Communities of color, low-income residents and other historically marginalized groups have traditionally faced barriers to accessing nature.
Thanks in particular to money from the 2013 levy, Metro is providing more nature programs to underrepresented communities, planning more inclusive parks, working to support more minority-owned, women-owned and emerging small businesses – and more.
In the first year of the levy, a new effort called Partners in Nature collaborated with organizations that serve specific cultural groups to co-create programs relevant to each community. These programs provided guided opportunities for community members to enjoy the outdoors, introduced young people to potential careers in conservation, and nurtured a growing comfort and passion for nature.
In fall 2015, 23 community organizations submitted letters expressing interest in partnering with Metro through the Partners in Nature program. Metro is now working with more than a dozen culturally specific organizations through Partners in Nature collaborations.
Another initiative called Connect with Nature is contracting with Verde, a community-based organization, to develop a new approach to designing parks that are welcoming to diverse communities. The information gathered from Connect with Nature participants is being used to plan for visitor amenities at East Council Creek Natural Area in Cornelius and Gabbert Butte Natural Area in Gresham.
To create a new model, Verde worked with the Native American Youth and Family Center, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, and the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization to identify a handful of local leaders to connect with community members. The local leaders receive stipends to learn about the parks planning process, bring members of their communities to the table, and engage them on the types of features and activities they would like to see, as well as overcoming barriers to access. Design workshops will help incorporate that input – and solutions – into the ultimate plan.
Metro is also working to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion are embedded across all areas of its work, including contracting. Nearly half of the money from the 2013 levy is focused on restoring and maintaining parks and natural areas.
Metro made a concerted effort three years ago to make sure the contractors hired to help complete this critical work include as many minority-owned, women-owned and emerging small businesses as possible. As a result, Parks and Nature has awarded contracts to 31 businesses, and 17 of them are minority-owned, women-owned and emerging small businesses. In early 2017, 21 businesses had their contracts renewed, including nine minority-owned and emerging small businesses.
Muwafaq Alkattan: discovering nature and finding home
Muwafaq Alkattan sits at a picnic table under an awning at Cooper Mountain Nature Park near Beaverton and watches a fall shower roll off the Coast Range and across the Tualatin Valley.
“This is the tax you pay for evergreen,” he says.
He arrived here from Iraq only four years ago, but he’s already adopted a resigned appreciation for the region’s weather. He says Iraq has similar low-rising mountains, even if they don’t have the same density of greenery. Cooper Mountain, he says, is one of his favorite places on earth.
When Alkattan arrived here with his wife, Lubna, and their four grown daughters, Alaa, Saran, Dana and Reem, they had to learn not just a new city but a new culture, new pretty much everything.
Alkattan didn’t have to learn or translate nature. Cooper Mountain became a respite, a place he didn’t have to strive to understand but could just enjoy. Now, four years later, he’s brought many fellow Iraqis to parks across the greater Portland region, helping them connect to nature, discover a favorite place and make this more of a home.
“Nature is part of my life,” he says.
The Alkattan family fled Iraq during the war and applied for refuge in the United States in 2008. In 2012, the Alkattans were approved to come to America and settled in Tualatin.
Alkattan quickly connected with the newly formed Iraqi Society of Oregon and became a board member. Not long after, he participated in leadership development programs at Unite Oregon, a nonprofit based in Portland that advocates for multicultural social justice issues. That led to an internship with Metro.
The internship was through a Partners in Nature collaboration between Metro and Unite Oregon that’s now in its fourth year. Through Partners in Nature, Metro staff collaborates with culturally specific organizations to provide culturally relevant nature programs.
Sheilagh Diez, Metro’s community partnerships project manager, says the plan was for Alkattan to support the logistics for Metro’s outdoor programs. Alkattan wanted to share the parks with other Iraqis, especially newly arrived refugees in the first, tough months of connecting to their new home. “It was a really great project that we just wouldn’t have thought of,” Diez says.
He began photographing Metro’s parks, showing the trails, views, picnic and play areas. He shared the photos on the Iraqi Society of Oregon’s Facebook page in Arabic so that others in the community could know about and enjoy the parks. Then he organized outings, taking fellow Iraqis to parks across the region, introducing them to special places in their new home they might not have connected to without him.
Now, Alkattan is working on a new internship to design a system to catalogue park amenities across Metro’s system.