by Jackie Ostfeld, OAK co-founder and chair
As we head into winter, I am welcoming the short days and long nights as an invitation to slow down, rest, and reflect. Walking through my neighborhood park on a crisp cool day, I am filled with gratitude for my nearby parks and public lands, places I go to escape the challenges of motherhood, work, the ongoing pandemic, and the climate crisis on our doorstep. But not everyone has the same easy access to nature that I do.
One-hundred million people in the U.S., including 28 million children, do not live within walking, biking, or rolling distance of a safe park of green space. The greatest disparities in access are unsurprisingly found in Black, Indigenous, Latine, Asian, and low-income communities. These same communities suffer from systemic racial injustices; greater impacts of the climate crisis and environmental pollution; and preventable and chronic disease and illness, such as obesity, heart disease, asthma as well as Covid-19.
Access to the benefits of nature should not be a luxury for the few, but a human right for all. While we still have a long way to go to ensure all kids and families can connect with nature, the progress we made in 2022 as an alliance fills me with hope.
Here’s a look back at just a few of OAK’s accomplishments for which I am particularly grateful:
Empowered & Celebrated Youth Advocates. Youth leaders raised their voices with decision-makers at the OAK-led America the Beautiful: Connecting Youth with Public Lands and Waters hike and listening session with senior leaders in the Biden administration and through meetings with elected leaders on Capitol Hill as part of OAK Week, our annual gathering. We also celebrated youth leaders like Uriel Llanas of Detroit, Lily Kay of Dallas, and Jonna Brady of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara & Sac and Fox Nations with OAK Acorn Awards for their efforts to expand access to nature for children and youth.
Established an OAK Advisory Council. In 2022, we launched an OAK Advisory Council, adding a critical element to OAK’s organizational structure by inviting input and guidance to OAK’s staff, steering committee, and members, helping to ensure the alliance maintains a broad, diverse, and inclusive set of perspectives that help shape our direction and increase the impact of our activities. OAK’s Advisory Council members are Ayodele Abdul-Hadi, a youth leader and law student; Cheyenne Brady of the Center for Native American Youth; Robbie Bond, a youth leader and founder of Kids Speak for Parks; Anupama Joshi of the Center for Science in the Public Interest; Tigran Nahabedian, a youth leader, Junior Ranger and National Park Ambassador; and Ambreen Tariq, founder of Brown People Camping. We’re so grateful to all of our Advisors for offering their time and perspective to support OAK’s mission.
Honored Member of Congress. OAK Advisor Tigran Nahabedian led a group of children from the Art & Wilderness Institute to honor Representative Katie Porter with an OAK Tree Award for her leadership. During the event, youth spoke with the Congresswoman about why the outdoors mattered to them and shared their ideas for protecting the environment. Porter has been a champion for the Every Kid Outdoors program, which ensures free access to national parks and public lands for 4th graders and their families. Porter’s efforts have led to a $25 million investment in the program in the House Interior Appropriations bill. We are still waiting on the Senate to pass the FY23 budget. You can help make sure an investment in the Every Kid Outdoors program is included.
Celebrated Biden Administration Initiatives. OAK celebrated the Biden administration’s launch of a whole-of-government approach to promote equitable access to nature, bringing together 10 federal departments and agencies to strengthen “investments in communities who have been locked out of the benefits nature provides.” We were also pleased to see President Biden re-launch the Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation (FICOR), which will work to create more safe, affordable and equitable opportunities for people to get outdoors. FICOR was originally created in 2011 and worked to establish the Every Kid Outdoors Pass before the council was suspended. Both of these efforts are part of Biden’s America the Beautiful initiative which promises to protect 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030 while expanding access to nature for communities who have been historically excluded and marginalized.
None of these milestones would be possible without the passion and dedication of our staff, members, advisors, agency partners, supporters, and a growing base of grassroots advocates. I am so grateful to everyone in the OAK family who makes a difference everyday fighting for a future where all kids can experience the benefits of nature and live healthy and full lives.