On an overcast Thursday in June, 30 middle-schoolers surrounded a marble fountain at Detroit’s Cranbrook House and Gardens. The group listened attentively while they inspected the pieces of tree bark in their hands. Standing among them, Sanaa Green, Detroit Audubon's Wild Indigo fellow, told them of the many correlations between African American culture and nature, and how, in order to decipher history, they must understand environmental and ecological issues.
That lesson in ecology and culture was part of the first Wild Indigo event in Detroit. It was the culmination of months of effort to launch the free, hands-on program, which was created by Detroit Audubon Society and Audubon Great Lakes, in partnership with The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Greening of Detroit, and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.
Originally developed by Audubon Great Lakes, the Wild Indigo program is centered in Chicago’s South Side and named in behalf of the wild indigo plant (Baptisia Australis). The group's goal is to work with local organizations to immerse and provide local families and children with interesting, culturally resonant experiences that induce a deeper connection with nature.
Wild Indigo’s flexible and ever-changing curriculum is determined by the community’s concerns, tackling local environmental and societal issues in order to create a bond between families and their local natural areas. Troy Peters, Wild Indigo’s engagement manager for Audubon Great Lakes, said the program’s main concern is to “have our environmental staff work with the community and create experiences that are familiar to them.”
To make the program relevant and relatable to Detroiters, Wild Indigo needed a leader that was also a Detroit native. Green was the perfect fit. She is trained and experienced in grassroots engagement strategies and, as a local, recognizes the challenges that come when engaging kids in a city that, in 2017, was nearly 80 percent African American and where almost 40 percent of households live below the federal poverty line.
"I am trying to develop capacity and interest in my community," Green says. "We are making a coordinated effort to connect the African American community, with these activities we are hoping to have a better path to make that connection."
Visiting the city’s familiar spaces is one of the most important components of the program. Charles Ferrell, vice president of The Wright Museum, was born and raised in Detroit. As a child, he periodically visited Cranbrook House and Gardens, where he developed his connection with nature and experienced, in the midst of chaos, peace and comfort. Ferrell has worked closely with Green and Peters to create opportunities for Detroit’s African American community to reconnect with nature. “This relationship between Audubon and The Wright is like a seed,” Ferrell says. “It will grow and bloom to something beautiful.”
After the morning event was over, the children’s families and local community members were invited to a second Wild Indigo event at The Wright Museum in celebration of the program’s launch and in commemoration of Black Music Month.
At the museum, The Tony Holland Ensemble paid homage to Eric Dolphy, the African American Jazz musician who drew inspiration for his music from birdcalls and nature. Both Detroit Audubon and The Wright Museum created this event to highlight Detroit’s high counts of migratory birds and to implement a sense of ownership and community unification.
Detroit Audubon and Wild Indigo are already working on the next events. The eventual goal of this effort is to use Wild Indigo to build conservation leadership among Detroit-area communities of color. And like the first two events, future events will make nature accessible so that everyone can have the opportunity to connect to natural spaces.
“For many of us our ties to nature are difficult, because among other things the history of discrimination,” says Peters on why Wild Indigo is important in places like Chicago and Detroit. “However, nature is for us. It’s part of our history, culture, and tradition.”
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