The turn of the year is always a good time for reflection. Not only to ask, “what have I accomplished in the last year?” but to ask “why do I do what I do?”
I’ll be honest: sometimes it’s really hard for me to answer that “why?” question. I work at the Urban Ecology Center, and I deeply believe in our mission, which I describe as “connecting people with nature in their neighborhood.” But living in a city plagued by segregation, disparity and systemic violence, within a country that often feels paralyzed by political polarization, sometimes I find myself doing something like writing about a snowshoeing program for our newsletter and wondering, “Shouldn’t I be doing something more? Is this really that important?”
The answer to the first question is an easy “Yes.” It is really, really critical that we always push ourselves to be open to ways we can do more and/or do better, and to remember that whatever work we’re doing, it’s not the only important work being done in our city! One of my main goals for 2015 is to do a better job as an individual of supporting the work being done in Milwaukee to build community across our city’s racial dividing lines and to demand justice for oppressed communities here.
I think it can be very tempting when doing nonprofit work to feel the need to focus or specialize in “your own” discipline, which is precisely the wrong attitude. As an ecologist, I should know better! Ecosystems are much stronger when the connections among elements are stronger—nothing exists healthily in isolation. So, yes, not only can and should I be doing more; anything I can do to look beyond the boundaries of “my” work and support other areas of our community will just help strengthen our whole “ecosystem” here in Milwaukee.
And then that second question: Is this “nature in your neighborhood” stuff really that important? Is it that relevant in a city whose deepest needs center on healing segregation and disparity? And I think that answer is “yes,” too, for two reasons. First: common ground. As a society, we tend to silo and section ourselves in a way that makes it extraordinarily difficult for us to see across the racial, economic and political divisions we create. At the Center, we see our work as building common ground (sometimes literally!). A park is a place where everyone can find something to enjoy. We try to create spaces where people who have different experiences can thrive together, and build something together. After all, you don’t have to agree on everything to be awed by the magnificent quiet after a fresh snowfall in the park.
The second reason I think this work is important is a really basic one: love. Life in all its forms — plant, animal, human, white, black, brown — is sacred and precious, and our survival as a society, and as a species, depends on us truly taking that belief as our centering tenet. We cannot make this world better if we don’t believe that the whole thing is worth loving!
So, why do this work? Not because it is the only good work or because it is the most important, but because it is an important piece of the puzzle. We live in a city that desperately needs common ground and desperately needs us to believe that it is worth loving. And as silly as it might sound, I do believe that a wintry snowshoe tromp through the park, alongside a neighbor, might just help us get there.