Bridging the Urban-Rural Nature Divide

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image by Michael Winokur /

It’s one thing to suggest that teenagers need to put down their cell phones, turn off the TV, and go get some fresh air in the woods. It’s another thing to give them the tools to just do it. Inner-city kids are especially likely to lack the resources, gear, and support they need to leave town, hit the trail, and have a remote wilderness experience. A program called WildLink is trying to bridge this urban/rural divide, writes Judith Lewis in Sierra‘s July-August 2009 issue.

Lewis tagged along as 12 lucky Latino and African American teenagers from Los Angeles went camping at Yosemite National Park courtesy of WildLink. Half of them came from Crenshaw High School and half from Dorsey High School–rivals, Lewis writes, “in football games and gang affiliation.”

“When I told people in Los Angeles that I was heading up to Yosemite with six kids from Dorsey and six kids from Crenshaw, they warned about brawls and drugs. The Dorsey Bloods and Crenshaw Crips are notorious; when the schools face off in football games, police cordon off the stadium.”

But the only dangers and challenges these kids ended up facing at Yosemite were of the natural kind: rigorous hikes, tricky stream crossings, and an overnight snow one frigid night. And instead of causing friction, these hurdles bred a resilient spirit of cooperation. Some days ended with the teens helping each other through rough spots; others began with Christmas songs over oatmeal and hot chocolate.

“Where in the popular narrative about inner-city students is there room to talk about Emily Cobar’s careful study of cactus wren populations in coastal Los Angeles?” an impressed Lewis writes. “Or the graceful, quiet cooperation I observe every day on the trail between Dorsey students David ‘Lucky’ Sosa and his girlfriend, Jomara Moreno, who met when his band was rehearsing at the same house where she was preparing for her quinceañera?”

While getting city kids into the wilderness is a laudable goal, sightseeing is not enough–adult guides must help them find a deeper meaning. One way to do this is through innovative programs that help kids explore the stories behind their scenic surroundings. In an accompanying article, Sierra profiles a Yosemite ranger who connects with kids like those from Dorsey and Crenshaw by inhabiting the character of an African American “buffalo soldier” from the late 1800s.

Shelton Johnson based his role on actual black soldiers who enforced laws against poaching and logging in the park soon after it was created. As one of the National Park Service’s few African American rangers, Johnson is eager to broaden perceptions about parks and the people who use them.

“I’m always saddened to see people here from every country on earth, but not a single black family from Oakland or Hispanic family from [California’s] Central Valley,” he says.

Shelton himself was transformed by a key wilderness experience. A Detroit native, he got a job as a dishwasher at Yellowstone at age 29 and took his first backpacking trip, a seven-mile backcountry trek that included a close-up grizzly bear encounter: He and his companion were bluff-charged by a mother bear guarding her cubs.

“To have had that kind of closeness to the wilderness my first time out was extraordinary,” he says. “I learned the wilderness has an edge, and that things might not always turn out OK there. It made me listen, smell, and hear like I never thought possible.”

Sierra‘s article about the WildLink program was funded by the Sierra Club’s Building Bridges to the Outdoors Project, whose goal is to give every child in the United States an outdoor experience; www.sierra

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