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Public Health Scholars Seek to Increase Outdoor Participation Among People of Color
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The name of a new University of Maryland research center is rooted in West Africa, but its promise to offer deeper understanding of the human-nature connection will come to fruition in College Park and around the country.
The Wekesa (which means “born during harvest time”) Earth Center will conduct research on the connection between nature and wellness, offer programming that offers people new ways to interact and feel a belongingness with the natural world, and discuss the ways that land-based brutalities and injustices like lynchings or forced exiles of Indigenous people have manipulated the land as a tool of creating harm and perpetuating anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.
In recognition of her nature scholarship, Associate Professor of kinesiology Jennifer Roberts received a grant of $160,000 from REI’s Cooperative Action Fund, the nonprofit branch of the outdoors company, to establish the center. The Wekesa Earth Center will be led by Roberts and Shannon Jette, also an associate professor of kinesiology in the School of Public Health.
The fund supports organizations that seek to rectify the longstanding exclusion of people of color from activities like hiking, mountain biking or climbing, and promotes justice, equity and belonging in the outdoors. A 2021 Outdoor Industry Association survey found that nearly 75% of people who participated in outdoor activities are white.
Wekesa (pronounced WEEK-a-sah) will officially launch this month with on-campus forest bathing, in which people spend time in nature for physiological and spiritual well-being. This fall, the center will host a workshop at Abiquiu, N.M.’s Ghost Ranch, most famous for its association with artist Georgia O’Keeffe. There, 25 scholars will discuss topics like green space, belongingness, ecological reparations and nature justice.
Wekesa will also support nature-based curricula like “Black Bodies and Green Spaces: From 1619 to Today,” an Honors College course Roberts teaches that examines how systemic racism has shaped the experience, connection and relationship to nature among Black Americans, as well as Jette’s “History of Physical Culture, Sport, and Science in America” course.
The center represents an expansion of Roberts’ and Jette’s NatureRx@UMD, a chapter of a national movement encouraging people to go outside to improve their mental health.
“With NatureRX, we have a similar focus on the importance of green space and mental health,” Jette said. “It’s important to consider not only the benefits of these green spaces but who has access to them. Wekesa Earth Center was kind of this natural, next step.”
Roberts has also added a personal touch to the center. Its communications arm, which will share nature news, stories and research with communities and media outlets, is named Zorabelle’s Garden in honor of Roberts’ great-grandmother.
Allison Eatough contributed to this article.
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