Mercer County coalition tries to bridge equity gap through environmental programs

The Mercer County Coalition for Environmental Equity and Inclusivity is comprised of the Mercer County Park Commission, local land trusts, service organizations, and school officials throughout Mercer County.PHOTO COURTESY OF MERCER COUNTY
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The Mercer County Coalition for Environmental Equity and Inclusivity is comprised of the Mercer County Park Commission, local land trusts, service organizations, and school officials throughout Mercer County.PHOTO COURTESY OF MERCER COUNTY

A local Mercer County coalition has been working to bridge the equity gap in the county through new experiences with nature and the outdoors.

The Mercer County Coalition for Environmental Equity and Inclusivity is trying to develop a model that can be used countywide and statewide for connecting people of color, different ages, incomes and races to their public park systems.

“Lisa Wolff (director of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space) and I along with some other were talking about seeing the same population on our public lands and parks. We are not seeing a whole lot of people of color, which particularly concerned me as a man of color,” said Aaron Watson, co-chair of the coalition and executive director of the Mercer County Parks Commission.

According to Watson, a key question has been raised by members of the coalition is “Why aren’t people of color really caring about the environment?”

“When we start trying to connect the children and youth to things that we should be caring about in terms of the environment it really saddens me that I can walk into Trenton Central High School and try to get a group of kids to come out to a hike with me and they are afraid that they will be eaten by a grizzly bear,” he said. “We are trying to bridge that gap.”

The coalition not only is working on exposing individuals to more experiences with the outdoors, but quality of life issues and career opportunities within the environmental fields.

“These issues are going to be so important particularly to the urban areas when you start to think about drinking water and particulate matter. This group is trying to be an incubator for that sort of talent,” Watson said. “We need to bring all of the resources we have to bear and create this model that can be used across the country and statewide.”

One of the first joint collaborative programs was a program with the Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs of Mercer County, Hopewell Valley School District, Mercer County Park Commission and FoHVOS called Building Conservation through Diversity and Teamwork.

“We had this wonderful forum that brought kids together so they could appreciate the public lands and see things they may not have normally encountered in their life. They participated in green infrastructure projects and work collaboratively with students on other projects that improve the quality of life and encourage career opportunities.”

The program currently is a high school internship designed for students to perform restoration, build trails, monitor water quality and engage in citizen science through land stewardship, according to FoHVOS.

Even as the coalition navigates the new landscape with the current pandemic, some of the internship’s education program has been reformatted for a virtual platform due to training sessions being cut short by the crisis.

“We were scheduled to do a training session on a phone app called iNaturalist prior to the outbreak and we will now do the class over Zoom next week,” said Lisa Wolff, co-chair of coalition and executive director of FoHVOS. “They will take their smartphone and scan a flower or insect and identify it. The information will also be logged.”

The coalition is comprised of local nonprofits, youth organizations, school and local officials throughout Mercer County.

“We have been meeting because we knew there was an issue and considering the current state of events racial justice, right now is the time for people to find out about our coalition,” Wolff said. “The concept of the coalition of environmental justice has been around for a long time. There is no question that urban communities have bore the brunt of environmental practices for ages.”

She pointed to Trenton as an example of a community bearing one of those negative impacts.

“The quality of water in Trenton is bad. The point is they do not have clean water, they have lead in their water and the air is polluted,” Wolff said. “To have any decent quality of life they need to have at least an equitable environmental impact.”

Wolff added that the coalition will look to expand and develop future programs as the group forges ahead in 2020.

For more information about the coalition, contact Lisa Wolff at lwolff@fohvos.org and or Watson at awatson@mercercounty.org.