Feature Article - September 2017
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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Parks

Planning, Programming and Staffing to Better Serve All Residents

By Chris Gelbach

Engaging Underserved Communities

To effectively engage underserved populations in their communities, many park districts and related organizations are realizing the need for proactive outreach.

"What we found in the past sometimes with our community engagement was that we'd tend to get the same people who tend to have disposable time and money to attend our meetings and get their voices heard," said Lisa Goorjian, parks planning and operations program director for Metro, which oversees 17,000 acres of parks, trails and natural areas across the Portland metropolitan region.

As part of an effort to better reach underserved communities, Metro sometimes engages leaders of culturally specific organizations as contractors to provide knowledge and input about their communities. "We're definitely getting some perspectives we hadn't heard before and different community groups we hadn't heard from before," Goorjian said.

In building new relationships with these community groups, Goorjian suggests that parks organizations understand that building awareness, trust and rapport takes time—and therefore to schedule accordingly. To build these relationships more successfully, she also places a premium on providing consistent communication to these contacts from your organization.

"Community members value consistent stable relationships, and sometimes in government, we tend to work in technical areas," Goorjian said. "We're learning that our staff has to be flexible working with other staff across the different work teams, so we're not just passing off different community contacts from one team to the next."

To gain broader perspectives from the diverse communities it serves, East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), a system of public parks and trails in California's Alameda and Contra Costa counties, holds an annual Multicultural Community Leaders Roundtable. The event gathers dozens of community leaders from the Asian, Latino and African-American communities, who represent senior centers, health clinics, faith-based groups, media, chambers of commerce and other organizations from the region.

Building from this outreach, EBRPD started regular outings in 2014 called Multicultural Wellness Walks, working with some of these community leaders to plan the walks. The walks serve to introduce these varied communities, many of which are most familiar with city parks, to the district's larger, more faraway parks in natural settings that include shoreline, redwoods, and lake and hill environments.

"We are reaching out to groups that are not familiar with the parks, and may have some nervousness regarding going far out into big woods like the redwoods," said Mona Koh, community relations manager for EBRPD. "So as part of it, we very intentionally create a safe, fun and interconnected experience in nature for the diverse folks we bring in. We really emphasize safety, so our walks are always accompanied by our volunteer trail safety patrol that are trained in trails and first aid. The walks are always led by a naturalist and a health practitioner."

Some of the leaders from the roundtable events help to bring members from their communities to the walks, which happen five or six times a year. Koh estimates that each walk has average representation from four or five ethnic and religious groups, with roughly 60 percent of participants being Latino and then the other 40 percent comprising Asian (Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Vietnamese), African-American and Middle Eastern (Indian, Pakistani and Iranian) groups.

To effectively engage underserved populations in their communities, many park districts and related organizations are realizing the need for proactive outreach.

After saying "good morning" in different languages, the groups head out for the walk, stopping along the way to make bird calls and engage in other activities like chi gong or Zumba. The groups also eat together at the end. Koh estimates that the first walks attracted 35 to 40 people, and they have grown increasingly popular, with the most recent outing attracting 150 people. The program is effective in exposing different groups to the EBRPD's regional parks that they might be unfamiliar with, while also helping to build bridges between communities.

When it comes to building stronger relationships between a parks department and a specific community for more detailed programming, an individualized approach is often preferred. Metro, for example, has partnered with individual culturally specific organizations to provide opportunities for communities of color and low-income residents to experience nature through its Partners in Nature program.

"The unique part of this program is that we work together with each organization to co-create programming that meets the needs of each specific community," said Goorjian. "We recognize that these organizations know their communities best. Instead of Metro asking each group to fit into our model, we're trying to be flexible in offering different types of partnerships that best serve each community's needs." The program is funded by a parks and natural areas levy that was approved by the region's voters in 2013.

By working with single-identity groups in this manner, parks organizations can give traditionally marginalized communities the opportunity to enjoy deeper, more culturally relevant experiences with nature by giving them the ability to gather in spaces for them and by them.

"Engaging these single-identity groups can also be really positive in that you then have a constituency that you have built some trust with," Holliday said. "And then when it comes to your next planning process, for example, those folks are already bought into your park and may have connections that you may not have had previously, and you can engage a broader swath of people."