiders. They have also grown frustrated by the half-hearted attempts these zealots have made to understand the nature and needs of the community before developing their own agendas. After all, every community has its own sense of place. For Chelsea, it was one of distinct ethnic neighborhoods and a turbulent history.

Chelsea had recently come out of receivership. For the past decade, everyone from state officials to presidents of universities had been trying to tell the community how to right itself. The city had some major economic, social and environmental challenges ahead. However, it also had a new government, some committed citizens, and a determination to make changes on its own.

I began by meeting with people in the various Chelsea government offices including the Department of Planning and Development and Health and Human Services. I met with school teachers and a prominent citizen action group. I just wanted to listen to the community's needs. Had I come in peddling my wares and offering our service and advice, I believe my actions would have been aptly interpreted as arrogant. Instead, I demonstrated my sense of respect for Chelsea. I felt privileged that they allowed me to sit in on their meetings. I kept quiet and learned from them; after all, they were inviting me into their home.

I am a woman of color who grew up in a very urban, blue-collar Boston neighborhood. For this reason, from the start of my work in Chelsea, I never felt superior to my surroundings. Instead, I viewed the city as a place of potential for partnerships and learning. I do not yet believe that all community workers must “match” their surroundings. However, it may be more initially challenging for various racial, ethnic or class groups to set aside certain ingrained missionary sentiments and proceed at a true level of “simpatico.” Likewise, it may be initially more difficult for the community to trust the motives of an outsider who does not have any apparent connections to the community.

Community Conservation Work and Community Representation

Shortly after I had begun familiarizing myself with Chelsea, the next key phrase was canonized: “community conservation work.” I was invited to join community conservation commit-tees, talk at community conservation workshops and take part in community conservation charettes. I had no idea what “charette” meant, and I was beginning to question my definition of community. The earlier Chelsea meetings had been with people I believed comprised the community -residents, as well as school and city officials. But at these charettes, the residents and local officials were seldom present. Instead, there were non-profit environmentalists (like myself), and public officials, usually from state government. One charette focused on exploring the community conservation needs and opportunities within a largely Latino and southeast Asian city. However, no representatives from these ethnic groups were present. In another community conservation committee meeting, participants had already begun drafting long-term plans for the community's river and before any member of that community had even been notified of the committee's existence.

At the community conservation charette, I asked why there were no Latino or Asian representatives present. Some of the representatives from the community's minority white population said that it was too difficult to get people from those groups to participate. I will admit that it is often difficult to involve recent immigrants in community activities; however, there were Latinos and Asians in this city who were not recent immigrants. The charette organizers could have at least printed outreach flyers in Spanish, Vietnamese or Cambodian. In general, unless a representative from each of the community's population groups is present, plans for community conservation work should not even begin to be drafted. To be successful, the community at hand must “buy-in.”

The issue of “buy-in” raises another important question: agendas. Whose projects are really getting done? Whose agendas are really being met? If a community conservation initiative has to work so hard to get a community to “buy-in” to the projects, are those projects really community-based? I admit that at times, communities can lack the needed momentum and clear direction to solve problems. But at what point is the stereotype of “unorganized, uninformed,” urban communities challenged? I have participated in community conservation initiatives where outsiders, including myself, have itemized the community's primary environmental concerns. We have then developed, and sometimes begun, rudimentary action plans designed to address these concerns. We should have spent at least as much time thoroughly investigating the community's list of concerns as we did developing our gilded action plans.

Sometimes such initiatives are invited into the community by public officials who provide their own panel of community representatives. As the “specialists,” we should have the wherewithal to make sure this panel is comprehensive and truly reflective of the community. The belief that outside community conservation workers (public agencies and environmental non-profits) can the needs and objectives of a community without first consulting with its members is patronizing at best, and fundamentally racist or classist at worst. I have never heard of outside organizations developing environmental agendas for a wealthy and primarily white suburb.

What if there are environmental concerns within a community that are not being addressed? If the community does not recognize them, are they still concerns? As an outsider, there is a fine line between calling a community's attention to what you believe should be an environmental concern, and being presumptuous or overstepping your place. Community conservation workers are currently struggling to define this obscure line. If a public official has been commissioned to address an environmental concern within a community, but the community has other environmental objectives, to what extent is this official willing to risk her career by challenging the bureaucratic order and altering her agenda? To what extent is a non-profit willing to bend the parameters of their funding? Or is community conservation work just a facade under which an appointed official or a crusading environmentalist can enter a community and fulfill her objectives? One person on my community conservation committee asked revealingly, “How do we get them (the community) to do what we want?”

Because the island trailwork events and several other projects were ongoing, I had the luxury of being able to listen to the Chelsea community without any specific programming agenda or task I needed to accomplish. They told me that they wanted opportunities for their children, an environmental career training program. Their request had created a programming need and base. Finally, I could adjust my program to fit the place, rather than continue to look for a place that fit my program.

To be wanted by a community is the ideal scenario. Eventually, it should be the goal of every community conservation programmer to longer be needed by the community. The process of moving from the status of an outsider to a useful service provider is gradual. In the meantime, Chelsea and similar communities face certain, immediate, and undeniable environmental problems. In part, these concerns can only be surmounted by the gradual process of community action. Some aspects of these problems could be more easily overcome with the additional expertise and publicity provided by larger, governmental and non-profit “community conservation” initiatives.

The question remains. Will communities prioritize these concerns over their other challenges? If they don’t, should outsiders take action anyway? If they do look for outside help, then certain agendas must be set aside and new agendas must be mutually developed. The day when a minority can plan for the majority within a community is no longer. If you hold a meeting and representatives of the community do not attend, then your meeting is null. An outsider’s place in community conservation work is to seek out every facet of that community, to listen, and to make yourself available. When they want you, they will find you, and together you will create the right place for your program.

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