Cultivating Community

by Glenna Holstein, ANCA Board of Directors
and Menomonee Valley Branch Manager,
Urban Ecology Center — Milwaukee, WI


Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of Directions, the ANCA journal. Members can access the full issue via the member portal.


The biological definition of “community” is pretty simple — look it up and you’ll usually find something like “a group of interacting species living in the same place.” The societal definition of community is similar: Google will tell you that it’s “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.”

As nature centers, we tend to do a pretty good job of trying to understand, preserve, and enhance the biological communities we find near and around our centers: after all, most of our centers were created for just that purpose. Things can become much more challenging, though (and much more interesting!) when we turn our focus to the human communities that surround and interact with our centers.

What is our role in understanding, preserving, and enhancing those communities? I believe that is one of the most important questions facing nature centers today, and I think centers around the world are coming up with really interesting and wonderful answers to it; back at the ANCA summit in August, we had a great dialogue on this topic and it was amazing to hear the variety of approaches people are taking.

I work at the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we describe ourselves as an “environmental community center.” I deeply appreciate that categorization because, for me, what drew me to this field was equal parts love for nature and love for people, and I think the Urban Ecology Center positions itself at a really energizing intersection of the two. We have three centers in three neighborhoods within the city of Milwaukee, and each center focuses very specifically on their unique neighborhood. Our doors and our programs are open to people from all neighborhoods, of course, but we focus our school programming on schools within a two mile radius of each center, and we tailor our after-school and public program offerings to the varying interests we find in each neighborhood. We also intentionally make our centers free to visit, and try to make them feel like the “living room of the neighborhood” — in fact, as I write this article I’m sitting in our center’s living room while some kids from our neighborhood are playing with our board games next to me!

 Building community at the Urban Ecology Center — campers from the Young Scientist Club Family Camping TripBuilding community at the Urban Ecology Center: campers from the Young Scientist Club family camping trip

Understanding community

So, coming back to that question of “what is our role as nature centers in understanding, preserving, and enhancing our human communities?”, it’s no coincidence that understanding comes first. I believe it’s critical to us as nature centers to truly meet people where they are, in terms of ecological consciousness. Different people definitely have different experiences, different interests, and experience different barriers to enjoying and caring for the natural world, and as nature centers we have to understand those differences and adjust our approaches accordingly. There’s no one right way to learn about your community, but asking questions and listening are key. At the Urban Ecology Center, we meet with liaisons from our community schools twice a year, we host periodic community forums to invite people to give us feedback, and we have community advisory committees for each branch to help us really understand the nuances of each of our neighborhoods. Some of the best ideas for programming and outreach (and even our building designs!) have come out of these conversations, and we find, not surprisingly, that when people feel heard and valued, they like being here more!

Preserving community

As for preserving our communities, that’s a really interesting question. In the land stewardship context, you could describe preservation as making sure native plants and animals have a chance to thrive, and I believe it’s important that we think similarly about our human communities: making sure that the gifts our communities already have are honored and that our work as nature centers helps them thrive.

I’m particularly conscious of this as a white woman working in a community that is majority people of color. It is all too common in the nonprofit sector, particularly the environmental field, to have a bunch of white folks swoop in to communities of color with “all the answers” and then wonder why no one wants to learn what they have to teach, rather than honor the huge amounts of wisdom, creativity, and experience that already exist within a community and work together to build programming that is relevant and meaningful. At the Urban Ecology Center, we are constantly learning in this area, and we have found that some of our most successful programs and events have come through partnerships with community members or community organizations, building on what is already strong in our neighborhood.

Enhancing community

And what about enhancing communities? This may be the biggest and most important challenge of the three. Living as I do in a city plagued by segregation, disparity and systemic violence, within a country that feels paralyzed by political polarization, sometimes I find myself wondering, “Is this 'nature in your neighborhood' stuff really that important? Is it that relevant in a city whose deepest needs center on healing segregation and disparity?"

In the end, I do think that answer is “yes,” for two reasons.

The first is common ground. As a society, we tend to silo and section ourselves in a way that makes it extraordinarily difficult for us to see across the racial, economic and political divisions we create. At the Urban Ecology Center, we see our work as building common ground (sometimes literally!). Nature is a place where everyone can find something to enjoy. Using what we learn from community forums and conversations with neighbors, we try to create spaces where people who have different experiences can thrive together, and build something together. After all, you don’t have to agree on everything to be awed by the magnificent quiet after a fresh snowfall in the park.

The second reason I think this work is important is a really basic one: love. Life in all its forms — plant, animal, human, black, white, brown — is sacred and precious, and our survival as a society, and as a species, depends on us truly taking that belief as our centering tenet. We cannot make this world better if we don’t believe that the whole thing is worth loving!

The community we can build

As we steward our natural areas, striving to understand, preserve, and enhance them, we must work just as hard to be stewards of our human communities. When we are successful in this, the results can be incredible. People begin working and playing together across boundaries, enjoying and caring for the natural world.

When we do our work well, our (human) communities become more than just “a group of people living in the same place.” There is another definition of community, which is something like, “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” This is the kind of community that we have the potential to build, as nature centers (or “environmental community centers”), and it’s the kind of community that we will want to have, to build the world we need for the future.



This article was adapted from Directions, the ANCA journal that features news, trends in the field, and resources for ANCA members. Are you interested in becoming an ANCA member? See the benefits:

Member Benefits