In her recent presentation at the 2022 Park People Conference, Akiima Price called herself a “nature-based social worker,” quickly followed by the disclaimer “but I don’t have a degree in social work.”
What Akiima does have is three decades of leading community-centred park programs in economically stressed communities. In her presentation at the 2022 Conference, Akiima spoke about the Friends of Anacostia Park program she designed in her role as a consultant with the National Park Foundation. At the 2023 Park People Conference, Akiima will be featured in a Keynote Presentation on designing meaningful park programs that serve parks and the needs of equity-deserving communities.
Presentation of Akiima Price on « Nature and Engagement in Economically Stressed Communities » at the 2022 Park People Conference.
Akiima’s career began as a National Park Service Interpretation Ranger at Lake Mead Recreation Centre just outside of Las Vegas. According to National Park Service literature, the role of park interpreter exists to “help park visitors learn to care about park resources so they might support the care for park resources.”
Did you catch the importance of ‘park resources’ in that role?
Throughout her career, Akiima has resisted “park resources” being the sole focus of her national park work. When working with economically stressed communities, Akiima elevates the importance of reciprocity. As she said in her 2022 presentation: “the community isn’t just a friend to the park, but the park is a friend to the community.”
The vast majority of the community surrounding Anacostia National Park is African American and experiences some of the greatest income disparities and health inequalities in the US. The life expectancy of those living close to the Anacostia River is five years lower than in the rest of Washington D.C and poverty, diabetes, and obesity rates are significantly higher. The systemic nature of racism is deeply embedded in Anacostia’s landscape where sewage left the Anacostia river severely polluted and interstate construction severed neighbourhoods’ access to the national park.
Given this context, Akiima questions why “park resources” should be at the centre of all park work. She asks: “As a human, you have to consider, how important is it that these kids can name five snakes if they have to process death on a regular and they’re fundamentally not safe?”
For Akiima, It’s a matter of where you put your focus.
Akiima has pushed the National Park Service to embrace a broader definition of the term ‘environment’ to include factors that deeply impact the lives of people living in economically stressed communities. Akiima’s definition of environment is far more inclusive. She defines it as: “the living and non-living things that make up your immediate surroundings.” Within this definition, as Akiima emphasized: “crack is an environmental issue,’ as are crime, drug use and incarceration.
Property of Akiima Price Consulting
This approach to “environmental issues” helped Akima design an exercise that invites participants to identify what she named the “powers and challenges” that exist both within the community and within the park.
The goal of the exercise is to identify solutions that match park and community needs and opportunities. For example, this exercise might inspire one to ask: “How could recreational activities in the park help address incarceration in the community?” This very question led to the design of a park program in which the National Reentry Network for Returning Citizens attended a late-night roller skating session in the park where park visitors were invited to design nature-based cards sent to incarcerated loved ones.
As Akiima emphasized, the ideas don’t always line up, but when they do, it’s magic.
“A lot of environmental groups will immediately say, well, we’re not social workers.” And while Akiima admits this is true, she encourages the organizations she works with to recognize the assets that exist right within the community. Just because the park service doesn’t have the answers doesn’t mean they’re off the hook for delivering programs of value to the community. As Akiima put it: “Hey, guess what, you can partner with people that do that work, right?”
Property of Akiima Price Consulting
As Akiima emphasizes, trusted community partners are essential to linking the community to the park. One prospective partner, the Office of Victim Services is hoping to engage victims of crime in mental-health-focused park walks that can provide an alternative form of relief to individuals who may avoid conventional talk therapy. As a secondary benefit, the park walks would help support the mental health of social workers who are particularly prone to burnout. That’s the kind of creative partnership that Akiima loves to create.
Akiima provided the above map of partners, which orders partners into priority, in waiting and future partners and recognizes both community and environmental organizations.
Embedded within the Friends of Anacostia Park members is the “Friends Corp.” The Corp are members of the community who receive both paid work and transferable skills by working in the park. Each member of the Corp is encouraged to pursue goals that link their gifts to the park, and each member of the Corp gets the support they need to achieve their goals.
Akiima has built-in efforts that elevate the profile and presence of the Corps within the park and the greater community. Corps members have been featured in simple baseball-type cards that highlight their relevant experiences in the park, and in the community. The cards helped the Corps members recognize the gifts and assets they bring to the park and helped community members build trusted relationships with Corp staff. As Akiima explained in her presentation, one Corps member Phyllis (pictured below) who previously experienced drug addiction was recognized as an “Addiction Recovery Advocate” on her card.
Phyllis is currently working on hosting Narcotics Anonymous meetings in Anacostia Park and this card helps build her credibility with the community she’s serving. As Akiima puts it: “She doesn’t have to have a Ph.D. for me to respect her. I have the utmost respect for these people because they have these incredible experts this incredible expertise that is extremely relevant in these communities.”
Property of Akiima Price Consulting
Akiima’s work has the National Park Service is reshaping how the organization thinks about inclusion. Akiima’s love for her community has fuelled her commitment to making sure that the needs of economically stressed communities are deeply embedded in the design of park programs. Akiima’s favourite quote sums up the love that underpins her approach: “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”
It’s no question which one Akiima is.
We’re delighted that Akiima will be a Keynote speaker at The Park People Conference in Toronto in 2023.