On her first day of fishing on an outing with Nature for New Minnesotans, student Arati caught several bullheads. CREDIT: Our Saviour’s Community Services

Within minutes of casting her line into the bright green algae-covered waters of Powderhorn Lake, Arati watched her bobber lurch below the surface. 

The first fish got away with the worm, but on the next tug, Arati lifted a 4-inch-long bullhead out of the lake. The other eight new fishers on the dock cheered, and Arati grinned as she proceeded to hook fish after fish. She kept smiling even as her fishing guide from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources showed her how to unhook the fish and toss it back in–slimy work.

Like everyone at the lake that day, Arati is new to the U.S. and Minnesota. She came to this fishing day through Nature for New Minnesotans, a pilot project developed by the University of Minnesota’s Extension services and a language class at Our Saviour’s Community Services English Learning Center.  

Many programs with similar aims have popped up across the country in response to the “nature gap” between affluent, mostly white Americans and less wealthy communities of color, especially those new to the country. But racial gaps in outdoor participation haven’t seemed to budge, so the University of Minnesota is testing a new formula: partnering with established English language classes to offer an in-depth curricula about local natural history. 

These Nature for New Minnesotans classes culminate in a hands-on experience like getting a fishing license and learning to cast and fish. 

A year into the three-year pilot program, about 25 students have participated through English-language classes at Literacy Minnesota in St. Paul and Our Saviour’s Community Services in Minneapolis. The students come with a range of language backgrounds, from Karen to Somali to Spanish. This fall, the program will start expanding to include other language partners, including Neighborhood House in St. Paul, the International Institute of Minnesota in St. Paul, and Pillsbury United Communities in Minneapolis. The aim is to serve between 100 and 200 students a year. 

So far, feedback from participants is positive. Students rave about a class visit to the Bell Museum, where many later returned with friends and family members; an outing to Indian Mounds Regional Park; and even a camping trip to Lake Itasca.

Bridging the ‘nature gap’

Many Minnesotans gain their outdoor education through the University of Minnesota Extension. This division of the University began in 1909 in the department of agriculture*. Its goal: to teach Minnesotans about farm life, outside University classrooms. Since 2005, one of Extension’s most popular offerings has been a program for “master naturalists”: a 40-hour course that trains adults to become outdoor volunteers and citizen ecologists.  

An internal evaluation of the Extension programs, in 2018, looked at participant demographics and raised a troubling observation. In their public outreach work, master naturalists were primarily reaching highly educated, wealthy, older, white Minnesotans. 

This finding matched other research into race, access, and Minnesota’s outdoor culture. A 2017 Minneapolis study by University of Minnesota researchers and a 2019 survey commissioned by the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board describe barriers to parks and nature. And a 2020 report commissioned by Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF) and the Center for American Progress, confirmed that such barriers create racial and economic gaps across the country. 

Why does it matter? Access to nature offers a host of health and environmental benefits—although a recent review shows that most studies examining the mental health benefits of nature focus on white populations in the Northern Hemisphere.

That’s not to say that the gap doesn’t exist; the evidence base is strong that it does. But the results are biased toward white norms, said study author Carlos Andres Gallegos-Riofrío, a postdoctoral fellow in environmental studies at the University of Vermont. 

Without a global base of study participants, it’s hard to know for sure if the mental health benefits of nature appear only in specific communities and populations. “How can we know what’s universal to our species?” Gallegos-Riofrío said. 

There could be more culturally specific benefits that research hasn’t uncovered, he said. And different cultures view nature very differently: Many indigenous people, for example, consider the planet a being, not an object. Although the research may be flawed, experts agree that access to nature is likely essential for all.

Lucas Rapisarda is a conservation science Ph.D. student who is leading Nature for New Minnesotans. In starting this new initiative, Rapisarda looked where previous efforts—despite good intentions—appear to have failed. One-off “learn to canoe” lessons, for example, rarely result in lifelong paddlers, he said. 

“Outdoor partners are desperate to find people to take outside and they are failing because they lack avenues to communities and vice versa,” he said. “Programs that I have seen that try and increase access sort of plop newcomers into an experience and say, ‘OK, great, you’ve gone canoeing, good job!’ And then leave them.”

Rapisarda is taking a longer-term approach with this pilot project, which taps into a $293,000 grant from  Minnesota’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF). To help foster deeper connections to nature, he decided on a multi-prong plan: natural history lessons through established English language classes, practical information on how to access the outdoors, and a capstone outdoor experience. 

Rapisarda says he struggled to find an established adult natural history curriculum for English language learners. So he started developing a new 12-lesson module. The modules are presented in five or six sessions over 12–15 hours. He’s also hoping to add shorter options that focus primarily on access. 

The classroom lessons are time intensive, but essential in maintaining a long-term habit of getting outdoors, Rapisarda said.

“If you’re going canoeing, that’s great,” he said. ”But if you also know a little about the watershed and impacts of pollution on water, why it’s important to conserve and protect water, it makes the connection to the activity that much stronger.”

The result, he hopes: People will be “much more likely to participate again.” 

Teaching a person to fish involves more than baiting a hook

Getting into the outdoor world in Minnesota may seem easy. But, in fact, many rules and social norms govern how we access outdoor activities. And a lot of that complexity goes unnoticed by people who were born here, says Jessica Jones, lead ESL teacher at Literacy Minnesota.

“We have a city that’s full of pretty amazing natural environment, but it’s still intimidating,” Jones said.” Students will have plenty of questions, she added: “‘Can I park in this parking lot? What activities am I allowed to do and not allowed to do?’”

Take fishing. A successful experience includes knowing when and where you’re allowed to fish, getting a fishing license, and having access to a fishing pole with bait and tackle. You need to know what types of fish are legal to keep and healthy to eat and what should be released. (Some immigrants may have extensive familiarity with fishing; but they may not know what kind of fishing is permissible or successful in Minnesota.) And people need transportation options to get there: Not everyone will want to haul a 7-foot pole and an ice chest onto a Metro Transit bus.

All this knowledge can present barriers to people who moved to Minnesota as adults and who are learning to speak English.

The Powderhorn Park outing, then, included a day of vocabulary lessons, a trip to a hardware store to buy licenses (paid for by the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge), a presentation at the lake by the Department of Natural Resources, and a casting and fishing lessons on the shore. The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge also provided gear for the participants to keep.

Recent immigrants learn to fish at Powderhorn Park. CREDIT: Our Saviour’s Community Services

Another key to success: The instructor has first-hand experience with the complexity of going fishing as a new Minnesotan.

Mary Yang, a community outreach apprentice with the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, learned to fish with her family in Kansas City. Her parents came to the U.S. from Thailand and Laos in the 1980s already knowing how to fish. But they needed to switch from the nets and wooden sticks they’d used in Southeast Asia to the kind of rods and tackle used in the U.S. And they needed to learn about fishing limits, and what types of fish are safe to eat. 

“It is important to learn about fishing because the regulation is different in each state,” said Yang in an email interview a few days after the fishing outing. “Some regulation in Minnesota prohibits you from catching a specific fish during certain times.”

It’s worth it, she said. After all, this is Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes.

“You can walk anywhere and fish anything with patience and fun,” she said. Yang emphasizes that people can fish for food or just for sport. 

“We want to engage and help families to explore new sports or activities,” she said. 

From the classroom to camping 

Each session of Nature for New Minnesotan ends with an experience in the outdoors, from fishing to canoeing to camping. So far, this field trip has proved to be the most popular element of the classes.

On a beautiful Friday in August, for example, six Literacy Minnesota students joined Jones and Rapisarda to pack up a van and head out of the Twin Cities. Their destination: Itasca State Park, home of the Mississippi headwaters, about four hours north of Minneapolis. For four of the participants, it was the first time they’d left the metro area, despite having lived here for years. None of them had been camping before. 

That night, the group hiked to the headwaters of the Mississippi and watched the sun set. 

I’m proud to be in Minnesota when I saw the headwaters of the Mississippi, because I learned that a big thing can start from such a small thing.

—Naw Lah, a recent participant in Nature for New Minnesotans

“I’m proud to be in Minnesota when I saw the headwaters of the Mississippi because I learned that a big thing can start from such a small thing,” said student Naw Lah, 38, who moved to Minnesota from Myanmar 10 years ago. “It started as just small and very shallow and it goes all the way through to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Experiencing Itasca State Park, she said, left her feeling happy to pay the state taxes that preserve such places. She posted a 17-minute video of the trip on Facebook, and hopes to bring her husband and school-age kids back.

By 2024, Rapisarda hopes to have an established curriculum that is flexible, engaging, and easy to implement. Teacher training workshops should debut next summer. In the meantime, an evaluator will assess whether the program is providing support for English language teachers. They’ll also measure students’ perceptions about the program and ask how confident they are in traveling to outdoor destinations, trying new activities, and increasing their local environmental knowledge. 

Back in the classroom after the Itasca trip, the students wrote essays about their experience. Student Naw Sopheia Htut wrote about the prospect of bringing family to visit the headwaters.

“I still can’t forget the view I saw,” Htut said. “Even though I am at home, my mind is in Itasca Park.”

*CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the University of Minnesota Extension is not affiliated with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred writes stories about health equity for Sahan Journal. As a freelance journalist, she has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, NPR, STAT News and...