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I’ve always been interested in health, vitality and nature.
Probably something spurred from being an only child up North while my cousins down South were “country strong,” which always showed whenever we visited.
I’ve always been aware of the need to be healthy and active for the sake of one’s quality of life. I’ve also known from an early age that this has little to do with financial or social status — anyone can be fit and healthy if they choose.
It stuck out to me that people make different choices, and I didn’t understand why until later on. Why don’t some people enjoy pushing themselves? Feeling that they’re moving toward being their best? Don’t they know you can’t be a helper if you aren’t strong enough?
While I learned about the value of service growing up in church, conversations around self-esteem came in high school. At Riverside University High School, I learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the idea of self-actualization. This concept helped me string together these thoughts.
I began to study, on my own, how fitness and self-esteem can be a reciprocal system that teaches you more about who you are, what you can do and how you can engage.
I actually began offering my classmates fitness training as well as personal development in high school. I brought “roast beast sammiches” for the girls who I learned suffered from eating disorders. We’d skip class, sit in the hallways, eat and talk. I didn’t get how upper middle class white girls felt bad about themselves. From my perspective as a Black boy, they were the most celebrated and sought-after humans. Right up there with Asian babies.
I joined the U.S. Army during high school and went to basic training the summer between my junior and senior year. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience. I was able to study behavioral health in an organization that has trained thousands and thousands of people! I also learned more about my particular strengths, motivations and how I might best serve society. I became very interested in people’s ability to heal and develop their own resilience.
After the military, I went to massage therapy school, furthering my studies in healing through holistic health. I began to see the clear disparity in how African Americans were treated in health care and the lack of connection to natural healing. And so I founded Beans and Cornbread, an organization committed to wellness for African Americans. While the organization was short-lived because I was new to nonprofit work, I continued to make wellness work a part of everything I got into.
Over the past 25 years, I’ve continued to learn, working with various local arts organizations from African dance to therapeutic arts. While working with various groups, it seemed most of my performances connected to nature — from global warming to migration of the Monarch butterfly to water conservation to Native American folk tales, to list just a few. All of these shows were backed by science and research, which continued to grow my learning.
Nearby Nature MKE came into my life just as I was thinking about what to do with myself. It is a perfect fit. I have spent most of my working life in areas where what I brought to the table was a hard sell to a community that has historically been left out and kept away from any and all advantages.
Nearby Nature MKE is an organization whose mission is to reconnect Black folk back to nature, offering nature education classes in schools, churches and neighborhood centers. We hike, plant trees, kayak, engage in land stewardship and restoration, build trails, teach nature education, bird watch, track animals, identify plants and trees and share about blue and green careers.
I recognize the very real need to reconnect African Americans to the healing power of nature.
We are focusing on the Lincoln Creek Greenway neighborhoods and the north end of the 30th Street Corridor. While we have maps going back to 1820 showing this watershed, most Milwaukeeans I’ve encountered don’t know where this is. We have a lot of fun, take an exploratory pace, add some art and have good conversations.
We bring healing and cultivate empowerment by building pathways to nature, and thereby, to one’s self.
Steven Hunter is a proud Milwaukee Public Schools graduate, veteran, founder of Beans & Cornbread Wellness for African Americans and has worked in creative youth development for 25 years. He is the program director at Nearby Nature MKE.