Ancestral Connections to Nature: Approaching Community Engagement through Conversations about a Community’s History

By Openlands Community Outreach Coordinator, Jennifer Idrovo

This blog reflects my own personal experience as an environmentalist of color and daughter of immigrants. I want to acknowledge that there is no singular immigrant or BIPOC experience and that every journey is multidimensional. I am using my personal experience to explore one piece of the complex immigrant experience.

In the 1980’s, my parents left their home country with the hope of pursuing a better life in the United States. My parents are from the Andean region of Ecuador, a rich landscape where agriculture is the biggest industry. My parents learned to harvest hominy, beans, and fruit from a young age. Millions of families from Latin America and all over the world have migrated to the United States leaving their loved ones and homes behind. Some leave escaping poverty or violence and others migrate to pursue more opportunities. In 2017, more than 44 million people living in the United States migrated from another country. Immigrants have settled all across the United States, particularly in urban areas where there is more opportunity for employment. In this blog, I explore how some immigrant families redefine their connection to nature when adapting to a new country. 

My family lives in Chicago’s Southwest side, a region of the city that disproportionately has fewer health, economic, and educational resources compared to more affluent areas in the city. The presence of green spaces, such as public parks and community gardens, improves air quality and health rates. The West, Southwest, and South side neighborhoods have significantly less green spaces than the rest of the city, resulting in poorer air quality and higher temperatures that negatively impacts asthma and other health issues, and increased flooding, which affects quality of life and property values. Like many social inequalities, these disparities stem from racist and prejudiced policies such as the 1930s’ Federal Home Owners Loan Corporation that created credit worthiness maps, which led to official policies of redlining as late as 1977, and more recently predatory lending practices. 

As an environmentalist of color, it’s important for me to understand the origin of redlining and how communities are continuously impacted by it. It’s also important for me to respect a community’s historical connection to nature and think about how I can incorporate that knowledge into my work as the Community Outreach Coordinator at Openlands. When I meet with community members, I make it a priority to ask them about what nature means to them and their families. I use this understanding to develop unique opportunities for them to interact with nature in ways that are meaningful for them. In my role, I engage communities on the Southwest Side to create open spaces and build advocates for nature. Collaboration with community leaders is a vital part of my engagement plan. 

To my conservation colleagues working with immigrant and BIPOC communities, It’s important to recognize the following: 

  • The conservation world can feel intimidating for folks who don’t fit the white, wealthy, and able-bodied stereotype of the outdoors 
  • Give community members the opportunity to discuss what nature means to them and use this understanding to frame a program. Folks will be more invested in a program if the content is centered around their experience
  • Community engagement is not a one-size-fits all approach and it takes time. Be patient and flexible with your approach to engaging communities.

I’ve attended meetings that weren’t accessible for community residents and not much was accomplished. In contrast, I’ve attended meetings that were centered around community participation. In these conversations, folks felt comfortable to share their priorities and goals for their neighborhoods. I’ve found that people are more connected to the work if they have been involved in the planning process and have a sense of ownership in a project.

Walking down the street of my childhood home, I see many immigrant and Latinx neighbors planting gardens and harvesting their own food. They tell stories of how their parents taught them to harvest food in their home countries and how they’re passing this knowledge to their children and grandchildren. When I travel to Ecuador, I visit the countryside and I think about my grandparents teaching my parents the agricultural knowledge they’ve passed down for generations. I’ve reclaimed my ancestral connection to nature by honoring my family’s history with the outdoors and recognizing that nature is a deep part of my culture.

Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy