A common denominator throughout almost all of the Alliance’s successful programs is a strong partnership. Working with another organization or community helps us better understand the unique environmental impacts in the watershed. When engaging with a different group, we can almost always find an environmental connection to their work or needs, which helps us identify a shared goal. The environment is woven into our lives and society in more ways than we recognize, and thus impacts everyone. However, the positive and negative impacts of society and the environment affects everyone differently. One example of this is inequitable access to green or natural spaces. Studies have proven the benefits of green spaces, we know they can cool down a neighborhood, help our minds and bodies destress, and encourage imagination and curiosity among children. But while safety and relaxation in natural spaces are possible, not everyone has that same experience or even access to it.

As we consider safe spaces in the outdoors, there are often two important themes: inclusivity in natural spaces and forging community through natural spaces. Natural areas can help people connect, heal, and relax, but unfortunately, they are also spaces where many non-white or queer folks have been historically excluded. As I reflect on Pride Month and all the fantastic events around the watershed, I also want to recognize the individuals and groups who work hard every day to build pride, safety, and community through natural spaces.

There are so many phenomenal people and organizations working hard to cultivate safe spaces for all, we will just highlight a handful here. Like @pattiegonia, my personal favorite queer environmentalist and drag queen who helps build community in the environmental space through online discussions & events, safe space classes, LGBTQIA+ job boards, and more! And organizations like The Venture Out Project, leading backpacking and wilderness trips for the queer and transgender communities. They also conduct transgender inclusion workshops for educators, adventure professionals, and summer camps. But it was a representative from SMYAL, a Washington DC based nonprofit, who reminded me of the importance and impact of natural, safe spaces. SMYAL creates opportunities for LGBTQ+ youth to build self-confidence, develop critical life skills, and engage their peers and community through service and advocacy. One of the many ways SMYAL makes a difference in LGBTQ+ youth lives is through a housing program, which provides safe and natural spaces for youth to learn, thrive and build community.

I look forward to engaging more with SMYAL and other life changing organizations in the watershed because, as we have seen, in partnering social and environmental change, we can create healthier and more environmentally connected communities. Back in 2017, the Alliance took a step in this direction by coordinating a six-piece photo exhibit at our annual Chesapeake Watershed Forum. Printed posts from Ambreen Tariq’s @BrownPeopleCamping Instagram hung along a walkway, representing a range of topics such as privilege, diversity, and empowerment in the outdoors. With each photo were stories that encouraged people of every background to experience natural spaces. Ambreen’s stories have helped build a diverse environmental community through education and safe space-making. Let’s continue to learn from her and others, to challenge the barriers that stand in the way of all people accessing and enjoying our nation’s natural heritage, and to uplift the unique partnerships that pave the way.