The Importance of Deep Community Engagement
A normal day at work for me usually involves at least one bird, between one and three classrooms, and what feels like infinite students greeting me as I walk down the hallways with hugs and shouts of “Hey, Ms. Sophie,” or “Look, there’s the bird lady!” In my nine months in Philadelphia with Audubon Mid-Atlantic, I have learned that everything we do is community-driven. In my role, I engage with three schools on a weekly basis, providing four lessons per grade over the course of the school year. As I have spent week after week at these schools, I have continued to see the importance of not only being engaged with the community, but having deep roots, particularly in the local schools.
It may seem repetitive to teach four lessons to every grade at the same school, but this continuity is what creates deep community engagement. As my supervisor, Damien Ruffner told me, “It can feel like you’re completing the same steps over and over, but you have to make yourself a consistent presence in the community.”
Environmental education researchers have found that community members are more likely to be involved in their local nature centers when their local centers are actively involved in the community. In other words, by becoming integrated into the learning of local students, my role is to not only teach them about environmental issues, but also help them feel comfortable enough to come visit the Discovery Center, where Audubon-Mid Atlantic is housed, on their own time with their families.
Although it is widely accepted that nature centers that are perceived as part of the community have a broader base of support, many nature centers have operated for dozens of years without deeply listening to the community, much less incorporating community feedback into their programming. In recent years, many centers have realized that they need to incorporate community members into their boards, leadership, and employees, and they are now making up for lost time. While a nature center may come in with the best intentions, going by what they think the community needs instead of what the community thinks they need, hurts centers’ community engagement.
The Discovery Center sits right next to the Strawberry Mansion Reservoir, which is now a lake that is preserved for animals and the people who want to take in this beautiful natural space. However, the reservoir (once a source of drinking water for the surrounding areas) was closed to the public in 1970. It was only re-opened to the public when the Discovery Center was founded in 2018. From the beginning, the Discovery Center operated with a community engagement committee, which continues to serve as an advisory committee that makes many of the programming, budgeting, and hiring decisions.
Every day, I go out on our .75 mile, out-and-back trail, run into at least one person from the local community, and get to chat with them. Often, they will tell me how they remember when this land was a reservoir and it was not open to residents. Now, they have the opportunity to access this natural space that was once closed off. The organizations housed at the Discovery Center feel that providing access to the community will allow community members to feel healed by and connected to nature. And maybe that is what deep community engagement is really about, helping the community feel ownership of and comfort in the spaces that should have been open to them from the beginning.
Browning et al. Factors that contribute to community members’ support of local nature centers (2018). Environmental Education Research.
“The Discovery Center” https://www.discoveryphila.org/
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