Community Conversations: Young Women Empowered

Are you interested in learning about careers in the environmental field or finding out more about great organizations working in the outdoors? Read this week’s Q&A featuring Rae Parks (she/her) from one of our partners, Young Women Empowered. Rae co-manages the organization’s Nature Connections program with Neli Jasuja (she/they). The Nature Connections Program works at the intersection of environmental education and social justice by providing empowering experiences in nature for young women. We asked Rae about how she came to this work and about the mission of Young Women Empowered.  Read on to learn more!

Group photo of the 2019 Nature Connections program participants.

What steps did you take that led to your career focus and this position? Why is this work important to you? 

I came to this work in a roundabout way, but a common thread has always been working with young people and being outside. Over the years I became more interested in equity and justice, particularly in the context of youth-serving organizations. This grew into a more active participation in social justice, anti-racism work, and healing, which became a central part of my commitment to working with young people outside. Before coming to work for Y-WE I worked in program management for an outdoor science school but felt a strong pull to work for an organization where social justice and the leadership of young people was a central tenet of the work rather than an add-on or afterthought.  Working for the Nature Connections at Y-WE has been a transformative and life-affirming gift. In the year I’ve been with Y-WE, I have been challenged in all the best ways, witnessed the radically different ways an organization can serve its community, and been honored to work alongside and learn from some of the most incredible womxn changemakers I’ve ever known. Ultimately though, this work has nothing to do with me.  Y-WE uplifts the voices and leadership of young womxn, particularly young womxn of color. We believe unequivocally that young people have the power to radically change the world for the better, and support them on their journey of doing so with programs that provide leadership tools and an intergenerational community of belonging. A world built around well-being for ourselves and the planet is a vision we work to make a reality every day. We work at the intersection of race, class, and gender, and believe that racial, economic, and environmental injustices are linked. Commitment to this work is built into the DNA of what we do and how we do it. 

What is the mission of Young Women Empowered? What do you think makes the organization unique? 

 Y-WE cultivates the power of diverse young women* to be creative leaders and courageous changemakers through transformative programs within a collaborative community of belonging. We envision a society rooted in social justice, where all young women live their truth, achieve their dreams, and change our world.  *those who identity as a girl/woman, or were assigned female at birth Y-WE is unique in its level of access (all programs are free, meals and transportation are provided), engaged intergenerational mentorship (volunteer adult women mentors are a central part of all programs), emphasis on young womxn’s leadership, particularly young womxn of color (developing leadership skills and contributing to the leadership of the organization), and commitment to social justice as a core tenet of our work. 

 Y-WE is highly responsive to the needs of the community, making constant shifts and adjustments to programs to better serve our young people. During Covid-19 we have shifted all of our regular programs online, are providing emergency basic assistance to high-need families, and preparing to offer 9 different online or hybrid summer camp tracks throughout the month of July. 

Nature Connections participants take a break in the snow during a group ski trip.

Can you tell us more about the Nature Connections program and how you have partnered with King County Parks in the past? 

Y-WE’s Nature Connections program brings a cohort of ~30 young people and ~9 mentors and staff together to go on various outdoor trips throughout the school year, including hiking, snowshoeing, and community stewardship. Alongside our outdoor activities we practice leadership skills, strengthen community, and connect with nature as a place for healing and liberation. We seek to uplift the leadership and voices of womxn of color in particular.  For the past several years we have been pleased to partner with King County Parks to offer a stewardship day as part of our program. Each spring we visit a local park to assist with needed restoration and cleanup projects as a part of caring for our communities and living in reciprocity with nature. 

What benefits do you hope young people get out of time spent in parks? 

 We believe that local parks are a critical resource for the communities we serve. Our hope is that by spending time in local parks, young people and their families deepen their connection with nature, build community, and grow their commitment to stewarding outdoor spaces and public lands of all kinds. We believe also that parks are holders of history and memory. Parks are an invaluable resource, but one that is complicated by the fact that they are on stolen indigenous land. We hope that by learning this history, young people can begin to untangle these complicated histories and relationships and work towards community-based management of public lands that serve long-term healing and liberation. 

Who is eligible to participate in Y-WE’s programs? 

Our programs are open to young womxn (anyone who identifies as a girl/womxn or was identified female at birth) ages 13-18. For in-person programs we serve the greater Seattle area (including Tacoma, the Eastside, and north to the Everett area), and can provide transportation assistance for those who otherwise would not be able to attend. Online offerings are open to young womxn everywhere!

A team from Nature Connections removes blackberry with the Parks Volunteer Program.

To learn more about the work of Y-WE or to get involved, visit their website. They are always welcoming new volunteers and the volunteer form can be found on their website. Womxn 18+ interested in a more in-depth volunteer role can fill out the mentor application- also on the website!  You can also reach out to their team directly at connect@y-we.org.

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