Questions of equal access, outdoors outreach come out of bill debate


Jamie Becker-Finn

The proposed bill was straightforward. It would create a grant program aimed at getting kids into the outdoors.

The bill’s author, state Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, gave the bill the title No Child Left Inside. She introduced it to the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee on Jan. 30.

Becker-Finn told the committee that to maximize reach, the grants in the bill should focus on finding new groups of would-be outdoors enthusiasts. That means low income families, immigrants and people of color, all of whom have statistically lower access and participation rates in the great American outdoors.

Facing pushback about why existing state programs fall short, she said that the best conduit into those communities are often the organizations that are already there.

“We cannot just keep thinking that we know best and that we can send someone from the dominant culture into another community and when they say, ‘Listen to me. This is what you need to do,’ that that community is obligated to trust and engage with that person,” said Becker-Finn, who represents House District 42B.

The tone of the committee discussion changed. Some committee members took offense to Becker-Finn’s comment and said as much.

“I can tell you your program is not going to go very far if you’re going to go around and you’re going to label people you don’t know,” said state Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin. “Label people you don’t know and anticipate how they’re going to deal with human beings. I find your comments about the dominant community very offensive.”

There was some back-and-forth in the official committee parlance. Lueck demanded an apology. Becker-Finn said none was needed. State Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said he was troubled by Becker-Finn’s comments. State Rep. John Persell, a Bemidji DFLer and committee chair, tried to smooth things out. Everyone’s heart is in the right place, he said.

Near the end of the hearing, Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, was exasperated by it all, particularly by what she called hostility toward Becker-Finn’s bill presentation.

“I’m surprised at a lack of basic understanding about the history of our country, where we are, what the realities that people in Minnesota are living with, as indicated by some of the conversations that we had today,” she said.

 

Inside looking out

There’s a body of evidence that shows a participation and access gap to the outdoors. Fewer people of color than white people are wandering forests and riding trails, and low-income families aren’t as able to afford a lifestyle characterized by specialized equipment and long-distance travel.

“I think there is a major barrier when we’re talking about getting out,” said Jose Luis Villaseñor , executive director of Tamales y Bicicletas in Minneapolis. “We’re talking about economics, who has the right gear, the expensive equipment. There’s also a myth that the natural world is this place only for white folks.”

A small movement has formed within the outdoors industry to change those perceptions. In retail, outdoors advertising has historically lacked diversity. There’s growing action at some corporate retail and media levels within that industry to improve representation. 

There are similar movements at the grassroots levels.

Tamales y Bicicletas is an on-the-ground effort. One of the organization’s programs is the Cuatro Elementos Leadership Institute. They bring Latinx kids to the Boundary Waters for a summer week, focusing on the link between the outdoors and cultural roots.

“It’s very important for our state,” Villaseñor said. “Because I think at the end of the day, the more that young people of color understand natural places, we create a conversation about how to we protect them.”

He also said that it takes trust for parents to send their kids away for a week in the wilderness.

Back at the committee meeting on Jan. 30, Rep. Gomez said that unfamiliarity might be one reason that youth outreach doesn’t reach all corners.

“There are a lot of kids in communities like the one I serve that don’t have access to just the information, the kind of trust that somebody would need to allow a person to take your kids out of town,” she said.

 

In the sticks

The day after the committee meeting, Lueck said in an interview that he took offense on behalf of the people at his local outdoors outfit, the Long Lake Conservation Center near Palisade. He perceived that Becker-Finn attacked the ability of those organizations to conduct diverse outreach.

“The idea that if they’re crippled from a standpoint, because somehow this new phrase that has entered our language, the power of the majority, or you speak from a majority position, and then it goes downhill from there,” he said.

He disagreed with the idea that all communities might not get the same degree of outreach and referenced the “snide, almost ethnically motivated comment that Rep. Becker-Finn made.”

Lueck, whose district is 98.4-percent white, said that there are many organizations whose goal is to get young people outside. He sent links to four of them, all located in outstate Minnesota.

Becker-Finn said during the committee hearing that the goal of her bill wasn’t to supplant existing state programs, but to bridge the gaps that might put programs out of reach for some kids.

“We have to open our eyes and open up to the idea that maybe we don’t know best and communities themselves know best how to engage their own communities,” she said.

 

–Matt Hudson can be reached at mhudson@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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