Tough Conversations: All Are Welcome, But Who Belongs? Achieving Equity and Inclusion in Vermont's Natural Spaces

Webinar Lends Insight into Lack of Accessibility to Nature for Disadvantaged, Marginalized and Vulnerable Communities

On Thursday, December 1st, 2022, a group of select panelists gathered for a Tough Conversations webinar to discuss inequity in access to nature. You can access the video here 

As Audubon Vermont policy interns, Thomas Patti and I were asked to lead a conversation that was relevant to our times and to give voice to an important topic, even if uncomfortable or challenging (hence the title “Tough Conversations”).  We chose to foster an inclusive space for people of various identities to come together to describe both their love of nature and the outdoors, as well as the challenges that they and many others face in accessing those places in Vermont. We were delighted that five amazing individuals chose to share their own personal experiences, words of wisdom, and hopes for the future.  

Panelists included Elise Chan (she/her), a student at Middlebury and the president of Fostering Inclusive Recreation Experiences (FIRE); Abby Crisostomo (she/her), a co-founder of Unlikely Riders and an ambassador for Voile Backcountry Manufacturing; Alex Hilliard (they/them), a member of VT Releaf Collective and a small business owner at VT AthletaFit; Justin Marsh (they/them), the political outreach director at Vermont Conservation Voters; and Jamie Perron (she/her), a member of the Northeast Disabled Athletic Association’s Adaptive Kayaking Program. (More detailed biographical information below). 

Numerous studies confirm the many emotional and physical benefits of spending time in nature, such as relief from stress and depression and space to exercise. At a national level, rapid development and declining green spaces have, however, restricted access to nature generally, and especially among minority and vulnerable communities that already feel out of place in a predominantly white, cisgender, and nondisabled setting like Vermont. Audubon Vermont fostered a conversation to put the state of access to nature in Vermont under the microscope, and to equip participants with a better understanding of the current challenges, and opportunities to ensure access for all. 

During the conversation, all five panelists described their own personal connection to nature. Each also described their efforts to share their love of nature and outdoor recreation with others, particularly those who are in communities who may not feel welcome, safe, or comfortable, in the woods, fields, mountains and rivers of Vermont. 

 For instance, Jamie Perron explained how her perspective on the accessibility of waterways and wildlife was altered after being involved in a car accident at nineteen years old that left her afflicted with quadriplegia. Jamie described the need for the community of nature lovers to expand their vision of who belongs in nature to include a larger demographic including people like her.   

 In a similar vein, Justin Marsh described their work with the Cambridge Conservation Commission to both conserve and provide broad public access to the Krusch Nature Preserve as an example of the type of work that Vermonters have done and can continue to do in partnership with a wide and diverse coalition of people. Justin also described their positive experience of joining with others in the LGBTQA+ community on the Pride Hikes, a collaboration among the Pride Center, Outright Vermont, and Audubon Vermont. 

 Abby Crisostomo discussed her work with Unlikely Riders, where she is working to eliminate barriers to the winter sports industry for Vermonters in the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community. As an example of one successful program to remove barriers, Abby described the Winter Gear Closet, which has helped distribute more than 1,300 pieces of winter gear to residents since its founding in 2020.   

Alex Hilliard shared their experience of camaraderie with other BIPOC runners whenever they crossed paths. Building on this experience, Alex works to encourage other Black, Indigenous and People of Color to share in the joy of running and being outdoors, recognizing that a lack of representation or accessibility can be mentally draining for marginalized or under-represented communities of people.  

Likewise, Elise Chan talked about the disparity that can exist between vulnerable communities and those with “generational wisdom” of the outdoors—people who grew up with the privilege of access to the outdoors and therefore feel comfortable being outdoors in nature.  

A common theme among the panelists was the recommendation to people in marginalized communities to join affinity groups, and to seek out organizations and individuals who feel comfortable in the outdoors. All noted how seeing people with shared identities being represented in natural spaces can build solidarity and confidence. 

Watch the webinar, hosted by Yi-Lan Tseo and Thomas Patti, Audubon Vermont environmental policy interns by clicking here. You can also learn more about this issue and opportunities to engage by checking out the many excellent resources listed at the bottom of this article. 

Meet the co-hosts and panelists: 

Yi-Lan Tseo (she/her/hers): Co-host 

Audubon Vermont Policy Intern: Fall 2022: Yi-Lan is a current junior at Middlebury College, where she is majoring in International Studies and Global Environmental Change. She was born in Pennsylvania but spent the summers of her childhood in Beijing, China, where she would run around lily ponds and chase Tree Sparrows. The contrast in her emotional comfortability between natural spaces in Beijing and Pennsylvania was what first opened her eyes to ideas of unwelcomeness in nature– a topic with which she has been grappling with ever since. Yi-Lan is now a part of the judicial board and environmental council at Middlebury College, where she aims to use her personal experiences to try and mend the rift between students of color and accessibility of nature. She hopes that this conversation has helped to deepen discussions around inequity of access to nature and introduce new perspectives on accessibility.  

Thomas Patti (he/him): Co-host 

Audubon Vermont Policy Intern: Fall 2022: Thomas is a recent graduate of Brown University, where he studied environmental science and English. He developed his passions for birds, conservation, and writing from an early age, while wandering the suburban woods of Newton, Massachusetts. Ultimately, Thomas is interested in merging all of these interests into a career in environmental research and communication. He aspires to tell the stories of the people, places, and processes that define New England’s unique position in the context of environmental change. Experiences in ecological research, science journalism, environmental education, and now policy work have reinforced this goal.  

Elise Chan (she/her/hers): Panelist 

Elise is a geology major at Middlebury College and the president of Fostering Inclusive Recreation Experiences (FIRE), a student organization that runs outdoor trips led by and for students of color. She leads trips of many disciplines for FIRE, including hiking, kayaking, and cross-country skiing. She is from Seattle, Washington, where she volunteers as a search and rescue responder in the central Cascades.  

Abby Crisostomo (she/her/hers): Panelist 

Abby is the co-founder of Unlikely Riders and an ambassador for Voile Backcountry Manufacturing. Abby started snowboarding in elementary school through a subsidized afterschool program in the Upper Valley. This program shaped the course of her life, and she now spends her time advocating for her community and sharing her love for snow sports with systematically excluded people.   

Alex Hilliard (they/them): Panelist 

Alex is a personal trainer and small business owner at VT AthletaFit, and social justice advocate. Alex draws many links to outdoor recreation in their community, such as by competing year-round in trail races, partnering with Come Alive Outside in the Rutland region, and by participating on a Poultney steering committee aiming to connect the natural areas and trails to its downtown. As a BIPOC individual living in Vermont for fourteen years, they are keenly aware of issues of equity and inclusion. They use their platform as a business owner, on committees across the state, and as an athlete to try to acknowledge ways in which Vermont falls short in supporting marginalized identities, and to drive practical, people-oriented solutions that improve the state for all Vermonters.     

Justin Marsh (they/them): Panelist 

Justin is the political outreach director at Vermont Conservation Voters. In 2020, as chair of Cambridge Conservation Commission, they were instrumental in the conservation of 51 acres of land now known as the Peter A. Krusch Nature Preserve. Justin is a frequent co-host of Audubon Vermont's Pride Hikes series (find upcoming hikes here!). They reside in Cambridge on their family's farm and sugar bush.  

Jamie Perron (she/her/hers): Panelist 

Jamie has been a quadriplegic for over 20 years after being hit by a car when she was 19. She normally uses a power wheelchair to get around but loves to get out of the wheelchair to go kayaking. She especially loves seeing birds and other wildlife while kayaking. Jamie kayaks every year with the Northeast Disabled Athletic Association’s Adaptive Kayaking Program, which helps people with a wide range of disabilities get out on the water. She would love to see more of Vermont’s lakes, reservoirs, and ponds have better access for kayaks, and trails be more accessible for wheelchairs.  

If you would like to compensate the panelists for their time and expertise: 

  • Alex Hilliard - venmo: @Alex_Hilliard  

Resources: Achieving Equity and Inclusion in Vermont’s Natural Spaces 

Browse the links below to learn more about our panelists and the issue of equitable access to nature. 

Panelist organizations (descriptions adapted from their websites): 

Unlikely Riders is a ‘vermont’ BIPOC non-profit mobilizing its community to find healing with the mountains while claiming space in the snow sports industry & culture. 

Come Alive Outside is a 501c3 nonprofit founded in 2014 that works closely with partners in healthcare, public health, outdoor recreation, and the landscape profession to connect individuals, families, and entire communities to the health and wellness benefits of outdoor spaces where they live, work, and play. 

Vermont Releaf Collective is a growing network of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) in Vermont who enjoy, work in, lead in, benefit from, and contribute to the four focus areas of Releaf: land, environment, agriculture, and foodways. 

Northeast Disabled Athletic Association is a Vermont-based, non-profit charitable organization whose mission is to provide recreational and competitive athletic opportunities for people with physical disabilities, and to support disabled athletes in their pursuit of excellence. 

  • Adaptive Kayaking Program supports, encourages and provides opportunities for people with physical disabilities to pursue adaptive kayaking. 

Pride Center of Vermont‘s mission is to celebrate, educate, and advocate with and for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Vermonters. 

  • Check here for upcoming Pride Hikes, co-hosted by the Pride Center of Vermont, Outright Vermont, and Audubon Vermont! 

Middlebury FIRE (Fostering Inclusive Recreation Experiences) aims to create a safe, supportive community of and for black, indigenous, and people of color outdoor recreators at Middlebury College. FIRE’s goals are to engage people who have been historically and presently excluded from dominant outdoor and environmental culture, increase representation on Middlebury’s campus of BIPOC recreating, and foster connections between people and the natural world. 


Click here for a summary of recent research about equity and access to nature, primarily out of the University of Vermont. 

For an in-depth research summary of the link between access to nature and human health, visit Urban Nature for Human Health and Well-Being, a USDA report published in 2018.  

Media and Books 

Mardi and the Whites,” a 12-minute film by Paula Champagne, documents Mardi Fuller’s liberating relationship with nature in the White Mountains, as well as the challenges she faces as often the only Black person in outdoor places and practices steeped in white supremacy.  

Carolyn Finney is a Vermont-based “storyteller, author and a cultural geographer who is deeply interested in issues related to identity, difference, creativity, and resilience.” She is the author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. 

Making The Greens Less White: Whose Woods are These?” 2020. Vermont Sports Magazine. 

J. Drew Lanham is a wildlife biologist at Clemson University and the acclaimed author of several books and articles about the triumphs and challenges of birding while Black. Here are just a few: 

Policies and Programs 

The 10-Minute Walk Program by the Trust for Public Land is an award-winning national effort to improve safe, easy access to parks and green spaces by advancing policies and solutions that change the way we plan, fund, and govern our public greenspaces. 

In September, the federal government advanced its commitment to create more equitable access to parks and nature, including through the formation of an interagency Nature in Communities Committee.  These investments will support the Justice40 Initiative, which seeks to deliver 40 percent of the overall benefits of climate and clean energy investments to disadvantaged communities. 

For more resources about equitable access to nature, click here and scroll down to view a list of related organizations, businesses, programs, and reading materials from Vermont and beyond, compiled by the Vermont Outdoor Business Alliance. 

How you can help, right now