The way to a community’s heart


The Nature Place, an environmental education center and the headquarters of the conservation organization Berks Nature, sits on the outskirts of Reading, Pennsylvania, a city of 88,000.

Woman gestures at a plant as children gather around
A Berks Nature volunteer points out caterpillars on a native milkweed plant to local students. Photo: Berks Nature

But Kim Murphy wants it to feel like the heart of the community.

“We are committed to working with all of Reading’s populations and schools to meet their needs,” said Murphy, president of Berks Nature. The challenge? “We’re not fully versed in how best to do so.”

In Reading, more than 30 percent of residents are living in poverty, and the majority are from racial and ethnic groups that have historically been excluded from the benefits of conservation, or made to feel unwelcome in natural places. That means partnering with these communities takes more than opening doors. It takes breaking down barriers.

Murphy’s organization has been looking for ways to do that, like hiring a summer fellow who is fluent in Spanish to make educational programming more accessible, and reaching out to people of color to join the Board of Directors. But more than just piecemeal changes, she said she wants to make sustainable shifts, “So it’s part of what we become.”

Group of adults and children in a park
Berks Nature summer fellow Jordan Hines takes visitors on a story walk in the park. Photo: Berks Nature

She’s not alone. That’s why in her other role, as a member of the Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River, Murphy was part of the team that submitted a proposal for, and received, a 2020 Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund grant to help centers like hers better serve their communities.

The project, called the Delaware River Basin Urban Wildlife Community Engagement Program, is grounded in the Standards of Excellence for Urban National Wildlife Refuges, a framework designed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Urban Wildlife Conservation Program to engage urban communities as partners in wildlife conservation.

Lamar Gore, the manager of John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia, was part of a vision team that contributed to the development of the standards by focusing on how the Service can remain relevant in a changing America. Now he is responsible for implementing them at the refuge.

Man in a National Wildlife Refuges uniform speaks at a lectern.
Lamar Gore, the manager of John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia, was part of a vision team that focused on how the Service can remain relevant in a changing America. Photo: USFWS

“There are eight standards in total, but two really bear the weight of everything: ‘Know and relate to the community,’ and, ‘Be a community asset,” he said. “If you do both of those really well, everything falls into place.”

Gore, who is co-leading the community engagement project in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation, explained, “The goal is to help people understand the roots of this program, and walk them through how to live up to the standards in an effective way, with the intention of building lasting relationships between the center and the community.”

An important first step for the participating organizations will be confronting internal biases they hold about the audiences they are trying to reach, including assumptions about what those audiences value. Gore has experienced those biases firsthand. As a Black man with a life-long passion for being out in nature, he is accustomed to looks of surprise or mistrust from those with preconceived notions about what a wildlife biologist, hiker, or nature enthusiast should look like.

While his experiences can help him connect with others who have been made to feel unwelcome or out of place in nature, he recognizes that the uniform and badge he wears as a national wildlife refuge manager can be a barrier for building trust.

“How do you break that barrier? You break it by going into the community,” Gore said.

By meeting with people on their terms first, you start to build that trust, especially if you walk in demonstrating an openness to their concerns.

Philly Nature Kids, an environmental education partnership led by Heinz, provides classroom lessons and on-site programs for local elementary schools, and continuously evaluates and refines the programming to meet the needs of the students. Photo: USFWS

But success is about more than being seen as a friendly neighbor. “For me and my team, success is the community seeing us as a partner, as part of the community,” Gore said. “We see that in how the community talks about the refuge, and about conservation and what it means to them.”

It goes back to those root standards: Know and relate to the community. Be a community asset.

In that sense, success is the community and the center seeing each other’s long-term goals — for clean air, clean water, resilience, and safe recreational opportunities — as intertwined.

If the relationship evolves toward mutual benefits, people will see the center as a place that’s safe to visit, and just as important, a place they want to visit. Because as Grant LaRouche explained, it reflects their values too.

A woman standing among a group of others smiles and raises her hand
Jeannett Guess, the vice president of the Friends of Heinz Refuge, was never encouraged to visit the refuge when she was growing up in Philadelphia, and is glad the staff has worked to change its image in the community.

“These are people who already care about conservation, but haven’t had an avenue for making a difference because it’s blocked in so many places,” said LaRouche, National Wildlife Federation’s Director of Conservation Partnerships in the Mid-Atlantic region.

“That’s why the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund was such a great fit for this project — the heart of that program is changing the watershed for the good of fish, wildlife, and people, and you can’t do that without engaging communities and understanding their challenges and needs,” he said.

By building upon the Standards of Excellence and the vision of the Alliance, which was founded in 2017 to foster collaboration and learning among environmental educators in the watershed, the project provides both a framework and accountability for those involved.

A map indicating the locations of nature centers
The Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River is a network of 23 centers united by a river, and a desire to collaborate. View the map online.

“The project will never lose that internal aspect of considering, how do we do this well, where are we not being inclusive, where do we lack cultural competency to relate to communities we want to reach,” LaRouche explained. “But we want to move quickly into the external realm where we are actively working with and learning from these communities.”

The project will focus on a subset of the 23 environment and nature centers in the Alliance — those that are either located in urban areas, or where staff have expressed a desire to dig deep into this topic. Ideally both, like Berks Nature.

Boy crouching on the edge of a creek
Students from the Olivet Boys & Girls Club in Reading, Pennsylvania, search for aquatic life on a field trip. Credit: Berks Nature

For Murphy, doing the work to get to the heart of a community is really about fulfilling a long-term vision. “We realized a couple of decades ago that we needed to engage the next generation in conservation in order to succeed,” she said.

In the past two decades, Berks Nature opened The Nature Place, launched a nature preschool and a summer camp, established community gardens in the city, and more. But Murphy said, “We can always do better, and we really want to be thoughtful about engaging more youth to be part of this work.”

While each nature center and community is unique, working from shared standards will ensure that organizations like Berks Nature are moving in the right direction to develop lasting relationships.

“We have tremendous respect for the partnership Lamar has built at Heinz,” Murphy said. “So to take that model and apply it to other centers in the Alliance is a great opportunity.”

Together, they will set a new standard.

This story is part of an ongoing series highlighting projects supported by the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund that together show, when it comes to creating a sustainable future for wildlife and people, the whole is great than the sum of its parts.



Bridget Macdonald
Conserving the Nature of the Northeast