Fostering Healing in Nature

Photo: Lauren Garms

Nicole Jackson is advocating for public lands and spreading the gospel of wellness through nature.

To honor Women’s History Month, Public Lands is showcasing women who are establishing new trails, creating new stories about women’s experience outdoors, and making history now. We recently sat down with Nicole Jackson, whose journey to advocacy was not so typical. Growing up in Cleveland, she experienced childhood abuse, which is when nature became her form of self-care. While earning her environmental education degree from The Ohio State University, she worked with youth and the public for various environmental nonprofits throughout Ohio. She co-organized Black Birders Week and created Black in National Parks Week. Beyond these largely online events, she also serves on the Next Generation Advisory Council of the National Parks Conservation Association. Now 33 and Columbus-based, Jackson (she/her) has also just launched her own business, N Her Nature LLC, which aims to provide a safe space for Black women to heal and grow through meaningful nature experiences. So while her email signature begins with ‘Environmental Educator, Birder,’ there’s no concise label that captures all the ways in which she inspires fellow Black women, plus so many others, to get outside for education, recreation—and therapy. 

By Mary Reed

MARY REED: How and when did the outdoors become an important part of your life?

NICOLE JACKSON: It started at a very young age when I was in foster care. It was very hard, traumatic. Unfortunately, I was the victim of sexual abuse. My safe place was outside. I liked to go in the backyard when I was feeling afraid or anxious, after experiencing abuse from the adults that were supposed to be taking care of me. I would take time to be still and listen to nature—take in nature and the birds and the plants and the trees. It kept me calm. Nature was my therapy. And then my relationship with nature progressed through education and sharing with others how it healed me. I realized that although I went through something tragic, my abuse did not define me. It has given me more strength and understanding that I can have a positive impact by sharing my story of survival and resilience.

How did you become a birder?

I got into birding after completing an avian technician internship as an undergrad at The Ohio State University. During the summer, I monitored urban bird populations in Columbus and learned about ecology, predation, mapping, and bird banding. It was a great experience as I was able to improve my bird identification skills. When the internship was done, I began joining friends and local birding groups on bird walks to expand my knowledge. My first environmental education job was as a camp counselor at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center. In that position, I learned more about bird conservation and how to engage communities interested in environmental stewardship.

Did anyone blaze the trail for you as a Black woman in the outdoors, or did you mostly blaze your own trail? 

I had to blaze my own trail. But there were definitely role models. For instance, my science teacher in high school; she was a Black woman. She was very encouraging, and when things were hard she would talk me through it. And also my mom. She raised 11 children. Even though she didn’t quite understand my interest in nature, she knew I had a path and there was no stopping me. Rue Mapp started Outdoor Afro; she is one of my professional role models because she amplified the importance of connecting more Black people to the outdoors. And African-American national park leaders like Shelton Johnson (a park ranger at Yosemite National Park) and Audrey Peterman. She played a huge role in me joining the Next Generation Advisory Council of the National Parks Conservation Association. I love being an advocate for public lands.

And you are now blazing a trail and inspiring others?

I’ve become a role model for my aunt. She knows that I love getting outdoors and has started to make it a regular activity in her own life. When I visit family in Cleveland, she's usually the first one I connect with. She rarely turns down an opportunity to tag along with me to bird or hike at a local park. She’s let me know that I’ve inspired her to seek more adventure and prioritize her health.

Nicole Jackson poses while birdwatching Anikka Smith

You’re a public lands advocate, and Ohio has some quality public lands like the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park—I do have a memory when I was in sixth grade. We went and did an overnight. I didn’t even know it was a national park. It wasn’t until college that I really started to go back and visit to hike and bird more often. The history alone blew me away. For example, the Underground Railroad, Native American communities, and the construction of the park’s infrastructure by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

There are eight national park units in Ohio. I think it’s important to have an understanding of the national park history as it relates to African-American history, with the Buffalo Soldiers and the first park superintendent, Charles Young. [Young was a U.S. Army colonel who led a regiment of Buffalo Soldiers, a segregated Black cavalry whose members also served as park rangers. He became the first African-American superintendent of a national park, before the National Park Service was created. Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument is located in Wilberforce, Ohio.]

Tell us about Black in National Parks Week.

I wanted to tap into the stories and the experiences of everyday Black people visiting national parks and having adventures, the history of African Americans and their contributions to the National Park Service. But the focal point was hearing the experiences of Black people who were visiting. In 2021, I created a story project to highlight those stories—via Instagram and Facebook. This year, I want to continue highlighting their adventures and experiences.

How did Black Birders Week come about?

A group of us [Black nature enthusiasts, birders and scientists] created BBW in response to the Central Park incident back in June 2020 [when a white woman called the police on a Black birder]. That was a conversation to help us talk about what we were experiencing as Black birders and Black STEM educators. A lot of it focused on what we go through around issues of safety, looking for jobs, hiring practices, representation within these fields of work. And then just talking about what we enjoy doing outdoors. We love birding, we love herpetology, we love science, technology. It was having a safe space to share but also to create. Which essentially turned into Black Birders Week [last week in May]. 

I think there is currently a groundswell of people wanting to be allies. What are some good ways to be an ally to people who might be marginalized in an outdoor context?

I see it as a heavy question; I feel like we know the answers. I think you really need to start with the self. If we aren’t leading by example, or speaking out against the wrongs, whether that be racism, homophobia … then are we really doing a service to people who need our help or feel like they don’t have the power to defend themselves? 

Tell us about launching N Her Nature. 

I created N Her Nature to provide a safe space for Black women to prioritize self-care and their mental health and wellbeing in nature. I’m hoping to do more one-on-one coaching sessions so I can really have the time and space to focus on the Black women that I’m working with and their specialized needs. This is part of my every day: I’m taking care of myself, I’m taking walks in nature to improve my health. I’m even challenging myself to do more outdoor activities like kayaking, rock climbing, ziplining … birding included!

It’s teaching the life lessons that we don’t necessarily acknowledge being in nature, but they happen: patience, empathy, compassion. I feel as Black women, we’re so used to serving family, friends and people in our community, but not so much ourselves. We are also busy doing so many things that we don’t take the time to celebrate our accomplishments. When one task is complete, we just move on to the next without pause. To take time to acknowledge it and celebrate it, that’s so important nowadays. 

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