As a soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division, Oakland native Freddy Mesa found himself at a month-long training camp in the Mohave Desert. There, he experienced flash flooding, and saw rattlesnakes and scorpions for the first time. Exposure to the outdoors, he says, helped him find peace amidst the trauma of being a young Black man in an urban city. “Seeing things you’ve never seen before—the trees, the animals, the sounds—that was healing.”
Today, Mesa is an Outdoor Leadership Instructor and board member at Bay Area Wilderness Training, an organization that cultivates outdoor leaders and loans out camping and hiking gear and, under a program called Oakland Goes Outdoors, takes students out into nature. Launched last year with funding from the San Francisco Foundation, Oakland Goes Outdoors aims to take 7,200 public middle school students on regular outdoor excursions. With its district-wide focus, the program is one of the first of its kind in the nation.
As people across the world stand up to ongoing racial injustice and protest for meaningful system changes, Mesa says that it’s more important than ever for students of color to experiencing the healing power of nature. “George Floyd couldn’t breathe because of physical oppression,” he says. “My students can’t breathe because of institutional racism. Their emotional necks are being stepped on, but when they go into the woods, they can breathe again.”
A growing body of research has found that outdoor environmental experiences offer children a range of social-emotional, spiritual, and academic benefits. Children who spend time outdoors exhibit improved attentiveness, reduced school absenteeism, and better academic performance. For Oakland Unified School District, this is great news since this program is perfectly suited to positively impact the lives of every middle school student in the district and with continued contributions, can expand to include all of the students in the district.
Mesa and the program’s three dozen trained middle school teachers and after school staff have witnessed nature’s healing powers for many participants. One sixth-grade student on a camping trip in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park, Mesa recalls, had experienced severe trauma that affected his ability to learn in a traditional classroom setting. But, once immersed in nature, he was able to concentrate, engage and communicate, and take on leadership roles during the outing.
Outdoor experiences at an early age help develop lifelong environmental stewardship. The pre-teen years, when many kids start spending less time outdoors and more time on screens, provide a pivotal time to kindle this sense of responsibility.
“Our students are able to find a love for nature and become caretakers and stewards of the wild,” says Mesa. “That’s what humans were put on the world to do.”
The San Francisco Foundation supports Oakland Goes Outdoors with funding from its Youth Access to Nature Fund. For more information, please contact Francesca Vietor at fvietor[at]sff.org.