November 2, 2020|By Stacia Turner

Strengthening Conservation and Community Advocacy Through Parks During COVID-19

The Conservation Fund’s Parks with Purpose program helps build capacity for community leaders and grassroots organizations in socially and environmentally sensitive urban areas to become empowered voices to make decisions about greenspaces and natural resources in their communities. Parks with Purpose also works to diversify who is represented in the field of conservation leadership.

Stacia Turner serves as Urban Conservation Project Manager on the Parks with Purpose team, and she has a personal passion for community organizing and advocacy work. We asked her to tell us more about her work during these uncertain times.

What does a typical day or week look like for you?

Parks with Purpose is a mix of a program, a capacity building entity, and a funder, and this variety means that no days or weeks are the same. One thing I do weekly is lead many collaborative calls with our city project partners. Another of my consistent jobs is to “rally the troops” internally to make sure that all projects are moving along as smoothly as possible. My weeks are a mix of many phone calls and person-to-person interaction with our community leaders to better know how we can support them and broadcast the important work they are doing. We want to make their work easier and more fluid and also contribute to them growing important skillsets.

11 2 20 CHERYOUTHHike PeerExchange2019 PhotoCred KelsiEcclesRaleigh nature walk led by Neighborhood Ecology Corps youth at 2019 Peer Exchange. Photo by Kelsi Eccles.

 

How have COVID-19 restrictions impacted your ability to work with communities?

We are in a better groove now, but it has been challenging, because a large part of our work was typically done through in-person meetings. When we work with the Southeast region’s most vulnerable communities, the reality of the digital divide is apparent. We have been encouraging our partners to consider who might be missing from the conversation now that we are doing everything digitally. We also help communities with limited or no internet access obtain the technology resources they need to stay engaged through virtual communication. We have received COVID-19 relief from one of our main funders and we were able to redistribute resources such as tablets and Zoom subscriptions to many of our lead grassroots partners and community members.

We have been challenged with answering the question of how to keep people engaged considering COVID-19 and also civil unrest. Green spaces are more important than ever before, because they contribute to our mental and physical health and well-being. How do you address the needs of the community when there are ongoing questions about how to do that safely?


We continue to foster and nurture relationships with our partners and community leaders, but being creative about how we do that during a pandemic has been challenging. I reach out to our community leaders frequently to check on their needs for additional support, and also to check on them personally. We have centralized our communication about the balance between the need for communities to stay active in our parks and green spaces while respecting the guidelines for social distancing.

11 2 20 IMG 2842Socially distanced community engagement event sponsored by The Conservation Fund and Anacostia Park & Community Collaborative. Photo by Stacia Turner.


What have been some of the direct lows and unexpected highs due to our ever-changing restrictions for COVID-19?

One downside has been lost funding due to decreasing budgets, and this has meant having to get creative about filling those funding gaps. For example, the City of Raleigh, North Carolina abandoned municipal proposition initiatives to support a park bond this year. The park bond will likely be revisited in the future, but this is an allotment of funding that was earmarked to support our park project that is now an even larger question mark in terms of the municipal match funding that will be allotted to the project.

One positive effect is that we have created deeper relationships with community partners and leaders. We have also been able to invite more people into our Watershed Learning Network, since it is exclusively online, and now two of our D.C. partners are participating in our Durham Watershed Network cohort! We also are creating more time to evaluate our work and efficiency with things like our digital communications and marketing.

 

Where do you see the most need in the work that you do right now?

There needs to be a shift so that communities can be at the center of making decisions for themselves around conservation, natural resources, and planning. I’ve seen the discord between the way environmental justice and natural resource equity are talked about and what happens in practice. Part of my work is trying to fill the gaps with centering community ethics and autonomy to facilitate better discussions and outcomes.

The way this work has been traditionally structured creates hierarchy and technocracy, which isn’t creating space for communities to thrive and become independent in decision making about land and natural resource conservation in urban contexts. Our society and marketplace have been structured so that there is a heavy-handed approach of outside professional experts to come in and take control in leadership and decision-making capacities. These outside experts need to challenge themselves to create better relationships with the communities they are serving. It is important have community members and leaders along with grassroots organizations be the ones leading these critical discussions and expressing what they want to see for their communities.

At The Conservation Fund we are doing this work, which really keeps my professional and personal drive going. The Fund’s good reputation gets our foot in the door to be a part of discussions surrounding topics such as resource planning and urban design. Our strong relationships with municipal partners, government agencies, and philanthropy allows us to leverage our values and facilitate collaborative work that empowers community members and leaders to have a seat at the table and be an important part of conversations related to planning and development of urban parks, environmental advocacy, and conservation.

11 2 20 CentennialPic.2JPGGarrett Park Centennial Celebration, Fall 2019. Photo by Stacia Turner.


What continues to give you hope through this pandemic?

Our network has been allowed to create deeper interconnections, and peer-to peer learning has also been elevated across the cities where we work due to more digital engagement. We have seen our grassroots partners be leaders in other areas, by being able to shift focus to meet the current needs of the community. It’s been great to see how those in leadership have been able to rise to occasion and adjust quickly while gaining new skillsets in the process.


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During the preparation of this profile for publication, we learned that our colleague, Stacia Turner, had been offered an opportunity she could not turn down. While we are sad to bid farewell to a terrific Fund colleague and young leader, we are delighted that we will continue to collaborate with her as she builds her career at one of our partner organizations.
- Erik Meyers, Vice President, Climate and Water Sustainability for The Conservation Fund

 


Did you miss the previous two posts in our series? You can catch up now:

#1: A Forester’s Work is Never Done… Even During a Pandemic
by Olivia Fiori, Forest Technician for The Conservation Fund

“I feel comforted knowing that as our work proceeds, we are continuing to transform the landscape into a healthier ecosystem, while stimulating and keeping the local economy engaged during a global pandemic.”

– Olivia Fiori


#2: Conservation During the Pandemic: Renewed Appreciation for Land and Open Space
by Clint Miller, the Fund’s Midwest Project Director

“The pandemic has presented us with opportunities to rethink how we do business… One great development is that people are having a renewed appreciation for the land, and so many people are out there accessing the outdoors for relief and recreation.”

- Clint Miller