On a Wing and a Prayer 

Science and education nonprofits doing outreach to Latino communities need to think about a lot more than free passes.

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STEPHEN DARK
  • Stephen Dark

In Spring 2016, at a University of Utah discussion panel for a public engagement class featuring executive directors Tim Brown of Tracy Aviary and Sarah George of the Natural History Museum, student Alfonso Lopez raised his hand to pose what he calls, "a tough question." What were the two nonprofits doing to raise awareness about their activities among underserved, diverse populations?

George talked about a five-year plan she intended to implement, Lopez recalls, which includes diversifying both staff and audience. Brown, however, was more rueful. "We're making efforts, but we're not succeeding," Brown recalls replying to Lopez' question.

The aviary's drive to build audiences of people of color reflects that by 2044 minorities will be the majority in the United States. Given, Brown says, that the conservation movement is by and large "an upper-middle-class white thing, it behooves the conservation community to have diverse membership and following."

He told Lopez the bird sanctuary in Liberty Park, Salt Lake City, had various initiatives offering scaled-down pricing or free access. But an initiative called Nature in the City, geared toward taking bird-watching and nature out to the streets, proved unsuccessful in reaching a key target—people of color.

The aviary "did some soul-searching and research," Brown says, "and one of the things we found was 'don't be an interloper.'" Rather, they learned, they needed to be part of diverse communities, eat at their cafés, hang out in their neighborhoods.

Brown stresses that "there are nonprofit efforts to reach underserved audiences, and there are specific efforts within the conservation movement to do so." George says reaching out to underserved communities has been an ongoing efforts for years, but that metrics to measure their success, beyond the anecdotal, are challenging.

Brown speaks admiringly of a 20-year-old program by the Natural History Museum called "Youth teaching youth," that teaches Glendale School students how to teach science to younger kids in Salt Lake schools. The problem he sees, however, is that alongside such programs, there also needs to be efforts to exponentially increase awareness through diverse communities. "The idea of an underserved community stems from not enough approaches/opportunities/programs," he writes in an email. In addition, he's uncertain as to whether such outreach programs create "a strong conservation ethos" among the community, which he notes might not be their mission. "However, creating that ethos is aligned with our mission," which was why they decided to pursue a different path.

Brown offered 29-year-old Lopez the newly created position of cultural liaison at the aviary. In the four-and-a-half months since Lopez started, he's tried to "create a process for effective outreach into the Latino community as well as communities of color," Lopez says. The formerly diesel-truck loving youth became so enamored by nature that he transformed, he says, into someone "passionate about making things right for our environment and all the species within it."

While the job was "not well defined," Brown says that the bilingual Lopez "is a go-getter, smart, curious and has taken it to places and levels we probably didn't quite anticipate when we had that conversation."

As Lopez reached out to other museums, nature centers and institutions dedicated to education, conservation and wildlife, he found that many of the organizations he contacted "have processes that exclude lower-income groups but especially people of color," by which he means that organizations have failed to adapt their operations to the dramatically shifting demographics of the valley and state, with more than 13 percent of Utahns now Latino. But while he has already succeeded, at least anecdotally, Brown says, in increasing Latino attendance at the aviary, Lopez tells of being rejected by some key Latino community leaders he declined to identify. "I was left with the impression that they thought not only was I wasting my time, but also that Latinos in general don't care about nature because they are too busy with their lives."

His experience, he says, has been the opposite, in terms of the families, adults and children he's taken on personalized tours around the aviary, "hooking them," he says, with stories in Spanish and English about individual birds, such as the two eagles who each had a wing amputated or how a pair of gay flamingos care for the eggs of other flamingos.

With Lopez scheduled to depart in December 2017 for medical school, Brown plans next year to "institutionalize" what Lopez has developed on the fly, much of it through "knocking on doors" in westside communities that other science-education nonprofits might not necessarily venture to.

Lopez says Latino attendance at the aviary has also climbed from five families a month to as many as 15. "I'm not giving that many free passes and more people are coming," he says.

Some of his efforts have been hit-and-miss. A "Sábados Latinos" (Latin Saturdays) night offering music and tacos was unsuccessful, Lopez says, because "we couldn't get the word out." But his efforts to promote a Latino outdoor program gained traction. Instead of doing a spin-the-wheel giveaway of candy and plastic toys at a westside park or event, he would pitch "a free adventure for the whole family," he says. "The only thing you have to pay is attention. Do you want to go to secret waterfalls, secret lakes?" They're secret, he explains, because so few Latinos have ever seen them.

In prior years, the aviary's outdoor programs were 90-100 percent white. But over the summer, Lopez took 51 Latinos on two-hour hikes in the mountains to do head counts of the rapidly declining Broad-tail Hummingbird.

Lopez' involvement with the aviary comes as Brown has recently begun discussions with officials at the Utah State Fairgrounds on the aviary opening a westside campus there, which would draw upon the adjacent Jordan River to provide nature and bird-related experiences.

Lopez will aid the aviary, Brown hopes, in reaching out for community input on their plans, and, he hopes, assist in addressing culturally sensitive issues such as venues for input or names. Calling it "a nature center," Brown notes, is not necessarily the best approach, when people don't know what the term means.

Kate Rubalcava is the Utah Nonprofits Association's chief executive and a former community organizer who lives on the west side. She's excited by the aviary's plans for a westside campus, saying that community outreach needs to be part of "big, rich conversations. It takes time to build trust," and relationships need to be reciprocal. Organizations need to ensure they deliver what they promise. "So often communities are used to having programs come through and it's gone."

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, agrees. "There needs to be cultural competency in any organization when reaching out to communities of color, that they truly understand the experiences of the communities they are trying to connect with. And that it is a mutual conversation." While white people can be allies, "you also have to ensure you are not taking on that white savior role."

Lopez argues that if conservation and science-driven nonprofits want to increase attendance from diverse communities, they need to get out of their comfort zone and ask "the communities what they need beside free admission passes for kids. They think they know what they need, but they don't ask."

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