“There are several new ideas in the circle,” said environmental educator Marylin Wyzga, speaking about her recent participation at the 7th annual Children & Nature Network’s (C&NN) Grassroots Gathering. “It’s exciting. It feeds my ideas and my work.”
A diverse group of 120 nature leaders gathered at a late summer conference in San Diego, California to connect with, and get tips and inspiration from colleagues on strengthening the movement to connect children with nature. Grassroots leaders joined with government representatives and social entrepreneurs to discuss topics including: diversity in the movement, cultivating youth leadership, and strengthening outdoor educational curriculum.
Wyzga is a veteran of the Gatherings – this was her sixth. She said she returns yearly for the opportunity to learn firsthand from other leaders working on the ground across the country. While technology allows her to connect virtually, she said personal connections are still essential.
“There are things that you can see and experience in real time that are different from someone’s voice over the phone,” she said. “I know something about who they are as a person or something about their family. It makes it very real.”
First-time participant Jose Gonazalez agreed. He went to the gathering to promote and garner support for his nascent organization, Latino Outdoors. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but he was pleasantly surprised.
“In a way, it was a very foreign community to me, but everyone was so welcoming and supportive,” he said. He’s now looking to C&NN to help build up his group, which would serve as a network of Latino outdoor enthusiasts helping the community reconnect to nature.
Amy Pertschuk said that’s exactly the intent of a gathering for these activists. Pertschuk co-founded the Network and directs its communications. Since the beginning, she said nature advocates wanted a place to meet others face-to-face to share ideas and strategies.
“What I find different about the Gathering is that there is a sense of discovery and meeting people that you wouldn’t find otherwise,” she said. “Convening really accelerates the process of making new connections. You find yourself in a discussion with someone that you would not find otherwise and somehow they’re the exact right person that you need to talk to at that time.”
Another innovative measure C&NN took to empower the grassroots was to turn away from workshops and panels that conference attendees traditionally find.
“The evolution went from talking at people to making more time for leaders to talk to each other and a healthy blend between experts from the podium to create space for people to collaborate for long-term impact,” said Pertschuk.
As a result of these self-organizing circles, Pertschuk said local leaders came up with innovative solutions that resonated with their unique communities. For example, in New Hampshire, there was an obesity prevention program that encouraged people to go for a walk with a family physician. A local community leader thought to partner with the program to include a nature component.
“In addition to the walking, being outside, they also developed a series of signage and information that would deepen their experience of being in nature,” said Pertschuk.
The Grassroots Gathering has doubled in size since its inception in 2006. And over the past seven years, Pertschuk has learned some valuable lessons. She said the big takeaway for her is the act of convening itself.
“The act of convening, of connecting people together and giving people space to share, discuss and interact is the action,” she said. “A lot of times when you bring people together, people say, ‘What’s the next step?’ It was clear to many of us that the discussions, connecting and networking was the end in and of itself.”
“What they’ve done with C&NN as a movement and a network, I want the same thing with Latinos,” said newcomer Jose Gonzalez. He said his participation at the conference is just the first step to making his vision a reality. His next step is to secure resources, including funding and capacity building. But he’s hopeful his ongoing involvement with C&NN and the Gathering will help him get there.