Black to the Land Coalition Builds Equity in Outdoor Leadership

In 2018, a group of about 14 Detroit outdoor enthusiasts began meeting at the home of Tepfirah Rushdan, who would become a founding member of Black To The Land Coalition (BTTLC). Being a long time advocate and farmer in the Urban farming scene, Tepfirah (Tee) wanted to form a super team of BIPoC leaders who shared the same passion and goals for building a relationship with each other, through the land. Through their ioby project Be Out!, they are hoping to raise $8,000 before July 11th. Their project is a part of our 2023 Detroit Match Program, meaning donations are doubled up to $400 per donor!

Each member of BTTLC came to be a part of the organization through their own unique pathway. Djenaba Ali, a community organizer who was recently divorced at the time, was looking for affordable activities plus a support network for herself and children. With one incredible camping experience under her belt, her newfound passion for telling others about the welcoming arms of nature inspired her to accept a friend’s invitation to a local organizing meeting.  “At first we just came together to do a shared calendar. We all come from different organizations. Instead of stepping on each other’s toes with events on the same day or weekend, we realized we have the same participants and demographics. We started meeting up to be proactive about the upcoming summer season. That’s how it initially got started.” 

The members of Black to the Land Coalition gathered together at a meeting

They also came together as a way to pool collective resources and share knowledge. “You might have ten fishing poles laying around and I might have a youth group who is ready to start fishing. If we combine forces, we’re able to host a fishing class for the youth!” 

Djenaba has been a part of BTTLC since its beginning stages. She is a founding member and current Co-Chair alongside Tepfirah Rushdan. 

BTTLC’s mission is to enhance holistic relationships with nature and each other through nature-based, culturally relevant experiences. They are building equity in outdoor leadership for Black and Brown people, and acquiring land and resources to transcend historically oppressive systems.

When thinking about the core of their mission, Djenaba says, “We want people to become stewards– getting back to the land, creating that relationship with it and becoming comfortable. There are not a lot of Black or Brown people doing this work, so we wanted to organize around the issue. It started as camping and became a lot more than that.”

The industries surrounding outdoor and nature activities have long been dominated by white people. When you walk into a sporting goods or nature store, it’s likely you’ll find a sea of white faces covering advertisements and packaging. As a result, many Black and Brown people are alienated by these spaces and activities, feeling unwelcome and unsafe. 

In addition to a lack of representation, little has been done to mitigate the wounds caused by past traumatic experiences of Black and Brown people in nature spaces. “There’s a long history there,” says Djenaba. “Many people are still afraid of water because that’s a fear they learned from their ancestors. That fear stems all the way back to the transatlantic slave trade. People’s fear of the woods and forests can also be traced back to lynching and the fear caused by sundown towns. There are a lot of things that factor into it, but that trauma is still there.”  

The work BTTLC does in Detroit is a direct response to this history of systemic racism. They work with people of all ages and believe in the importance of intergenerational engagement as a way to share knowledge, heal trauma, and build positive relationships to each other and the land. Djenaba notes that “We don’t just focus solely on youth at most of our events. The main reason is for sustainability. If a kid learns how to fish at one of our events and goes home and their parents don’t know about fishing or don’t have a way to get involved, that’s not sustainable. It’s important that we embrace having parents and adults getting involved.”

BTTLC archery classes for the youth and their parents

Over the past year BTTLC has continued to grow and expand as an organization and developed a variety of age-inclusive programs.

  • Urban Forest School is a program for children 10 and under that provides educational and recreational activities for youth outdoors, using the land as a source of knowledge and activity. Djenaba describes it as the “ultimate playdate.” 
  • Teen Squad is driven by the concept of “youth driven spaces.” This concept sees youth as competent and capable of making their own decisions. BTTLC has helped teens develop their own by-laws and rules of engagement, while focusing events around team-building. 
  • The recently added Silvers Program invites people aged 50 and up to participate in monthly outdoors events.  

As they continue to scale-up operations, Djenaba says BTTLC is increasing capacity and expanding their impact. “Originally, a lot of our work was all volunteer. We were using our own money until we taught ourselves how to write grants and fundraise. This is a love project for all of us, none of us are staff. That’s starting to change though! We have a full-time staff person starting later this year and have continued to partner with many organizations.”

Djenaba has been using her own car to transport members of the Teen Squad but that isn’t a sustainable option. They need something more reliable. They are hoping to use the funds raised from their ioby campaign to acquire a stable means of transportation for participants in their programs. 

Crowdfunding within their community has allowed them the opportunity to fulfill that need. As Djenaba puts it, “Crowdfunding has always been a goal for us. Our organization is very community oriented and we’ve built a lot of trust with people here in Detroit.”

Have a great idea to get good done in your neighborhood? We want to help! Share your idea with us and we can help get you started.