Restoring Connections Through Community Conservation

Outdoor Afro Workshop picture

At the beginning of last year, The Conservation Foundation established a partnership with the Chicago/Northwest Indiana network of Outdoor Afro, an organization that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature and connects Black people to land, water, and wildlife through outdoor education, recreation, and conservation. We discovered a common thread connecting our missions – gardening – and leaned into it to guide our partnership this year.


Through gardening, we’re restoring people’s connection to the land, to the water, and to each other, which not only fosters healthy communities, but also forms tomorrow’s environmental stewards. Gardening is a gateway to the broader natural world. Since 2020, there’s also been an explosion of interest in gardening and people wanting and needing to grow more of their own foods.


Together, Outdoor Afro and The Conservation Foundation co-created a beginning gardening series of events to support new gardeners throughout their first growing season. This included both online and in-person educational opportunities on starting pollinator and organic vegetable gardens (and the ecosystem benefits of both), container gardening, troubleshooting gardening challenges using natural methods, and much more.


Outdoor Afro Workshop picture


A main emphasis in our partnership with Outdoor Afro is to make it clear that whether you live in an apartment, condo, or single-family home, you can participate in Conservation@Home, help pollinators, and grow food and herbs, including Black heritage foods, so we’ve included advice for growing in containers and yards all along the way. At every step, we’ve also approached gardens as a full ecosystem with a cast of characters including insects, microbes, plants, and people all playing their part in the name of creating a dynamic and resilient garden landscape.


We’ve swapped seeds and stories, heard the journeys of people’s gardens, and talked about the garden woes, foes, and heroes. We’ve heard first-time gardeners tell us, “Why didn’t you warn me that gardening is so addicting?!” and watched both a passion and sense of empowerment unfold for the active role they now play in providing healthy food for themselves and their families, healthy habitat for pollinators, and restoring healthy soil.


Kim Ruffin of Outdoor Afro shared, “Gardening with native plants for the first time on a 4th floor balcony was exciting. Working with The Conservation Foundation as an Outdoor Afro leader had already sold me on the idea, and I also was inspired by Doug Tallamy’s idea of the Homegrown National Park. I, a multi-unit building dweller in an urban space, could have my very own ‘national park’ of native plantings just outside our family’s sliding glass door. The flowers were beautiful on their own and survived whatever heavy winds they endured. And, as icing on the cake, on three different occasions I saw a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird eat from the Cardinal Flowers that I planted. I gasped each and every time and can’t wait to watch whatever native plants decide to return and to restock any open space in my 4th floor national park with more native plants I get from The Conservation Foundation.”


Outdoor Afro Workshop picture


My favorite part of these workshops are the social connections that are being formed and the tales of awe that new gardeners share as they watch a small seed or plant that they’ve tended transform into something so much more. It reminds me of the beautiful way our partnership with Outdoor Afro has blossomed!


This partnership is just one example of the new and different ways we at The Conservation Foundation are approaching our community conservation work. Through partnerships like this one, we’re restoring connection — social connections, community connections, food connections, and land connections. It’s important to remember that environmental stewardship and conservation start with someone feeling a special connection to nature.


By Kyla Muhammad
Will County Program Director


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