Detroiter Antonio Rafael aims to get kids to see l...

Detroiter Antonio Rafael aims to get kids to see leaders of color in the outdoors

"There is something important that happens to students when they see professionals, scientists, who look like them.”

One of the main cries during the COVID-19 pandemic has been to enjoy the healing benefits of nature, but for many urban Black and Brown youths, immersing themselves in nature beyond asphalt is not a real option. At one time, people could count on schools to provide nature options beyond the neighborhood, but school budget cuts have diminished that possibility. The Detroit Leadership and Environmental Education Program is filling the gap specifically for BIPOC students and doing so unashamedly.

D-LEEP is an initiative of the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center that works with schools to provide outdoor nature experiences and in-class learning that also exposes BIPOC students to green/STEM careers. D-LEEP Director Antonio Rafael told Planet Detroit that he selects schools for the program based on a set of criteria, including staff who look like the students and environmental science teachers who support his vision.

Antonio Rafael. Courtesy D-LEEP.

“I want the students to see leaders of color as much as possible in all ways,” Rafael said. “I do believe there is something important that happens to students when they see professionals, scientists, who look like them.” He also aims to teach students not just about the conception of nature but also about systems, the native land, and local seasons.

His own background supports his convictions. Rafael, who identifies as Mexican and Puerto Rican, grew up in Southwest Detroit. Though there wasn’t great access to nature in his neighborhood, he said his family would go camping once a year. The sports-oriented family participated on athletic teams, with his dad serving as his elementary school athletic director, but “I was the kid who was out in the field chasing butterflies, looking in fields. I was that guy.”

His family was civically engaged and he learned to love nature from his grandmother, who took him to Huron-Clinton Metroparks and “tried to recreate Puerto Rico in her garden” in the United States. He took that spirit of engagement with him to Eastern Michigan University, where he studied economics and was a student activist. 

When he graduated in 2012, Detroit was going into bankruptcy. He found himself involved in the fight to resist the city’s emergency manager, water shutoffs, and more recently in Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality.

Rafael told Planet Detroit that during his active protest years he recognized community organizing around public spaces. A few years later he and others in those spaces came together to form Black to the Land, “a coalition of Black, Indigenous and People of Color nature enthusiasts, intent on helping fellow BIPOC actively engage in meaningful outdoor adventures,” as its mission states. 

The NWF Federation noticed his work as an activist and independent contractor teaching about the links between ecology and economics at universities and with other groups. His main focus was always encouraging land stewardship and challenging his audience to think critically about how the condition of how the land came to be. Through a grant from a private funder, NWF hired him in 2019 as its education coordinator and he developed the curriculum that became D-LEEP.

 â€œThe years of activism were hard on me,” Rafael said. “Nature is a big part of healing. I’ve seen the transformative impact of nature on people. I’m a big fan of nature therapy.” So while Rafael educates students on nature and environmental issues, including the imbalance of BIPOC representation among environmental activism, he makes sure they also experience the healing part of nature.

“Conquering that divide requires beauty and fun, forging that relationship as much as possible,” Rafael said. In addition to in-class lessons and activities that now take place virtually, D-LEEP field trips have included visiting a Native American farm and going cross-country skiing and rock climbing.

Richard Louv, author of several books, including the 2005 seminal book “The Last Child Standing: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder to describe “the human costs of alienation from nature” and told Planet Detroit programs like D-LEEP are essential.

“It’s great to have someone else whose job it is to look for these opportunities and who looks for the funding to get them,” Williams said of Rafael. “I don’t know all these people he knows.”

Photo courtesy Antonio Rafael.

 â€œIronically, the coronavirus pandemic, as tragic as it is, has dramatically increased public awareness of the deep human need for nature connection – and is adding a greater sense of urgency to the movement to connect children, families, and communities to nature,” Louv said. “Every child needs nature. Not just the ones with parents who appreciate nature. Not only those of a certain economic class or culture or gender or sexual identity or set of abilities. Every child.”

Kerry Williams, a 10th-grade life science teacher at The School at Marygrove, said being a part of D-LEEP is “really a great adventure.” She appreciates Rafael’s approach of “not just talking about nature but being in nature,” which is her preferred method of inquiry — one that budget cuts and lack of time don’t allow her to delve into the way she’d like.

The 2019-2020 school year was the first year The School at Marygrove participated in D-LEEP. Williams, who is white, said she initially was rejected because “(Rafael) is looking at making the connection with the land and with people who look more like the students. I understand what he’s talking about. He wants the kids to see it’s not just privileged white kids that do this.”

COVID-19 has caused field trip attendance to decline because students can’t carpool, but they are still getting meaningful experiences, Williams said.

“It’s been more difficult during COVID,” Williams said. “One, we can’t have the kids in the same vehicle. The opportunities are there, but the number of kids this time is lower. When we do meet they have already been online all day.” The transportation challenge has shown her who is really committed. Williams said the students who show up have become leaders, checking on each other and seeing if their classmates have a ride.

D-LEEP does have money in its budget for transportation, but with the limit of only two students per vehicle, Rafael said that logistics has been difficult to overcome. The transportation challenge hasn’t kept Melvin Alston, 14, a 9th-grade student at The School at Marygrove, from attending D-LEEP field trips.

“So far it’s really fun. We’re doing things like saving trees and creating saps and using as little resources as possible, less water and things like that,” Alston said. “Mr. Antonio has been teaching me how to do a lot of things in the woods. He taught me how to chop wood. We also went skiing.” Alston said D-LEEP has helped him “realize a lot more in nature than I had before.

“I never really took the time to be outside and just enjoy nature, just to look around and enjoy the fresh air. The program has helped me just to see and touch nature a bit more. I appreciate nature more.”

This story was funded in part by the Solutions Journalism Network.

Rhonda J. Smith, a lifelong Detroiter who resides in the Russell Woods-Sullivan area, where she has served on the neighborhood association board, written for its newsletter, organized activities in its parks and provided residents with tax foreclosure prevention information. With a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in communication, she has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. Her work has appeared in outlets including The Detroit News, Newsday, Chicago Tribune and Wayne County Community College District publications. She was a 2019 Detour Detroit Emerging Voices Fellow.