Feeling at home in outdoor spaces” is just one tenet of Movement Education Outdoors’ (MEO) programming – and it can look different for each student they serve. Maybe it’s the confidence that comes with navigating a trail by compass for the first time, or growing a garden from seed to harvest through the West End Raices program. It could also be kayaking Narrow River or dancing, running, and taking up space outside.
“If the young people who join us experience a chance to just be their full selves, we’re doing things right. That’s liberatory,” says Lizz Malloy, program manager at MEO. “We cultivate outdoor belonging by celebrating the deep relationships that people of color have always had with their environment.”
MEO was founded by Joann Ayuso in 2018 with a mission of empowering Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and low-income youth from Providence, Woonsocket, Central Falls, and Pawtucket to engage with the land and waterways they live on through outdoor learning experiences. Programming takes place all over the state, including their West End community garden and, through a partnership with the Nature Conservancy, the MEO Lodge in Saunderstown at the King Benson Preserve.
Though the natural world is all around us, accessibility to its recreation and stewardship is often inequitable. Malloy explains that mainstream environmentalism tends to favor white, colonial frameworks over Indigenous knowledge. “MEO is all about challenging this,” she explains. “We center the rich place-based knowledge that our communities hold collectively, accumulated through direct experience and across generations. We honor the expertise that everyone holds about their own surroundings. In a lot of ways, our programs are spaces for exchange more than education – everyone is a teacher and a learner.”
Take oysters, for example. With MEO students, Malloy says, “we talk about the Black ancestors on this land who found freedom and economic security by farming oysters or running oyster houses. We’ll hear from educators at the Tomaquag Museum about Indigenous relationships with oysters. So while we’re learning how to monitor and support oyster populations in our waterways, we’re coming at it from a lineage of deep relationships between these beings and our communities.”
Along with lessons in ecosystems and history, students at MEO’s Agua Day Camp get to take the plunge with four weeks of water experiences. Partnerships with community organizations help remove barriers – such as transportation, equipment, and specialized training – to get kids in kayaks and sailboats, along with foraging for natural dyes to create costumes for an end-of-camp performance.
With three weeks kayaking and three hiking, the once-weekly MOBILE program sees high school youth of color getting their feet wet in aquaculture and marine science career paths. “Participants visit locations throughout Rhode Island, learn about their Black and Indigenous history, connect that history to current-day environmental justice issues, and work together on projects to educate their communities about those issues,” says Malloy. The program culminates in an overnight camping trip.
More than experiencing the outdoors, students are doing the work of stewarding the land – whether that’s testing water quality or monitoring oyster populations – and reclaiming ownership of the spaces they occupy. “We’ve seen so many strong friendships blossom through our programming, fostering confidence and comfortability for the youth, which helps guide them towards stepping into their power,” says Malloy.
From centering ancestral stories to unpacking a history of colonization that has led to environmental injustices impacting community youth today, MEO leaders and peers forge ahead by learning modes of healing in mindfulness and joy among nature – but also mobilizing.
“We find it’s really powerful to create spaces for youth agency and leadership,” says Malloy. “We hand the reins to our young people as much as possible – they make decisions and guide their own experiences, sometimes literally, holding the map and compass and taking charge of group navigation. When we honor the knowledge and agency of our young people and really trust them as leaders, that’s empowering.”
To learn more about programming or donate gear, visit MEOutdoorsRI.com, and watch for calls for volunteers to participate in public intergenerational hikes.
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