04 Nov Decolonizing the outdoors – Khavin Debbs

Khavin Debb’s (Tiny Trees Partnerships Manager) presentation at the 5th Annual Tiny Trees Luncheon, Friday, October 25, 2019

Hello and welcome!  My name is Khavin Debbs and I am proud to serve as the Partnerships Manager for Tiny Trees Preschool. I’ve been here since we opened our first classrooms in 2016. As I’ve evolved and grown in my career, so has Tiny Trees. I came to this organization because it was a marriage of my two passions; the environment and early childhood education.  I had no idea what adventures awaited, from canopies being blown away to harvesting and making nettle tea. No matter how soaked I get, I’m grateful for 82% of it. 

I earned my Masters in Urban Environmental Education at Antioch University while working at Tiny Trees. My thesis was called #naturesowhite: Decolonizing the Outdoors for Families of Color.  Our experiences and traumas not only dictate our actions, but are also physiologically passed down to future generations. This, along with narratives around what qualifies as the outdoors and who gets to access it, and stereotypes about people of color (POC) outdoors have all contributed to the colonization of our outdoor spaces.  This often manifests as black, indigenous, and people of color leading lives increasingly separated from meaningful experiences in nature. Along with the aforementioned barriers, indigenous knowledge and involvement has long been left out of the conversation around outdoor spaces. Instead, it has been replaced with principles from Manifest Destiny and our western ideals of settler colonialism. 

This research informs my practice as an educator of young children. I’ve been excited about bringing this research into my role as Partnerships Manager at Tiny Trees, where I have the opportunity to partner with other communities, organizations, and people to turn trauma into empowerment, and to provide opportunities for young children and their families to engage with nature in ways that are meaningful to them.   

I’m really excited to be here today to tell you all about the growing project we are calling Decolonizing the Outdoors, funded by King County’s Best Starts for Kids grant. With this funding, we have finally been able to hire staff and implement new programming specifically focused on creating opportunities for families of color, families with limited financial resources, and refugee and immigrant families to engage with nature. We have been able to hire staff to create and implement new programming outside the 4 hour preschool day that our enrolled students enjoy.  Families need to work, and a 4-hour preschool day just doesn’t work for most families in our region. In addition to new weekend programs, this funding has also opened up doors for more families to access our existing preschool program through tuition assistance — specifically for families of color, and refugee and immigrant families. 

By hosting activities on weekends, we also allow for more access to amazing outdoor experiences. We’ve spent the past year developing a theory of change, evaluation plans, hiring, and so much more. 

In the past two months, we’ve put on an event with Families of Color – Seattle where I was able to co-lead a hike through Carkeek Park. We’ve co-hosted a visioning session for Seattle’s new waterfront with Friends of the Waterfront Seattle. In the next week, we will be participating in STEM Night with the Renton Innovation Zone Partnership, where we’re providing lessons to bring STEM learning outside for families to do with their children. We’re excited to co-host a Stone Soup event with the Danny Woo Community Garden to teach children about plants, harvesting vegetables, and cooking to build community. Next month, we’re working with BikeWorks to give away 30 bikes to 3-5 year olds and their families, so that they can explore the outdoors on two wheels. We are so excited about these new partnerships and the ones we are still cultivating. 

Tiny Trees is more than a preschool — we are a movement. Our responsibility — to children, families, our future — is to create opportunities to connect with nature in ways that are meaningful to them. That looks different for everyone. We are not a one-size-fits-all solution to getting kids outside. The “outdoors” does not have to be in the middle of the woods. It can be on your front porch. In the middle of a soccer field. Under a picnic shelter, or on a bike path. Our job, as outdoor educators, is to cultivate the curiosity that children innately have. Nature has a beautiful way of doing that all on its own, and that’s why creating pathways to spend time outside and experience nature is so important. 

We have made some progress, but we still have quite a ways to go.  First and foremost, if our goal is decolonization of outdoor spaces, then we need to be partnering with tribes and indigenous communities. As Kellie said, staying humble, getting connected, and teaching compassion are what drive this work forward. If you’re interested in partnering with Tiny Trees to join this revolution, please reach out. We are excited to do this work with you. 

Thank you.

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