Mark A. Yearwood is the founder and executive director of Kids In the Woods Initiative – K.I.W.I., a non-profit organization dedicated to reconnecting children to nature through adventure-play and mentoring in Toronto's Rouge National Urban Park. He currently sits on the board of directors at Earth Day Canada.
The "green ceiling." It's a play on the well-known glass ceiling concept and refers to the systemic barriers that have kept the representation of people of colour in environmental advocacy groups and agencies historically low. But while the phrase "green ceiling" was new to me – I came across it in a recent article in The Guardian, but hadn't really encountered it in the work my organization does to reconnect children to nature – I am familiar with the "green wall."
While various organizations in the United States track national park visits based on race, there is no such data available for Canada. But my own work tells me we have a problem. The issue here isn't just enjoying the beauty of nature and reaping its many benefits, or even the opportunity to get "stoked" participating in awesome physical activities in the outdoors (if you haven't gone whitewater rafting or rock climbing, you should). It is this: Time spent in nature, whether in a national, provincial or neighbourhood park, is a pathway to social inclusion.
I am a child of Caribbean immigrants who made their way to Canada after a handful of years in Britain. My parents, like all immigrants, put aside the familiar and set out to build a new life by stepping into the unknown, fuelled by dreams and new opportunities. Canada must have seemed shockingly foreign but also vaguely familiar to two black people from the tiny, hot island of St. Kitts, which had been subjected to British colonialism. They arrived in Toronto and settled here, despite encouragement from Canadian immigration officials to head to Northern Ontario.
They embraced their new home and raised their four kids within the wonderfully welcoming – but sometimes openly hostile – arms of Canada. They worked hard to ensconce their family in a middle-class life, expecting all the opportunities they had hoped to find here to flow to us. And while a good education was chief among those opportunities, some of my earliest and fondest memories are of family time spent in a city park close to home.
We would picnic and play there. The park was forested and had a creek running through it. The space seemed to have no end. I loved it and still recall my wonder at finding stones and small bits of coloured glass worn smooth by the creek's current into ersatz gems. Although my parents would never think of it this way – for them, it was just quality family time – our time in the park introduced us all to civic space, and to the idea that this space was ours and that we belonged there just as much as any of the other people we saw in the park.
I was born in Toronto and have always felt that this city was my own. I have always felt free to go anywhere and spend time in any area of this city (and consequently, any place I might visit). And while playing in city parks for hours as a child isn't the only factor contributing to this comfort, it is significant.
Civic space and the use of that space help define the culture of a city or a country. Who uses that space and who feels welcome there are critical questions to explore and answer. Why? The use of civic space such as parks helps build social inclusion – a fact research is beginning to document. And with neighbourhood parks being some of the most accessible civic space around, it is important that all of us feel welcome.
Witness the action taken by newly arrived immigrants in Toronto's Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood. This vibrant, culturally and racially diverse community reclaimed its long-neglected park space, reanimating it through considerable effort as a lively, welcoming civic space that promotes social inclusion among its residents. As a result, the residents of this community have given their children an opportunity to see this city as their own.
There are too many children in so-called "priority neighbourhoods" who do not feel that this city is theirs to discover. Instead, sticking to the block where they live, the rest of the city surrounds them like a wall of exclusion rather than an embrace and a welcome, leaving these children socially moribund.
Last May, I watched in astonishment, then heartbreak, as Kofi Hope, executive director of the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, an organization dedicated to addressing economic issues, related an anecdote crystallizing this stark reality on an episode of TVO's The Agenda.
Mr. Hope told of the difficulty many black youth experience in navigating our city, perceiving some areas as "white" spaces and therefore off limits. The discomfort can be so acute that, as Mr. Hope recounted in his story, a young black man in his 20s who had been invited to a mentoring event in one of Toronto's downtown financial towers circled and circled the building trying to muster the courage to enter, doubting that he had the right to be in that space.
I was floored. In navigating this city of my birth, it has never occurred to me that I could not go where I wanted, when I wanted. Then, in setting aside my own privilege, I was able to see the consequences of social exclusion. I began to examine the why of my own social comfort. And among other things of consequence, it has its origins in the park. That early childhood experience planted in me the belief that this city is mine – it belongs to me, as much as it belongs to any other person walking its streets.
Our civic space is for all of us. We must reclaim it for our most vulnerable and marginalized children and youth. While it's certainly not our only tool to fight social exclusion, exploring or just being in civic space is a profound experience. The park in your neighbourhood is a good place to start.