Growing up in Argentina, Gustavo Rosso played street football like almost every other kid. There were no obstacles: it was not necessary to have money or a relative to register or drop you off. It doesn’t even need special studs. All it took was a bullet.
But as a parent of football-age kids in Minnesota, Rosso realized that a lot of kids here don’t have the opportunity to play like that. So he decided to do something about it: he successfully pitched the idea of a fee-free, barrier-free camp in different park systems. Last week, 25 kids showed up for the first Futbol Fan MN camp in Bloomington.
“In Minnesota, we are blessed with a diverse state where different minorities can feel welcome playing football,” Rosso said, “from African communities to Hmong to Asian communities to people of this country”.
Park programming costs money: there are t-shirts, field fees and coaches. But thanks to a Metropolitan Council grant program that began in 2019 to increase diversity and inclusion in parks, Rosso’s camp is just one of many free programs offered at various park systems across Minnesota. this summer.
Individual park systems apply for grants and implement the projects. In 2021, the Met Council approved just over $2 million in grants for 23 programs. Programs include a drowning prevention course in St. Paul, a ski lesson at Battle Creek Regional Park, and a project to create more welcoming ways to access Theodore Wirth’s Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. The Met Council will not award grants this year so that it can accumulate interest income on park funds which it will award in the fall of 2023.
The grants coincide with more park systems using their own money to fund full-time positions that work in the area of equity. Most of the 10 parks departments associated with the Met Council, including the Minneapolis and St. Paul parks systems, employ a full-time equity specialist. Some smaller departments share this position with the city council.
Awareness of diversity and equity is a big job: 3 out of 4 visitors to state and national parks are white, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. A survey by the National Recreation and Parks Association showed that the biggest barrier to inclusivity is funding, followed by staffing. Met Council research in 2019 showed that investing in staff development and hiring diverse employees helps young people gain more equitable access to parks.
Since outdoor spaces promote public health and personal well-being, it’s essential that everyone has equitable access to parks, said Met Council researcher Darcie Vandegrift.
“If some people are underserved [in parks]then we have a huge health inequity that we need to address as a priority,” Vandegrift said.
In 2015, the District of Three Rivers Park hired Amanda Fong as a Community Engagement Supervisor to focus on increasing diversity and inclusion among its visitors. She became one of the first people in Minnesota hired for such a position; across the country, most park systems began creating similar positions after 2020.
Fong has noticed an increased awareness of equity in the outdoors during her seven years on the job.
“Outdoor and natural spaces have not been spaces where everyone has felt welcome,” she said. “There have been policies that have excluded people, and now there is a lot more interest in working to change that.
Last month, May Yang-Lee became the first person hired as Parks Equity Program Coordinator in Washington County. She already sees the impact of her work: she connected people with interpretive services in Spanish, realized that the free park pass program could reach more people if translated , and saw children and adults from underrepresented communities paddling and cycling for the first time.
“The most important thing is to have candid conversations with people, just try to listen to what their needs are and integrate them into different programs,” she said.
Amanda Lovelee, Parks Ambassador for the Met Council, which coordinates equity efforts, leads a monthly video call between 10 park systems in the metro area, including regional systems such as Dakota County, Anoka County and Ramsey County. The Met Council created its equity stake in 2018.
“It’s great to work with so many different colleagues doing different and interesting work,” Lovelee said. “Our region is pushing this work and investing money in it, and these positions and funding are having an impact. Nationally, there is also a huge movement around this.
While the group shares best practices and resources, it also recognizes that much of its work is unique to its region and clientele. Met Council research shows there is no silver bullet in equity work, Lovelee said.
“It’s specific to specific communities,” Lovelee said. “You have to listen and try not to symbolize a certain person. A Hmong person in St. Paul may not have the same needs as a person in Washington County. It is therefore important that [each park system is] work with the community for what that community wants and needs.
The Met Council conducted research in 2019 with 85 young participants aged 12-20, 43 parents and guardians and leaders of youth organizations. Researchers have found that highly trained staff can reduce barriers and make parks more welcoming and accessible.
“Young people and adults bring previous experiences to parks and trails,” said Met Council researcher Vandegrift. “The highly trained staff were able to understand what those experiences were and make the visit to the park relevant to those experiences.
“So they ask, ‘What experiences do people bring and how can they be connected?’ And naturally, culturally competent staff and staff with a variety of backgrounds who represent the people of the region are able to better connect those experiences.
For example, a Ramsey County naturalist partnered with Asian Media Access to bring a college Hmong dance troupe to Battle Creek Regional Park. The naturalist asked the group to share his pre-workout ritual, which involved sharing something from their lives as they stretched together. He stretched out with them, talked a bit about his family, talked about his connection to the park by making baskets from birch bark, and then listened to the girls share their experiences.
The experience was relevant, accessible and fun, Vandegrift said.
The Met Council’s youth research results also sparked its grant-in-action programme, which is committed to removing barriers at the metropolitan parks it works with.
For Futbol Fan MN Camp, removing barriers means not charging a participation fee, allowing registration on the day of the camp, simplifying registration and having the camp after working hours. Healthy snacks and water are also provided, and Spanish is spoken at camp.
“Our original idea is for children to be proud of who they are, to give them the opportunity to learn and practice the sport without worrying about anything,” Rosso said. “Life can be full of obligations as an adult and as a child you have a bit more freedom.”
But Rosso also discovered unexpected benefits. The non-native Spanish speakers who attend his camp want to learn the language. Parents eventually talk to each other and form a community. Kids learn park etiquette, like recycling their water bottles.
An end of summer party is planned for the Rosso camp, with food from different cultures. The place? One of Bloomington’s state parks, where they hope everyone will feel welcome.