Inclusive River Recreation Outreach Strategies with the Wild & Scenic Rivers Coalition
Access to and feelings of safety within our nation’s natural areas and waterways is not equitable. As River Network noted and the nation reckoned with following widespread protests in 2020, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in America frequently face racism in outdoor spaces, including around and on the rivers and waterways our network works diligently to protect and preserve. This is no less true on designated Wild & Scenic Rivers.
River Network has been a member of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Coalition since its inception in 2018. As an umbrella for all types and sizes of river groups, the Coalition has a growing national membership of more than 50 groups, journalists, and students, fulfilling its mission to protect and defend existing and potential Wild and Scenic Rivers. The Coalition operates with three guiding goals:
- Capacity: Build greater capacity for groups to be more effective advocating for Wild and Scenic protections.
- Advocacy: Protect and defend designated and potential Wild and Scenic Rivers and support the non-profit and agency river professionals who steward them.
- Communications: Improve communications amongst coalition member organizations and with the public about the value of Wild and Scenic Rivers.
Over the last year and a half, an additional focus has surfaced from Coalition members: a desire to share lessons learned and highlight successful programs from local groups that are intentionally creating welcoming spaces and engaging Black, Indigenous, and People of Color to enjoy and protect Wild & Scenic Rivers across the country. Many groups around the country are doing just this work, so in October the Coalition launched a new series of webinar shorts in partnership with River Network: Inclusive River Recreation Outreach Strategies. The series provides a forum for those groups to share their stories, lessons learned, and expand their reach, all while educating other river groups to begin exploring how they can do the same in their communities.
The October webinar featured New Jersey group CU Maurice River’s Elevate program, now in its 16th year, and we were joined by Karla Rossini (CU Maurice River Executive Director), Brenda Bundy (Elevate Program Coordinator), and Sue Fenili (CU Maurice River Trustee and Elevate Volunteer). In short, the Elevate program, which is hosted in partnership with the Word of Life Christian Center, raises kids up, giving them an introduction to the river in a new way, and building community and friendship throughout summer break. While this model is focused on inspiring kids, there are ripple effects throughout the community, involving parents, and grandparents, and building community around the water.
River Network spoke with Karla following the webinar to learn more about what’s made Elevate successful, and explore advice for other river groups looking to make their programs more inclusive.
“We want to include absolutely everyone in [our] movement. We see all we serve as friends; we try to treat everyone that way,” Karla said. But this doesn’t mean simply being nice to program participants. “We strive to be the ‘host with the most,’ and help overcome barriers to participation, like transportation, waivers, etc.” This spirit makes space, not just for the task at hand—canoeing, art projects along the river—but for true community building and lasting relationships. For more on this, watch the full webinar below.
During our conversation, Karla also offered advice for other groups, looking to reach BIPOC community members, and others who may not have access to their local Wild & Scenic Rivers, recognizing that “diversity” doesn’t mean the same thing in every locality. CU Maurice River has seen success across their programs by remaining open to serving other groups’ missions in order to succeed together, rather than always centering conservation and water stewardship. “I met the director of a child abuse reduction center while out on a walk near our office and we established a friendship.” Karla and her team recognized that what the community needed was a mental and physical health opportunity, so they collaborated on nature walks, to provide this and introduce a new group within their community to the natural spaces within the city. Begin with the work to know, listen to, and be IN your community, without the need to center your specific conservation mission. “Empower your membership and volunteer body to make connections and introduce your organization in a more level playing ground, rather than coming in as a salesman of the outdoors,” recommends Karla.
The webinar prompted active discussion about best practices in the live chat, as members shared ways in which they could perhaps apply some of the lessons learned by CU Maurice River in their own work, expanding the constituency of support for these waterways and ensuring all feel welcomed and safe along these important and restorative natural resources.
Additionally, River Network this year refined the scope of our Wild & Scenic Rivers Stewardship Partnership Funding, with an increased emphasis on seeking to improve access for underserved communities whose members historically lack adequate opportunities to participate in outdoor education, river-related recreation, and stewardship projects. Says Steve Chesterton, of the US Forest Service, which makes this program possible, “these partnerships are important for both the long-term stewardship of Wild and Scenic Rivers and promoting equitable access to the enjoyment of these incredible natural resources.” Multiple groups this year are working with low-income and/or BIPOC youth, including California Wilderness Coalition, whose project is working to expand equitable access to the Merced Wild and Scenic River in California by pursuing data collection, outreach, and planning efforts to increase multilingual river signage and other materials. Learn more about all the groups we’re supporting and their projects in Katherine Baer’s blog post.
Inclusive River Recreation Outreach Strategies will continue with webinar shorts in December 2021 and February 2022. Save this Zoom link to join the Wild & Scenic Rivers Coalition on Friday, December 3 at 1:30p ET / 10:30a PT to hear from Lily Durkee, co-founder of Diversify Whitewater, and subscribe to River Voices for information on the February webinar, once it’s available.