New Movement Educates Youth of Color About Outdoors
November 12, 2020
EXETER, R.I. — A group of five 10th-graders tromp through a wooded path at the Canonicus Camp & Conference Center on Exeter Road. They talk about school, the platform Doc Martens they would love to have, and how AOC is great but also, it’s probably better not to idolize politicians.
Their guide on this excursion is Joann “Jo” Ayuso, founder of Movement Education Outdoors (MEO), an organization with a mission to provide outdoor experiences for community-based organizations serving Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) youth. She shows them nature.
“The outdoors is sacred, and yes, this land,” she said, and spreads her arms around her, gesturing at the grass and trees, “has a history of colonization, but I want us to feel welcome here. I want to invite you to make your own memories today, to decolonize this space. I introduce you to these spaces so you can own them and feel connected to the land.”
According to the National Health Foundation, while people of color make up nearly 40 percent of the population, 70 percent of the people who visit national forests, parks, and wildlife refuges are White. A mere 7 percent of national park visitors are Black.
There are many factors at play when it comes to communities of color not having the same opportunities to experience the outdoors. Ayuso said:
There’s also the fact that outdoor gear is expensive, with basic equipment such as lightweight coats, hiking boots, and backpacks costing a premium.
“Equipment is always a barrier for young, low-income and urban youth,” Ayuso said. “Even having the proper layering for hiking in the fall or winter, that’s expensive.”
By starting MEO in 2018, Ayuso hopes to change this paradigm.
Ayuso’s journey from being born into poverty to being an outdoor educator for BIPOC youth started in the forests of the southern wild.
“One of my very first experiences with the outdoors was in the military,” she said. Ayuso entered the military after graduating from Joseph P. Keefe Technical High School in Framingham, Mass., prompted in part by her brother who had also joined, and by the desire to work her way up in the world. While military service didn’t prove to be her dream, it was how she discovered her love of nature.
“One of the things I loved about the military was being outdoors, just hiking, having my rucksack on and just hiking for hours,” said Ayuso, who served in the Army from 1989-1996. “To this day, I can still remember smelling the eucalyptus trees in the South, and also smelling the pine trees when we would do our training early in the morning. It was just something that really helped me pass time, and that was one of the most memorable times of me experiencing the outdoors.”
Ayuso would come back to that moment years later, and it would be part of a series of experiences that would inspire her to create an organization to bring Black and Brown youth into nature.
In the years that filled her life between the military and MEO, Ayuso built a personal-training business in Wellesley, Mass., and left it, started a new life in Providence, learned she loved working with young people, began practicing mindfulness, and discovered her ancestral roots in Puerto Rico and West Africa.
But it was when she was hit by a car two years ago outside her Providence home and spent six months healing that she started to unravel what she wanted to do with her life.
“I had six weeks of recovery, and in those six weeks I was like, ‘I’ve gotta do something different,’” said the 48-year-old. “My partner and I just got to talking about what is it that you want to do for the rest of your life? What is it that you think you will enjoy?”
Her partner asked her to reflect on the past 15 years and think about the things she really loved.
“And I thought, ‘Damn, I really loved that time in the military when I was hiking. That was awesome.’ I felt like that was healing, that kept my mind kind of straight,” Ayuso recalled. “So my hiking experience in the military, the mindfulness training that I’ve had in the last twenty years, the Native and Black history I learned for myself, and seeing the environmental justice and climate change on Black and Brown bodies, that became the four pillars of Movement Education Outdoors.”
MEO partners with local schools such as Nowell Leadership Academy in Providence and nonprofits like Riverzedge Arts in Woonsocket to bring underserved youth into the outdoors and to help them reflect on who they are and where they come from.
And on this chilly fall day in Exeter, the students are loving it.
As they walk through the forest of pine, oak, and maple, they notice the acorns on the ground, the oak apple wasp galls tucked between fallen leaves, and learn about how beavers change the landscape to suit their needs.
They pause for a guided meditation at a bridge overlooking a pond and breathe in the cold air, watching as their breath billows around them when they exhale. They continue through the woods and stop at a rock wall to discuss the farming history of this land.
“So when the glaciers melted, they left lots of rocks here,” said a MEO intern. “And the colonizers used them to make rocks walls.”
Ayuso noted that these rock walls delineated farming property, and that between 1636 and 1750, South County farmers turned from enslaving Indigenous people to enslaving thousands of Blacks from Africa to make their farms into plantations comparable to those in the South.
The group continues onward and upward, heading to a steep incline and making their way to an overlook known as “The Pinnacle.”
The students pause at a large boulder, resting weary Converse-clad feet and shooting the breeze. Ayuso then asks them what made them want to be outside, how they came to be here. One said:
Another student reminisced about her first time camping and how waking up outside was so special.
“The last time we went camping, my friend and I woke up at 5 a.m., and waking up to the morning dew, the smell of morning dew … it was so nice,” she said.
“It’s a break from the city, life with social media, everything feeling so controlled … when you’re outdoors, you’re on your own,” another student added.
Ayuso smiled as the group continued their discussion about life, nature, and what the future holds.
“Ya’ll are gonna make me cry,” Ayuso said, laughing. “You’re making me feel all the feels. I’m blessed to be here, to be able to do this.”