Written by Erika Rivers
As February comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on my first 90 days as the executive director of Wilderness Inquiry. When I accepted the invitation to join this team, I was excited for the opportunity to continue pursuing my passion for connecting people to the outdoors, and I knew that Wilderness Inquiry’s mission aligned with my core personal values for empathy, equity, and innovation. Completely exceeding my expectations was the particularly warm welcome I received. I was quickly impressed with the dedication of the Wilderness Inquiry team and our Board of Directors, and the incredible programs and services the organization provides.
Thriving, Not Just Surviving
I recently had the opportunity to attend one of our virtual middle school programs – Mississippi River Explorers – and I found myself truly in awe of what our staff facilitators and partnering educators can do in a virtual environment! For that session, we had two groups of students, one from Red Lake in Northern Minnesota and one from Avail Academy in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. These students had the opportunity to learn about an area of the Mississippi River with significant cultural, historic, and geological features. Through this virtual platform, students from substantially different backgrounds and identities shared access to this important place in Minnesota’s history, despite the hundreds of miles distance between them. I knew that our programs exist to connect people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities to the natural world, but this experience really underscored for me how we’re also connecting people to one another – and that’s truly the most powerful part of our work. The program was a proof of concept for virtual, place-based education programs, and inspired us to launch another this month – the Minnesota Freshwater Quest.
Our rapid pivot to virtual programming over the past couple of years has demonstrated how Wilderness Inquiry is thriving through, and not simply surviving through, this global pandemic. We were able to do this – while continuing modified in-person programs – because our organization is built strongly on the core values of Seeking the Exceptional, Paddling Together, and Finding a Way. Our team starts each week orienting our work toward those core values and ends each week appreciating and celebrating one another’s success in achieving goals that reflect those same values. This is also because the core pillars of our mission – building connections to community and to the outdoors – are as important and relevant today as they have ever been.
Planning for the Future at Wilderness Inquiry
Many people know Wilderness Inquiry for our four-decade history of helping make the outdoors more accessible for those experiencing disability. Others know us for our more recent work with Canoemobile and our virtual programs, which connect urban school kids throughout Minnesota and the country with their near-home waterways. Others know us for our integrated, backcountry guided trips, which have made adventure possible and affordable for so many individuals. As we look to the future, Wilderness Inquiry has a tremendous opportunity to find new ways to engage those who face some of the most intractable barriers to experiencing the health and wellness benefits of the outdoors. These barriers often confront people from communities of color; people with varying physical, emotional, cognitive, intellectual, and developmental abilities; or those who experienced trauma impacting their mental health and wellbeing. While the often life-changing impacts of these experiences are recognized in very different ways for each of our participants, it is now my humble responsibility to ensure that every aspect of what we do has a positive impact and helps to further our mission of inclusion.
As such, the Board and staff of Wilderness Inquiry are now embarking on a strategic planning process for 2023–2028, and we are tasked with setting measurable objectives and re-focusing our work in areas that will further our mission of making sure all people feel connected to one another and welcome in outdoor spaces—whether those spaces are in their backyard or in the backcountry. In addition to re-investing in our programs to serve people with disabilities, we’ll be diving deep to better understand how Wilderness Inquiry can help overcome the structural and systemic barriers to the outdoors for members of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. We started this work to connect urban communities with near-home outdoor recreation opportunities with our Canoemobile program in 2008. We built the program from some of the core lessons learned over our long history: Respecting each person’s dignity; Opening lines of communication; Promoting collaborative decision making; and Developing symbiotic relationships. We look forward to continuing to build upon and improve this work to better serve diverse communities.
Our next five years will build on this proud and strong history, and we will continue to learn and adapt our approaches to serving all people by becoming better allies and champions for historically and currently underrepresented communities in outdoor spaces. I welcome you all to participate in our strategic planning process in the coming months (details on how to best engage will be available later this spring) and to take part in our next and newest adventure here at Wilderness Inquiry!