Beyond the Check

Emilia Crotty, Director, Trails and Equitable Access, Southeast Region

On Friday, December 1, 2023, PEC joined Justice Outside to convene grantee partners from both the Circuit Trails Coalition Community Grant Program and Justice Outside’s Liberated Paths Grantmaking Program, which provided the model for the Community Grant Program in 2022. Hosted in Camden by Superior Arts Institute, a grantee partner of both the Circuit Trails Coalition and Justice Outside, the event brought together more than 20 program providers and funders for a half-day of networking, outdoor exploration, and play — something we all agreed is too often dismissed as unnecessary but is vital to relationship-building.

The convening aimed to create a space for program providers to connect and build community, to catalyze collaboration, and to share how funders, PEC, and Justice Outside could better support and sustain them “beyond the check.”

PEC launched the Circuit Trails Coalition Community Grant Program in late 2022, supporting 10 program providers from underserved communities and marginalized groups through two-year grants of up to $10,000 per year. Grantees host programs and projects that address recommendations of the Equity of Access to Trails study.

To create vibrant, welcoming trails and urban green spaces, organized programming is critical. Programming can increase awareness of trails through promotion and marketing, reduce barriers (like having to plan your own adventure), and provide a positive first impression of a trail or open space.

When program providers reflect the same identity, background, or lived experience as their participants, the unique offering they provide can be exactly what participants need to feel welcome and included on trails and in outdoor spaces, making them more likely to engage with the space and reap its benefits.

While programming almost never receives the same attention or funding as design and construction of public space, the Circuit Trails Coalition is beginning to appreciate the value of programming across Greater Philadelphia’s trail network – particularly as a powerful tool to increase a sense of welcoming, belonging, and inclusion among under-represented groups on the trails.

Grantees offer compelling activities geared towards the interests and preferences of the audience; increase a sense of belonging on trails through public art, signage, and messaging that features under-represented groups; create a sense of safety on the trails through friendliness; show people enjoying the trail so that people of various races, ethnicities, abilities, and identities can envision themselves enjoying the trail; and they leverage social media and more traditional outreach methods to raise awareness of a community’s local natural environment.

At the convening event, program providers and funders joined together for an afternoon of activities that helped everyone get to know one other and the great work they do. After a terrific lunch from local Puerto Rican restaurant Old San Juan, PEC facilitated an energetic group activity called “Portrait Gallery,” in which participants collaboratively drew pictures of each member of the group that we later posted on the wall. Under their portrait, each attendee attached index cards where they shared what they can offer the group (for example, meeting space or grant writing assistance) and what they hope to receive (for example, wisdom and friendship).

Grantees and funders took a tour of the the Center for Environmental Transformation in Camden on Friday, Dec. 1.

The group then walked just a few blocks to CFET, the Center for Environmental Transformation, a local partner of Superior Arts Institute. At CFET, we received a tour of the urban garden, including its hoop house and greenhouse, as well as the organization’s nearby retreat space. We learned about environmental justice concerns in Camden, the organization’s efforts to engage residents on complex topics, and ethical dilemmas that arise when trying to fund this work. We also took home some delicious CFET honey!

At our closing circle, participants expressed feeling inspired, rejuvenated, connected, warm, and motivated by the event. The energy in the space illustrated a hunger among program providers for this type of connection and collaboration and convinced us at PEC and the Circuit Trails Coalition that there is a role we can play in convening and helping to network this critical layer in the trails, parks, and open space ecosystem. We are so glad to have taken this first step together with this group and look forward to what is to come!