By Jackie Ostfeld, OAK co-founder and chair
Every year, the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) hosts a week of advocacy events in D.C. to push for more equitable access to the outdoors for children and families across the country. As our membership and participation increases, it is heartening to see the event grow each year, with 2023 being our biggest one yet.
The first day saw 147 registered attendees that included representatives from OAK members, guests of the Blue Sky Funders Forum, various stakeholders, and dozens of youth leaders from California, Texas, Michigan, Maryland and Washington, D.C. The day started off with the customary hike in Rock Creek Park – one of the oldest national parks in our system. Sierra Club’s executive director Ben Jealous joined the attendees as we split into five groups to walk some of the many trails found in the park. For many, including most of the youth invited to the event who were not local, it was their first time experiencing Rock Creek Park. Participants enjoyed learning about the local flora from the hike leaders.
The hike was followed by a series of panels around closing the nature gap, one featuring emerging young leaders in the fight for outdoor access and environmental justice, and the other featuring stakeholders from government bodies and non-governmental organizations. The first panel of guests were able to share insights on what drew them to environmental justice work, what inspired them to take action, what they’re looking for from the people in power, and the need for the people in power to listen to more young voices. The second panel was a discussion on the ways the guests’ organizations try to engage youth in the work without talking over them and include them in the decision making processes.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland accepted our invitation to the event and gave the keynote address, reaffirming the administration’s and her own commitment to ensuring equitable outdoor access for everyone.
“We’re doing our best to make sure that every single kid out there no matter how old they are, even if they’re 62 like me, have the opportunity to have the chance to hike, fish, camp, explore the outside no matter where they live or how much money their parents or they have,” she said during her address.
Opportunities to connect and mingle were weaved between the various scheduled sessions as people united by the desire to get more children outdoors came together and listened, talked, ate, took photos, played games, and even shared meditative moments of silence. As part of the day in Rock Creek Park, we also helped host a listening session that’s part of the Department of Interior’s ongoing listening tour to find out what nature means to various groups of people, youths in this case.
The day was bookended with the OAK annual awards ceremony, held on the rooftop of The Wilderness Society’s building. Looking over the city, OAK members and stakeholders came together again to uplift the efforts and talents of folks like Ambreen Tariq, who founded Brown People Camping, Saanvi Mylavarapu, the National Park Trust Youth Ambassador, and Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Jimmy Gomez for their work on the Transit to Trails legislation. The full list of awardees is available online.
The second day was distinctly different. Instead of wearing cargo pants and surrounded by green trees, the 55 attendees at Lobby Day were in skirts and slacks and ready to explore Capitol Hill. The day started with a training session hosted at the Sierra Club D.C. office before the group made the short walk to Capitol Hill where they conducted 27 meetings with representatives and their staff to share their personal stories and encourage legislators to support the Outdoors For All Act, Transit to Trails Act, and fund the Every Kid Outdoors program. The youths in particular were engaged and excited to be advocating for their own rights and for future generations. It was an educational and empowering experience for everyone involved. The high schoolers from Detroit were able to share their stories directly with members of Congress, including their own representative Shri Thanedar, who took time to talk with them and pose for pictures, as did Rep. Jimmy Gomez from California.
We finished out OAK Week in the best way possible, as OAK, Blue Sky Funders Forum and Friends of Anacostia National Park organized a field trip to Anacostia National Park for attendees to enjoy the sunshine and remember the reason we’re all advocating for more equitable access to the outdoors. Booths were set up for crafts, roller skating, boat rides on the Anacostia River by the Anacostia Watershed Society, food, dancing, volleyball, and more.
This year was OAK’s biggest OAK Week yet, and I look forward to saying that again next year.