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Nearby Nature Milwaukee helps inspire Black Milwaukeeans to experience outdoor spaces

Nearby Nature MKE
Nearby Nature MKE
Young people walk through the flood basin with Nearby Nature MKE.

Being in nature can bring healing and creativity. But there’s a gap in who gets to enjoy our natural spaces — especially here in Milwaukee. It's called the nature gap. Even though the city has a population that is majority not white, white Milwaukeeans are more likely to be outside in the parks, which is a fact rooted in a long history of racial discrimination.

Nearby Nature Milwaukee is trying to change that nature gap. Steven Hunter is programs director and Martina Patterson is arts and environmental educator at Nearby Nature Milwaukee and they believe that everyone should be able to experience a love for the outdoors.

“I had to reflect on my experiences with nature as a child and think about what I was exposed to versus what I have access to now,” says Patterson. “If I had been exposed to more as a child I would probably be much further than what I am right now.”

For Steven Hunter he is very much aware of the fact that experiences with nature are not as common or intimate for people of color. However, he is thankful that his mother pushed him to have those experiences with nature and that is what fuels his work.

“There were a lot of things that my mother did with me just for the express reason of you need to have these experiences … When my kids came along that was one of the things I wanted them to have as well,” says Hunter.

As for why this disconnect with nature exists, Hunter expresses that intricately ingrained stereotypes and within systemic racism that had prevented Black people from accessing nature spaces. According to Hunter, the effects of this long radicalized history continues in the relationship that Black people have with nature. They think they should not feel a desire to connect with nature.

“Some of the historical racism that people don't put together and then say these things like, ‘Black people don’t swim, oh Black people don’t hike, oh Black people don’t do all these things,'" says Hunter. “All of these natural areas of enjoyment, natural area of healing that are in nature, that nature provides, have been denied to African Americans for a long time and have been seen as a bad thing.”

For Patterson, she wants to be the representation that can turn into inspiration. If more people of color are seen in spaces of nature than maybe the stereotypes and stigmas will be lifted.

“If you see representation, and you see that you can achieve it, that person or the children that might be watching me might be like ‘I never knew that that was an opportunity, but I see her doing it let me explore that because it is attainable,” says Patterson.

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
Beck Andrew Salgado was a producer with Lake Effect.
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