Earlier this week, thanks to Richard Louv’s blog post on the Children and Nature Network, I learned that one of the most inspiring US outdoor educators, Brother Yusuf Burgess, had unexpectedly passed away on 5th December. He had lived and worked in Albany, Upstate New York. He had a remarkable ability to convey to the world what it was like growing up as a black kid in a ghetto where gang warfare is rife. He was equally talented at providing the right blend of experiences and ideas for youths in his community which enabled them to become knowledgeable and wise leaders – on the inside, within themselves – as well as outdoors. This is evident from the sheer number and nature of the comments on Richard Louv’s blog post.
Through organising a variety of outdoor experiences such as skiing, canoeing, fishing, hiking and quality time in nature, “B-Yu” as he was affectionately called by the local teens, enabled the youths to effect positive changes in their lives. He developed and honed their leadership skills. Five and a half years ago I linked up Brother Yusuf with via the Children and Nature Network and Facebook. He sent me a link to a presentation he gave in 2008. In it, he talks about the need to “start where they stand” when working with children from the ‘hood.
He thinks carefully about the programmes, partnerships, hooks and pipelines needed to connect urban-based children to nature. He uses unstructured outdoor activities that include skiiing, camping and canoeing to engage children, develop relationships and learn about the natural world. He cleverly links skiing to tree identification. Outdoor experiences are used to develop positive relationships between children and adults to further develop “X-box detox” activities back in the community such as boat building with the help of an antique boat society. All-in-all he created a simple yet sophisticated approach to capturing the impact of being outside and using it creating positive community links in a way which I have yet to see replicated so effectively elsewhere.
The presentation is inspiring. It lasts an hour, but get your notebook and pen out as the ideas will start flowing. Watch, listen, learn, enjoy and be inspired! May the memory of Brother Yusuf live on through the lives of others.