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Growing up in Argentina, Gustavo Rosso played soccer in the streets like almost every other kid. There were no barriers: It didn’t require money or a parent to sign you up or drop you off. It didn’t even require special cleats. All that was needed was a ball.
But as a parent of soccer-aged kids in Minnesota, Rosso realized that a lot of kids here don’t have opportunities to play like that. So he decided to do something about it: He successfully pitched the idea of a no-cost, no-barriers camp to different park systems. Last week, 25 kids showed up for the first Futbol Fan MN camp in Bloomington.
“In Minnesota we’re lucky to have a diverse state where different minorities can feel welcome playing soccer,” Rosso said, “from African to Hmong to Asian communities and people native from this country.”
Park programming costs money: There are T-shirts, field fees, and coaches. But thanks to a Metropolitan Council grant program that began in 2019 to increase diversity and inclusion in parks, Rosso’s camp is just one of several free programs offered at various park systems in Minnesota this summer.
Individual park systems apply for grants and implement the projects. In 2021, the Met Council approved just over $2 million in grants for 23 programs. The programs include a drowning prevention class in St. Paul, a ski class at Battle Creek Regional Park, and a project to create more welcoming ways to access Theodore Wirth’s Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. The Met Council won’t give out grants this year so it can accumulate interest earnings on park funds and re-open the process in the fall of 2023.
The grants coincide with more parks systems using their own money to fund full-time staff positions who work in equity outreach. Most of the 10 parks departments associated with the Met Council, including Minneapolis’ and St. Paul’s park systems, employ a full-time equity specialist. Some smaller departments share that position with the city council.
Diversity and equity outreach is a big job: 3 out of every 4 visitors to state and national parks are white, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. A survey by the National Recreation and Parks Association showed that the biggest barrier to inclusivity is funding, followed by staffing. Met Council research in 2019 showed that investing in staff development and hiring diverse employees helps youth access parks more equitably.
Since outdoor spaces promote public health and personal wellbeing, it’s critical that everyone has equitable access to parks, said Met Council researcher Darcie Vandegrift.
“If some people are underserved [in parks], then we have a tremendous health inequity that we need to prioritize addressing,” Vandegrift said.
In 2015, the Three Rivers Park District hired Amanda Fong as community engagement supervisor to focus on increasing diversity and inclusion among its visitors. She became one of the first people in Minnesota hired for such a position; across the country, most park systems began creating similar positions after 2020.
Fong has noticed an increased awareness for equity in the outdoors over her seven years on the job.
“Outdoor and natural spaces haven’t been spaces where everyone has felt welcome,” she said. “There have been policies that excluded folks, and now there’s a lot more interest in working to change that.
Last month, May Yang-Lee became the first person hired as parks equity program coordinator in Washington County. She’s already realizing the impact of her job: She’s connected people with Spanish interpretation services, figured out that the free park pass program could reach more people if translated, and watched kids and adults from underrepresented communities paddle and ride bikes for the first time.
“The most important thing is having candid conversations with people–just trying to listen to what their needs are and incorporate them into different programs,” she said.
Met Council parks ambassador Amanda Lovelee, who coordinates equity efforts, leads a monthly video call between 10 park systems in the metro area, including regional systems such as Dakota County, Anoka County and Ramsey County. The Met Council created its equity position in 2018.
“It’s great to work with so many different colleagues doing different and interesting work,” Lovelee said. “Our region is pushing this work and putting money toward it, and these positions and funding do have impacts. Nationally there is also a huge movement around this.”
Although the group shares best practices and resources, they also recognize that much of their work is unique to their area and clientele. Met Council research shows that there’s no silver bullet in equity work, Lovelee said.
“It’s specific to specific communities,” Lovelee said. “It takes listening and trying not to tokenize a certain person. A Hmong person in St. Paul might not have the same needs as someone in Washington County. So it’s important that [each park system is] working with the community for what that community wants and needs.”
The Met Council conducted research in 2019 with 85 youth participants ages 12-20, 43 parents and guardians, and leaders from youth organizations. Researchers found that highly trained staff could reduce barriers and make parks more welcoming and accessible.
“Young people and adults bring prior experiences to parks and trails,” said Vandegrift, the Met Council researcher. “Highly trained staff were able to understand what those experiences were and make the park visit relevant to those experiences.
“So they ask, ‘What are the experiences people are bringing and how can those be connected?’ And naturally, culturally competent staff and staff with a variety of experiences that represent the region’s population are able to connect those experiences better.”
For example, a Ramsey County naturalist partnered with Asian Media Access to bring a middle school Hmong dance troupe to Battle Creek Regional Park. The naturalist asked the group to share its pre-practice ritual, which involved sharing something from their lives as they stretched together. He stretched with them, shared a bit about his family, talked about his connection to the park through making baskets from birch bark, and then listened to the girls share their experiences.
The experience ended up being relevant, accessible, and fun, Vandegrift said.
The results of Met Council’s youth research also sparked its equity grant program, which is committed to eliminating barriers to the metro parks it works with.
For the Futbol Fan MN camp, eliminating barriers means not charging a participation fee, allowing registration the day of the camp, simplifying registration, and holding the camp after work hours. Healthy snacks and water are also provided, and Spanish is spoken at the camp.
“Our original idea is for kids to be proud of who they are, to give them the opportunity to learn and play the sport without being worried about anything,” Rosso said. “Life can be full of obligations as an adult and as a kid you have a little more freedom.”
But Rosso has also discovered some unexpected benefits. Non-native Spanish speakers who attend his camp are interested in learning the language. Parents end up talking to each other and forming a community. The kids pick up park etiquette, like recycling their water bottles.
There’s an end-of-summer celebration planned for Rosso’s camp, with food from different cultures. The venue? One of Bloomington’s regional parks, where they hope everyone will feel welcome.
Try it out
Interested in some of the free equity programming available through the parks? Here’s how to find out more about some of the programs:
Futbol Fan MN soccer camp
Borrow everything you need for a camping trip from Three Rivers Park District:
Free Parks Passes
If you’re a Hennepin County or Scott County resident and qualify for low-income services, you can get a pass for free equipment rentals, recreation access, and discounts on summer camps:
Check out a state parks pass at your library: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/minnesota-state-parks-library-program.html