The Ecology of Leadership

Lessons from supporting a movement to restore children’s relationship with nature.

After nearly 20 years, Children in Nature Collaborative will be sunsetting. I have been part of the group since its beginning, and its continuing value for me has been in the interweaving efforts toward a common vision of access and connection to the natural world.

When Richard Louv, in Last Child in the Woods, imagined a new nature movement focused on kids, he thought it wishful thinking. But there was an unexpected response to the book, creating a grassroots movement of self-organizing networks across the country.

child playing outdoors in the rain
Since the formation of the Children in Nature Collaborative, movement leaders have used art, nature prescriptions, gear libraries, and much more to help bridge the divide between kids and the outdoors. Photo by Andre Taissin on Unsplash.

In 2006, I was part of a small group organizing an event with Louv in the California Bay Area. We expected a few hundred people. On the evening of the event, the nearby freeway exit was backed up with cars, and over 800 excited people filled the auditorium. As I watched the crowd grow and felt waves of energy, I felt exhilarated. I sensed how Louv’s depiction of nature deficit disorder — a deficit of experience, imagination, and well-being in children’s lives — brought a heightened sense of tension to the audience.

Afterwards, we formed the Children in Nature Collaborative and organized gatherings with grassroots leaders across different disciplines and fields of work in the Bay Area. These leaders stepped beyond their organizational roles and into a larger sense of themselves as builders, connectors, network weavers, cultural cultivators, disruptors, experimenters, visionaries, and healers. Many of these grassroots leaders worked simultaneously at local, regional, and national levels.

June Holley, a network guru, introduced the Children in Nature Collaborative to the fundamentals of network development and an expanded view of leadership. Researcher and writer Jane Wei-Skillern shared her Harvard studies, demonstrating how successful leaders look beyond their organizations to the larger social field. This learning led to the creation of a community of practice with leaders across the country to develop more effective movement networks. As the movement grew, an interconnected ecology of leadership developed that was distinctly different than older models.

mary roscoe Mary Roscoe, co-founder of the Children in Nature Collaborative.

Louv imagined a generation of leaders that would meet what he described as climate change of the human heart, ushering us into one of the most creative periods of human history. In the Bay Area, there was an outpouring of creativity. Connections, relationships, and generous collaborations created the potential for larger efforts.

Bay Area grassroots leaders won awards, received media attention, and attended gatherings at the White House, influencing policymakers. Rue Mapp (Outdoor Afro) and José Gonzalez (Latino Outdoors) started regional initiatives that grew into national networks. Nooshin Razani, an Oakland pediatrician, was influential in expanding prescriptions for nature, while sharing her understanding that colonized cultures often had stronger connections to nature than their colonizers.

Zach Pine, a physician turned environmental artist, brought healing through create-with-nature zones on sidewalks and in parks, and at museums, schools, and other settings. Kyle MacDonald developed wilderness training and a national network of free gear libraries, enabling youth to meaningfully experience the outdoors. Damien Raffa, a park program manager in the Presidio, was instrumental in developing the San Francisco Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights and designing place-based experiences in nature across the city. Sharon Danks, an environmental city planner, co-founded the International School Ground Alliance, transforming barren school grounds into vibrant ecosystems for learning and play.

Looking back, many of us were drawn to the passion, activism, and the sense of vitality of the movement. What surprised us, I think, was an inner personal and collective journey we took, a movement of the heart. It meant changing the way we think and work — and ultimately, who we were. In the end, we learned to navigate the shadows of a dying culture to a powerful field of connection and potential, tender and vibrant, with ideas growing into action. Although the Children in Nature Collaborative will be sunsetting, I will continue to actively engage in communities of practice and systems change.

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