HOW IMPORTANT ARE MINORITIES TO TREE PROGRAMS?
Competition for volunteer services is fierce. If the tree group fails to include minorities in its activities in a meaningful way, other groups more alert to the potential of this vast and skilled human resource, will. Connecticut's cities are places where people of diverse cultural backgrounds live, yet the state's demographic richness is often not reflected in community programs. As a black forester observed, "If America's minority population remains uninvolved, urban forests have little chance of thriving in the future."
Why Do Minorities Sometimes Fail to Volunteer?
Some minorities feel alienated or ignored by the "environmental movement" and perceive it to be mainstream and exclusive. Through careful surveys, United Way learned that minorities and women will not volunteer for any program if it gives them an uncomfortable sense:
- That they are mere "tokens".
- The program is "all talk and no action".
- They feel isolated from other minorities and women.
- The program seems irrelevant to their concerns.
- They cannot communicate effectively with others because of language differences.
- Attitudes or behavior are discriminatory or perceived to be discriminatory.
- They lack the qualifications to serve in a "high-powered" capacity.
- What they have to say is not taken seriously.
- They are being intimidated.
- There are no real benefits to serving.
- There are no role models.
- Those in charge overlook qualified minorities and women for key leadership roles.
It is important to note also that sometimes people don't volunteer simply because they weren't asked!
How Does The Tree Group Attract Volunteers From Minority Groups?
In communities that are culturally rich, the successful community forestry programs respect different cultural groups. All people seek connections to heritage, nature and other people, and forestry programs that are "culturally relevant" facilitate these connections and promote respect for trees and nature. Nearly all cultures incorporate trees into their mythologies, and the planting of trees can serve to bond people in a neighborhood and affirm an array of ethnic rituals. However, only programs that are innovative and respect the uniqueness of the people they are serving will work. People have to feel empowered by the program.
For example, the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System has created a program which links adult role models, such as police and fire fighters, with at-risk youth in Hartford, Meriden and Stamford, who work together with established tree groups to plant and care for trees. Other examples from around the nation include:
- ReLeaf Mississippi, which designed a contest for fifth through ninth graders called "Rap for Releaf". The prize was money for trees to be planted on school grounds.
- El Centro de la Raza, which has befun to plant trees in concert with efforts to provide an array of community services -- job training, child care and arts and crafts programs -- to a predominately Mexican-American neighborhood in Seattle.
- An "Eco-Rap" contest in San Francisco, where 86% of school children are people of color. The objective was to involve young people in local environmental issues. A theater group in San Francisco sponsored bus tours of inner city neighborhoods led by environmental experts to give participants ideas for lyrics. The program attracted a culturally diverse group of young persons between the ages of 15 and 29. The grand prize was a recording session.
How Does a Tree Group Include Minorities In Meaningful Way?
To get started you need to:
- Establish a policy of minority "inclusiveness": communicate
your tree group's commitment to it and inform the media.
- As soon as possible, place qualified minorities in key, decision-making positions.
- Enhance minority leadership skills through workshops and training programs.
- Change any structure or program that hinders inclusiveness.
- Help your tree group to become sensitive to cultural differences through speakers, workshops or training sessions.
- Set standards for writing or speaking. For example, United Way recommends alphabetizing ethnic group titles so no particular group feels slighted.
- Be sure the members of your tree group understand the benefits that will accrue to business and the community as a result of inclusive policies.
- Solicit the help and services of minority businesses and professionals.
- Recruit minorities by relying on minority institutions: churches, fraternal organizations, business and professional associations, and so on. Use their publications to advertise your "cause."
- Allow your group a reasonable amount of time to achieve inclusiveness (for example, United Way recommends one year).
How, Specifically, Can A Tree Group Enlist The Support of a Minority Group?
Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are among many minority groups in Connecticut and, where applicable, the special needs of each need to be addressed by your tree group. To illustrate, consider the advice of the USDA Forest Service on how to encourage Hispanics (chosen arbitrarily) to participate in your community forestry program:
- Hispanics value personal relationships. One-to-one contacts will produce results where a flyer or a letter will not.
- Hispanics desire the respect of their neighbors. Hispanics who participate in urban forestry programs often do so to gain recognition. (Generally, people want to feel that they are essential in any effort designed to breathe new life into their communities.)
- The Spanish language is important to Hispanics. Groups that value Hispanic participation in urban forestry programs are wise to solicit support in Spanish.
- Hispanics are concerned about the education of their children. Urban forestry programs that are effective will involve them.
- Hispanics are concerned about health issues, education, social services and economic development. The best approach to the creation of an urban forestry is that which incorporates these (and other) community concerns.
In the poorest neighborhoods where Hispanics and other minorities too often find themselves living, one would think that the planting of trees and gardens would be a low priority when day-to-day survival is tested by crime, poor housing, inferior education, health issues and drugs. However, according to Luz Rudriguez Parris, a National Urban Forestry Coordinator for the USDA Forest Service, this is not so. Consider a success story from New York City, where vacant lots are planted to flowers and trees. One Puerto Rican gardener reports that his garden "is actually a piece of Puerto Rico... in New York. It has changed my life completely. Now I don't feel lonely like before."
Community forestry programs that integrate minorities and women are the product of hard thinking and hard work on the part of dedicated organizers, and they produce lasting results.
Robert M. Ricard
Extension Educator, Urban and Community Forestry
West Hartford Extension Center
1800 Asylum Avenue
West Hartford, CT 06117