Children and Nature Network Conference: Nature So White

Children and Nature Network Conference: Nature So White

Our Deputy Executive Director, Khavin Debbs recently gave a presentation at the Children and Nature Network Conference in Atlanta. Teacher Jessica from Carkeek PM attended the conference, too! Watch Khavin’s talk below and read Teacher Jessica’s reflections on her experience.

Tiny Trees Deputy Executive Director, Khavin Debbs presenting Nature So White at the Children and Nature Network Conference in Atlanta, GA

Children and Nature Network Conference

by Jessica Adams

I had the opportunity to attend the Children and Nature Network conference in Atlanta, Georgia during the week of May 14-18th.  The conference met many of my hopes and expectations: multiple tracks for learning offered in numerous 1.5 hour sessions, diverse and well-known speakers for plenary panels every day, time outdoors, opportunities to network across disciplines/sectors, and included high quality meals to keep me fueled!

There was only one significant disappointment for me; that there was very little indigenous representation.  To the organizers credit, on opening day of the conference there was a Land Acknowledgement, and Wednesday’s plenary panel did include Rocio Villalobos (a social justice agitator & environmental activist) who identifies as Xicana Indigenous.  However, I did wonder if the C&NN leadership had prioritized a relationship with the local tribe(s); inviting them to collaborate and have a presence in the conference.  I worry that such a well-known international conference about nature was held and attended on land that white people still have not made reparations for.

Importantly, there was an emphasis on Black American voices & contributions.  I felt this honored the fact that we were in Martin Luther King’s hometown while also continuing the work of de-centering white people.  Our very own Khavin Debbs presented in a TedX style session on “Breaking Barriers to Nature Access”.  On Tuesday, Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley sat on the plenary panel and his incredibly wise thoughts were inspirational and moving.  Also, it was wonderful to hear from Dr. King’s only granddaughter, Yolanda King, on closing day.  She is already an important figure in environmental and social justice activism at the young age of 14!

The most impactful session I took was presented by Luis Camargo (Founder & Director of OpEPA in Colombia).  Drawing on the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, Joanna Macy, and others he spoke about the importance of nature-based education as a stepping stone to activate our regenerative capacity.  He used the Regenerative Design Framework to guide us to an understanding that a goal of sustainability, though focused on not doing any more damage to earth, is not enough.  The “green” movement only makes relative improvements, and many people and corporations only seek to be in compliance with these guidelines and laws.  Instead, regenerative design has humans help restore what we have broken and destroyed in nature, reconcile and reintegrate ourselves with nature, and participate in nature’s design so that regeneration can be re-established.

Camargo said that in our work as educators we need to allow children to have time in nature to listen, watch, and reflect.  Often, nature-based experiences for students focus on educational value:  checking off curriculum benchmarks focused on learning about the physical world.  In our industrialized and modern society, it has been normalized to view the world as fragmented into separate parts (land, water, sky; language arts, science, math; people, animals, plants; body, mind, and spirit).  This misguided interpretation has created a human society that is out of balance with nature and is systematically and unrelentingly exploiting earth’s resources to extinction.  In fact though, all of nature is one whole with all parts connected in a web of interdependence (including us, people). 

Camargo referenced Glenn Albrecht’s (an Australian environmental philosopher) vision of a new Symbiocene era:

I argue that the next era in human history should be named the Symbiocene (from the Greek sumbiosis, or companionship). The scientific meaning of the word “symbiosis” implies living together for mutual benefit, and I wish to use this profoundly important concept as the basis for what I hope will be the next period of earth history. As a core aspect of ecological thinking, symbiosis affirms the interconnectedness of life and all living things. (Humans & Nature, “Exiting the Anthropocene and entering the Symbiocene” by Glenn Albrecht & Gavin Van Horn)

Camargo concluded that there is not enough value placed on the importance of simply building connection with nature.  He said that when we allow children the time and space to develop a deep connection to their place they learn to love the world.  Those who love the world do the work to save it.  He encouraged us to shift focus to what is invisible  – the sense that there is something more; a deeper knowing and way of being.  When we focus on that connection we will begin developing a society that is more empathetic, and that is the key ingredient in moving toward a world that is reconciliatory and once again regenerative.

I walked out of that session feeling optimistic about a growing consciousness and courageousness in people around the world who understand that “life creates the conditions conducive to life” (Janine Benyus).

A much anticipated highlight of the conference was a live conversation on closing day between Richard Louv (best known for his book “The Last Child in the Woods” and coining the term “nature deficit disorder”) and Jane Goodall (Primatologist who did groundbreaking research on Chimpanzees in Africa; founder of the Roots & Shoots organization).

One of my favorite moments in the conversation was when Richard Louv talked about Martin Luther King’s idea of spiritual bankruptcy:

“The stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth.  We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing” -oriented society to a “person” -oriented society.  When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.  A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy.”  – (“The World House” Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community, M.L. King 1967)

Louv, building on this idea, said that:

“There are two worlds – the physical world and the habitat of the heart.  They coexist and one cannot survive without the other.” 

He then asked Goodall what she understands from her work about the habitat of the heart.

 In response, Jane Goodall said:

“There is spirit in nature.  Our connection to the natural world is our soul.  If we have a soul, then animals and trees and plants have a soul too.  There is a spark of the divine in everything… [But] unless we help people to improve their own lives, we cannot help the animals and nature… Start acting locally, and then you will dare to think globally.”

I have often been distressed by the knowledge that there is so much to do if we are to preserve humanity and help to heal the natural world.  It can feel overwhelming and impossible to tackle.  I have learned that many others feel this same distress, something Albrecht coined as “solastalgia” in his book “Earth Emotions” (2019).  Being in community with so many others from around the world who are working tirelessly in their local communities was encouraging.  There is a lot of good work happening to connect people & children with nature.  The value of spending time in nature is becoming apparent across multiple disciplines, not only in early childhood and K-12 education, but also in higher education, public health, and city planning to name a few.  I was able to see and hear from, in real time, some of the numerous others who are also deeply entrenched in the long struggle for an equitable, accessible, and hopeful future.  After three grueling years of loss and the disconnection of the pandemic, this was like a restorative balm.

While I was in Atlanta I visited the King Center and his childhood home (Ebenezer Baptist Church was closed for renovations).  On a stone wall outside by the reflecting pool and crypt were engraved Six Principles of Nonviolence 365 which are necessary in the creation of a “Beloved Community”.  Dr. King’s vision of a Beloved community was inspired by the work of Ghandi, whose example of nonviolent resistance was integral.

Have you ever felt like you learned something pivotal at exactly the right moment?  When I visited the King Center I felt grateful that I was exactly where I needed to be in order to continue to grow in the anti-racism work I have been engaging in these last few years.  One lesson that stood out to me is how easily I fall back into crediting the brilliance of people of color to white people.  This year Tiny Trees white lead teachers have been studying Marshall B. Rosenberg’s book “Nonviolent Communication”.  As I stood there reading the wall, I felt deeply chagrined to realize that I couldn’t even recall if Rosenberg had attributed any of his work on NVC to Ghandi or MLK.  Memories of naming Rosenberg as the creator of NVC during work meetings and in conversation with others washed over me and I felt… contrite and humbled.  (In fact, Rosenberg did attribute the word “nonviolent” to Ghandi in his introduction,  and additionally stated that nothing in the communication process he developed is new.)  My contrition at realizing how I had forgotten that Rosenberg built his method on the ideas and principles of two well-known civil rights leaders, who significantly were BIPOC, set me back on my heels.  I had begun to think that I was becoming somewhat practiced at anti-racism, but my paradigms are so deeply entrenched in white supremacy that I could not see the road ahead of me until I realized I was coming to a bend.

Martin Luther King’s work is timeless and indispensable.  I believe that it is worthy of being remembered and shared here:

  • The six principles of nonviolence 365 are “Fundamental tenets of Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence described in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom.  Dr. King often said he got his inspiration from Jesus Christ and his techniques from Mohandas K. Gandhi.  These principles should be embraced as a lifestyle.
  • Principle One:  Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.  It is active nonviolent resistance to evil.  It is aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally.
  • Principle Two:  Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.  The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation.  The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community.
  • Principle Three:  Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people.  Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people.  The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.
  • Principle Four:  Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform people and societies.  Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation.  Unearned suffering is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.
  • Principle Five:  Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.  Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as the body.  Nonviolent love is spontaneous, unmotivated, unselfish and creative.
  • Principle Six:  Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.  The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win.  Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice.

The Beloved Community:  “The Beloved Community is a realistic vision of an achievable society, one in which problems and conflict exist, but are resolved peacefully and without bitterness.  In the Beloved Community, caring and compassion drive political policies that support the worldwide elimination of poverty and hunger and all forms of bigotry and violence.  The Beloved Community is a state of heart and mind, a spirit of hope and goodwill that transcends all boundaries and barriers and embraces all creation.  At its core, the Beloved Community is an engine of reconciliation.  This way of living seems a long way from the kind of world we have now but I do believe it is a goal that can be accomplished through courage and determination, and through education and training if enough people are willing to make the necessary commitment.” – Dr. King

My trip to Atlanta and participation in the C&NN conference buoyed my hope that humanity is moving toward a new Symbiocene era.  I can feel that we are drawing closer; our energy is palpable, and soon we will reach critical mass.  Our collective vision for a better world and unwavering commitment to uncelebrated and often difficult work will make a difference.  The day is coming when we will all understand and embody how to regard each other, and all of nature, as valuable interdependent beings in one “beloved community”.

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