“We are nature…what are we without nature? Together, regardless of race and culture and all that. I mean it’s pretty self-explanatory.” Magali Rocha, age 19, Groundwork Denver Green Team youth supervisor.
Urban areas that may otherwise look like concrete jungles are thriving with diversity from the standpoint of nature as well as people. It is crucial that everyone knows they have a voice, so we created a platform where people can show us how they connect to nature in urban areas and beyond.
This summer, high school students from the Denver Metro area working with Groundwork Denver (GWD) helped show us what nature means to them. Photography was the medium through which they could have the most powerful voice while crossing generational, cultural and racial barriers.
“The reason I take photos is a way to show, I want people to see what I see. I think the best way is through my photos. It’s powerful.”
Both, Magali Rocha, 19 and Braylen Aldridge, 25 were all students with Groundwork Denver in high school and now mentor younger students as group leaders. They are joined by another Groundwork Denver Green Team youth supervisor, Jai Phillips, 23.
Magali believes that to engage youth and connect them to nature, photography is invaluable.
“I think the best way is pictures. I know that social media plays a huge role in how a lot of teens think. I know that when I share photos, a lot of people ask me ‘Oh, where is that at?’ and ‘That’s so cool.’ I think that once my friends saw me posting cool pictures of me being outdoors, they wanted to do the same.”
Introducing #WeAreNature Campaign
Our #WeAreNature and #MyWild photo campaign aimed to do just that. We can learn a lot from our nation’s young adults, and here’s what they have to say.
How does nature make you feel? “Peaceful, definitely peaceful” Magali.
“ I just have a lot of respect for nature for how if it was uninterrupted, that it would just work perfectly, and it would benefit us too. Because we are meant to coexist with nature but every twist and turn we choose not to… I guess to be cool.” –Braylen Aldridge, age 24.
Students in the Groundwork Denver Green Team program spend the summer embodying environmental stewardship on public lands through projects focused on trail maintenance, invasive species removal, historic preservation, fire mitigation, and other habitat management practices. For many, it’s their first time experiencing public lands in-person and exploring nature beyond the urban environments where they live or grew up.
Magali said that after her first time in Rocky Mountain National Park “I was hooked; I was like, I want to work here. It was my first time hiking. Just the view was beautiful.”
Yet her experiences with Groundwork have been influential beyond career exploration. “It changed my life, really,” she adds. “I got exposed to eating healthy and being active.”
While the students are hard at work, they are also taking the time to explore nature on their public lands. From smelling their first vanilla-scented Ponderosa Pine, to camping for the first time and mountain biking, the students’ eyes were wide open with enthusiasm to explore and learn.
After a long work day doing trail maintenance, students stopped along the trail to play in the creek. They took off their shoes and splashed around in the crisp, cold water.
“This is the most I’ve ever loved water before,” said one of the students.
“It’s always nice to go into the mountains so you can see the scope of it all. When you are decently high up you can see the other mountains in the background, kind of like when you go to the beach and you are actually seeing the ocean. It looks painted to me, but it still looks really cool.” Braylen, 24.
Through working on the land and exploring nature, Groundwork Denver youth employees also learn important life skills such as teamwork, leadership, and problem solving. They are growing and maturing through this program. Group leader, Jai says that for him, “nature helps a lot with bad habits, I can tell you that. It keeps you cool and it keeps your peace of mind and that’s what I like about it.”
This summer was Jai’s first time camping with the students. “I love the camp and the campfire that we did,” he notes reflectively. “We were just laughing at crazy stuff. I wish we had lights so we could record it just so we could have it forever because that was pretty dope. That was my highlight, and watching the sunset and just chilling.”
Jai says, “When you can see it, that’s when it becomes intriguing in my eyes.That’s why I like this ‘we are nature’ project.” #WeAreNature refers to “anything living, anything breathing. I feel like we are connected to that, we are nature… I feel like as human beings ourselves, we kind of run it, we have to maintain it, we own it, this is how we protect it and make sure it’s okay. And we all gotta know and push, and that’s why I respect the Fish and Wildlife and Groundwork Denver, the youth corps and all of the other groups that are promoting stuff like this, because it’s important. We have to protect our land.”
Through the Groundwork program, the students become stewards in their communities, reconnecting with nature and learning new aspects of themselves. To truly understand one’s place in this world and in nature is to experience it firsthand — to go outside and watch the sunset and see the mountain views. But if you can’t do that because don’t have access or don’t know how, seeing it through a photograph is the next best thing. And viewing someone familiar who you can relate to, being a part of nature, connects you to nature as well.
#WeAreNature reminds us that we are all a part of the natural world. Being in nature is being a part of the unique plants, animals, and places that the USFWS aims to protect and conserve for the American people.
Being a part of nature makes you feel wild. #MyWild is your story. It is ownership of what calls you to protect wild places in nature. It is unique to every individual.
Through telling these stories, students began to shift their lenses. To see nature in a new way, to aim to capture it and personally define what it means to you, we can all have a voice and work on the behalf of wild places to ensure they remain healthy and captivating for future generations, because We Are Nature.
Ways to Share Your Story
Join our Photovoice project! Share photos about how you connect/explore/access nature in your own community. Post your photo on social media using the hashtags #WeAreNature and #MyWild and tag us @USFWS
Article by Gabrielle Roffe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lakewood, Colorado.