This story is part of Fix’s Outdoors Issue, which explores how we build connections to nature, why those connections matter, and how equitable access to outside spaces is a vital climate solution.
Makela Elvy considers herself a teacher, and her classroom is the great outdoors. Over the past decade, she’s worked as a park ranger, a summer camp director, and a composting project coordinator, among other things. Although the jobs have changed, her focus has remained the same: Introduce everyone, particularly those who historically have been excluded, to nature in an inclusive and welcoming way.
“My goal as an educator is usually to evoke a sense of confidence within my community members, folks that share my identity in wherever space that I am,” Elvy, who is Black, says.
Traditionally, people of color and members of other marginalized communities have been excluded from, or don’t feel safe in, parks and other outdoor spaces. Studies have shown they are much less likely to visit such places or participate in recreational programs — often because they lack access to them. Systemic racism, of course, plays a key role in this, as does overt racism, as shown by the murder of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery and the racial targeting of Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper.
Elvy herself was exposed to the outdoors at a young age. Born and raised in the Bronx, she’d spend a few weeks each summer at a camp in New York’s Hudson Valley. She cherished the time away from home and the opportunity to experience nature without the distractions of city life. In high school, she participated in ACTION (Activists Coming to Inform Our Neighborhood). That early organizing and advocacy work taught her how to motivate and engage others. Elvy went on to earn a degree in environmental geoscience. She also holds a master’s in curriculum and instruction, with a focus on environmental education.
She’s pursued work that, at heart, gives people of all ages and backgrounds the opportunity to enjoy nature. These days, you’ll find her teaching people how to raise urban gardens through Cornell University’s cooperative extension program. She also is the cofounder of S’More Melanin, which advises summer camps nationwide on the best ways to provide equitable experiences to BIPOC children. Throughout her endeavors, she employs culturally relevant pedagogy, taking into account each learner’s background and experiences when developing curricula.
“My shared goal with both is helping folks who traditionally might be left out of a conversation get into a conversation and into these spaces,” Elvy says.
Fix talked to Elvy about her experiences in nature, crafting culturally relevant curricula, and how to introduce the outdoors in a way that makes it feel accessible for all. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Tell me a bit about your childhood experiences with nature. Was there a particular moment that set you on your career path?
A. I think we’re all curious about nature from a young age, from touching our first blades of grass. A lot of what got me into nature was camp. That was designated a needed time away from my neighborhood. Camp encouraged me to want to wander and connect with the natural environment in a different way.
[Another] really formative experience [came] when I was in high school and joined ACTION. I was on three campaigns that helped push the South Bronx to be sustainably minded.
One was a community effort to reclaim the space that was the Sheridan Expressway. [I learned to] think about city planning in a way that encourages green space, mental health, physical activity, and makes a healthier community. That got me interested in the power and change that can come from a grassroots organization and community-led action.
I learned so much about green space and access to nature and was forced as a teen to reflect on how lucky I was to be even able to have the language, to know what to ask for. It was transformative to me because it showed many people need things [but] simply don’t know how to ask for a lack of language. That really gave me a mindset in how I approach the work that I do.
The next ACTION campaign I worked on was the North Brother Island restoration with the Audubon Society. We helped remove invasive species and fix up the island as a habitat for birds. I learned to understand that not only is there power in advocating for ourselves, but nature’s not going to ask for permission. It’s going to do what it needs to do.
The last campaign was our urban gardening campaign centered around addressing [the Bronx neighborhood] Hunts Point as a food desert. We started a 20-by-20 vegetable garden. I learned about growing in the city, the benefits of it, the constraints of it.
Q: How do these experiences inform your current work?
A: I’m really interested in a lot of the way that city folk and people from rural areas interact, assumptions that they operate on just because of their daily lives and things they’re exposed to. And I’m really interested in figuring out how to make spaces safe for all because there’s so much you can learn from each other, regardless of your background.
When I think about culturally relevant curriculum or even curriculum development, I think about, “Who is this for? How can we get their voices into this conversation?” Nothing created for a specific group of people is going to benefit them if it is created without them.
Q. What are some of the best ways to expose children of all backgrounds to the natural world?
A. I don’t know if I can say there is a best way. It really depends on the person. If I could make a blanket statement that works with anybody of every age, [I would say] we all love humor. We all love excitement and enthusiasm. I think that naturally encourages folks to be curious.
[It’s important to] really lean into that wonder and that curiosity we all have that’s especially innate around things that move, things that grow, and phenomena that we experience every day but aren’t necessarily sure how to engage with.
I would also make everything wonderful. When I say “wonderful,” I mean it literally — to encourage deeper thoughts. You don’t want to give away too much. You want to tap into that inquiry that kids have. They want to ask questions. They want to know things. That inquisitive nature really helps keep kids engaged. Those are my tried-and-true ways to engage people: bringing energy and setting the space for exploration and inquiry.
For folks who aren’t exposed to nature, oftentimes getting them comfortable with natural noises at night or with the elements is important, too. Managing fear is a big part of it.
Q. Tell me about the 10-week venture program you developed to introduce middle-schoolers from underserved communities on Staten Island to nature. How did you craft the curriculum?
A. We asked [ourselves], “How do we get more youth from underrepresented and marginalized communities into the forest?” We worked with the school’s science teacher to identify strong candidates for a program in which they would explore the natural world.
Part of it is meeting the kids at school, where it is familiar and safe, as well as meeting at the park. Logistically, we needed to make sure they had transportation, and we needed to outfit them with gear. I was thinking, “I need to make this easy. I need to make it so that whoever shows up will be successful. I want to meet all of their needs.”
Each week we walked them through different outdoor skills, from knot-tying to water filtration to fire-building. It was all tied to science. All of it, even the team-building, was done in the forest. Just seeing their evolution and comfort in nature is one measure of success.
On week 10, they went through a challenge they had to complete in a certain amount of time; I think it was two or three hours. We divided them into small teams to work their way through what I want to say was a 5-mile course where they’d have to solve riddles and complete tasks that would unlock clues to the next task. They did this for a series of outdoor skills, [leading] to the last challenge. They didn’t have enough folks to complete [the last challenge] until everybody was done [with the other challenges]. It became a collaboration, even though it started as a competition.
It was a really fun program. I really learned a lot about how folks learn and how folks are motivated to help each other, group dynamics. I learned a lot about barriers to access and trying to come up with operations. I also learned a lot about the value of all those things and how they overlap.
It was challenging. We weren’t trying to trip them up but rather tell them, “Here’s a new situation. Now figure it out. You know how to do this. You’ve got everything in you that you need to complete this course.” Allowing them to do so was amazing to see.
Q. How do you ensure that curricula are meaningful to various communities?
A. Consider just asking them. It seems like such a simple answer, but you’d be surprised how many people, instead of just going directly to the community, will research “the market.” The way you ensure that you’re getting really good data on community needs is by partnering with organizations in that community or in that demographic. Keeping the conversation open is one way that I’ve made sure outdoor curricula are culturally relevant. Another thing is considering history — being very honest about the history of the space, the land, and the objectives, and also the history, experience, and objectives of whatever demographic that is in the space.
Honoring history and asking instead of assuming are two things that are most important to me as I develop curricula. I make sure that I’m checking biases, staying away from assumptions, bringing the community into the conversation always.
Q. What makes a culturally relevant curriculum effective? How do you know that it has been successful?
A. Before developing something, you have to think about your assessment metrics, your evaluation method. That is really how you measure success, but sometimes it’s also [measured] anecdotally. Sometimes it’s having folks thank you and say that it’s effective.
I wrote a workforce-development program, and how we rated success was not just through job readiness, but job placement and retention and how many folks were still in their jobs years later. Sometimes I’m walking down the street in Harlem, and I see folks who graduated from that program and are still employed, or have graduated up the career ladder and are like, “I’m a manager at this building now.”
[Another] thing I can say that really informs my curriculum writing is goals. You want to have mutual goals [with the community]. There has to be a thorough understanding of what this is all for. That really does help inform that process.
The idea isn’t to only have one metric of success, but a few that paint a picture.
Q. What challenges have you faced at either the individual or structural level when trying to implement inclusive outdoor education curriculum?
A. The biggest challenge that I see is fear — biophobia. We know that there is real anxiety and fear around the natural world or fear of the unknown. And so sometimes, that is your greatest barrier.
[Another] barrier is getting folks to appreciate being in nature as something that we all need in order to be healthy. A healthy lifestyle is not just the food that we eat, but how we’re moving our bodies. We know the mental benefits of being in nature and in connection with nature, as well as the physical ones.
The one thing we can’t really change is that element of fear, but interestingly, that is the experiential piece that gets better. Who knows if the resources are going to get better, but shifting the mindset around what’s safe and encouraging exploration is something we do have power over. It’s a challenge, but definitely worth the fight.
Q. What other advice do you have for people who want to implement inclusive outdoor curriculum and invite BIPOC to enjoy nature?
A. Make sure you’re considering systems of oppression and the world that we live in. You can deliver better project-based learning when it’s culturally relevant. You can deliver better youth-centered learning when there’s history and heritage attached, and when it’s culturally relevant — whether it’s place-based or heritage-based, we’re all impacted by the world around us. Nature has to happen in tandem with the way that the world is becoming.
Explore more from Fix’s Outdoors Issue:
- How outdoor experiences have shaped today’s climate and justice leaders
- Disabled hikers deserve to enjoy the outdoors
- In Montana, an inclusive city program is opening up the outdoors for everyone