Oakland Goes Outdoors: Expanding Youth Access to Nature

(This blog has been re-posted from Blue Sky Funders Forum)

By Francesca Vietor

Research has shown that youth who spend more time outdoors exhibit improved attentiveness, reduced school absenteeism, higher scores on standardized tests and better overall academic performance. Exposure to nature also fosters motor development, self-esteem, self-confidence, a sense of identity, and psychological resilience. Providing youth with repeated outdoor experiences also nurtures concern and responsibility, which are key factors in developing positive attitudes and behaviors toward conservation and the planet.

Yet, despite being surrounded by some of the nation’s most beautiful parks and wilderness, many Bay Area youth have never visited these open spaces, and programs often do not reach low-income youth or youth of color. The Youth Access to Nature Program (YAN) was established by the San Francisco Foundation and its donors to ensure that underserved youth have equitable access to such opportunities and that they too receive the many benefits and beauty that nature provides.

In 2015, YAN was seeded with a lead gift from the Riddell Family Fund at the San Francisco Foundation. YAN immediately attracted additional donor support and the program launched with an annual budget of approximately $900,000. RFPs were issued and 25 organizations from across the region were funded to bring low-income youth and youth of color outdoors. In the past three years, the YAN cohort has collectively provided an estimated 20,000 youth with outdoor experiences annually, and helped them to reach their full potential.

In addition to supporting individual organizations through its cohort model, YAN believed that it could reach even more youth and deepen its impact by working with schools. Middle school is a key time to expose young people to nature; a time when many kids start to become less active outdoors and spend more time indoors and on screens, becoming more disconnected from nature.

Mark Triplett, the Middle School Network Superintendent at Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), understands the profound difference the outdoors can make on a student and wants to better integrate outdoor programs with Next Generation Science Standards and Social Emotional Learning. When Mark came to the San Francisco Foundation looking for support, OUSD was already working with YAN’s partner Bay Area Wilderness Training (BAWT). The Riddell Family once again stepped in to provide a $1.1 million seed grant to launch Oakland Goes Outdoors (OGO)—a new partnership between OUSD, BAWT, and the San Francisco Foundation.

Launched this May, OGO is a three-year pilot program that will provide every Oakland public middle schooler with positive and meaningful outdoor experiences. The program will serve 1,300 students in the first year and scale up to a total of 7,200 middle school students in 13 schools by its third year, many who have never been exposed to their local parks, much less an overnight camping experience in the wilderness. BAWT will provide the gear and train teachers and after-school providers, and the Oakland Education Fund will administer the smaller grants to each individual school to pay for their trips.

The San Francisco Foundation will continue to do what it does best by convening partners, engaging donors, deploying resources, and providing everyone in the Bay Area with an opportunity to thrive. The Foundation will deepen the impact of YAN and OGO by building capacity, exchanging learnings and sharing stories in order to make youth and nature a greater part of the public discourse and a ‘must have’ in schools and communities everywhere. The San Francisco Foundation estimates that with sufficient funding and institutional commitment, nearly 300,000 youth in the Bay Area will have a potentially life-changing experience in the outdoors over the next ten years. “Every child deserves access to the wonder and beauty of our natural environment,” says Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf. “no matter what neighborhood they come from or what school they attend.”

The San Francisco Foundation launched YAN and OGO with a simple but powerful goal: to provide disconnected and underserved youth with meaningful, transformative experiences in nature that inspire them to care for the earth and help them to reach their full potential. Since then, the fund has provided tens of thousands of Bay Area youth with the opportunity to engage in environmental education programs, explore nature, and become stewards of our natural heritage. Young people have been able to see the ocean for the first time, visit the awe-inspiring redwoods, get their hands dirty in the soil, and have the formative experiences in nature that all children deserve.

The San Francisco Foundation relies on the generosity of our donors and the incredible work of its grantees to create positive community impact. To learn how to support or get involved with Youth Access to Nature or Oakland Goes Outdoors please contact Francesca Vietor at fvietor@sff.org or 415-733-8517.

Francesca Vietor currently serves as Senior Advisor at the San Francisco Foundation, managing the Youth Access to Nature Program and providing grantmaking recommendations to the Foundation’s donors on racial, economic and environmental equity. Francesca also serves as one of five commissioners of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). Before coming to The San Francisco Foundation in 2010, Francesca was executive director of the Chez Panisse Foundation, president of the Urban Forest Council, president of the Commission on the Environment, and chair of then-Mayor Newsom’s Environmental Transition Team.