On Chehalem Ridge, high above Gaston, nine people stand in tall grass. Their eyes are closed, palms raised and fingers outspread. Each time they hear a sound, they fold one finger down. After 10 sounds they open their eyes and gaze at the blue hills in the distance.
Finally, their guide, Juan Carlos González, breaks the silence. “What did you hear?”
There’s a chorus of responses:
“Three different kinds of bird.”
“The wind through the grass.”
“Someone cracking their knuckles.”
González is development director at Centro Cultural de Washington County, an education, social services and economic development nonprofit that is helping Metro bring the Latino community into the planning process for a future nature park at Chehalem Ridge. This summer and fall, Centro staff will offer bilingual tours of the 1,200 acre site to the local community and lead other outreach efforts with the Latino community.
The work with Centro Cultural is just one of a number of collaborations through Partners in Nature, Metro’s program with culturally specific organizations throughout the region to better connect diverse communities with nature. The partnership between Centro Cultural and Metro will help make Chehalem Ridge more welcoming to the region’s increasingly diverse residents. At the same time, the partnership will help Centro Cultural build capacity and allow staff to gain experience and expertise in community engagement work.
This day’s tour and the listening exercise is a test run for González to try out his tour guide chops. His audience includes five interns participating in the Zoo Animal Presenters, an Oregon Zoo program that provides work experience and nature education to low-income teenagers from diverse backgrounds.
“I was born and raised in Cornelius, just 10 minutes from here,” González tells the interns, “but I never spent much time in nature.”
That changed recently when Metro nature educators trained him and six other Centro staffers to lead tours of Chehalem Ridge. It was an all-five-senses immersion into the landscape and its plants and animals.
The tours are one way to achieve what González calls “authentic community engagement.” He mentions some others. “We’re a hub for the community – 3,000 people show up for our Children’s Day event, for example. It makes sense for Metro to tag along at our cultural events.”
Also, information boards about Chehalem Ridge are on display in Centro’s lobby. “We talk to people one-on-one about Chehalem Ridge when they visit,” he says.
This deliberate, personal approach resulted in 50 additional Spanish-language responses to a survey about what programs and facilities visitors would value in a future park at Chehalem Ridge, says Ellen Wyoming DeLoy, senior community engagement coordinator at Metro. And it builds trust: “People were surprised that the government wanted their opinion, and they were into it after they understood that their voice had value.”
“When our regional and national demographics are shifting so much, it’s critical to make sure that we have diversity, equity and inclusion in all aspects of public involvement,” DeLoy says.
She shared some of the survey data: While a high percentage of English speakers go to nature parks alone or with one other person, Spanish speakers tend to go in groups of three to five. English speakers are more likely to go to parks for exercise, Spanish speakers for connecting socially with family. Walking and hiking in nature was a priority for everyone.
Back on the trail at Chehalem Ridge, González holds up a small plant: “This is self-heal. Nature’s Band-Aid. Look for it next time you’re hiking and you get bit or blistered.” He puts a couple of leaves in his mouth and chews vigorously. When it becomes a slimy wad, he presses it against his wrist.
González’s tour includes a game of predator and prey. The interns stalk across the forest floor, wincing when a twig snaps underfoot. They listen to a story about why the madrone tree has no resin, carefully examine the scales of a Douglas fir cone, feel the sinuous movement of a garter snake as it slides across their palms, taste a bud of St. John’s wort and study the contents of coyote scat.
“It’s thrilling for me that I can give this whole tour in Spanish as well as English,” González says. “I want others to open their souls to the smells, sounds and sights here.”