April 12, 2019

Bring up Mabari Byrd’s impressive work in Philadelphia’s communities and environmental organizations, and he will insist on spreading the credit around. “I am because we are,” he says, expressing his belief that it is the people who surround him--their support, encouragement, and inspiration--that make his work possible.

“I’m just the product of my environment and all of the incredible people that I’ve had a chance to know.”

Mabari, a Philadelphia native, is deeply rooted in his city. Valley Forge National Historical Park provided the site for childhood hiking adventures with his family (adventures that continue with his daughter to this day), the barbershops that he worked in (specifically one that he operated with his cousin) served as the spot he used to host informal youth mentorship meetings, and local grassroots organizations bear the marks of his influence. Giving back to his community is something of a full circle duty that Mabari takes to heart.

“I can’t forget where I came from or what I’ve been through.”

Among the experiences that he carries with him are memories of his childhood as one of seven siblings. “As kids, we rarely if ever got what we wanted, but my family worked hard (together) to secure the things we needed most. We shared our clothes, toys, food, and even bedrooms. We always made it work.” Growing up embedded in a large family and learning, from a very young age, how to collaborate informed Mabari’s worldview. Perhaps this is why Mabari’s role developing Sierra Club’s partnerships across Philadelphia and connecting people to the outdoors is such a good fit. As Delaware Watershed Community Coordinator for both Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO) and Military Outdoors he puts his community-focused perspective into practice.

“What I love about Sierra Club and Sierra Club programs and what makes them unique is that they’re not admin-centered or me-centered, it’s about all of us--the organizers, participants, and volunteers. So the question that gets asked is “how can we provide this experience?” not “how can I provide this experience?” And that little twist changes a lot. It creates an inclusive conversation.”

Facilitating inclusive, open conversations is essential to the process of building community, and this is especially indispensable in environmental work--even more so when that work involves building strong relationships with individuals who have historically been excluded from participation. Individuals who, Mabari explains, may not be fully aware of the engagement opportunities they have within their grasp.

In meetings with prospective and current ICO partners Mabari has these ideas at the front of his mind.

“I encourage participants to ask questions and make suggestions like ‘Can we add lessons to these hikes?’. I tell them ‘Yeah, let’s tailor it to the way that fits your group best!’ and when I hear some of the things that they come up with I say ‘Wow I never thought about that--let me see what I can do’. I love that part, I love that challenge and the creativity of our partners.”

One of Mabari’s first projects was building a community garden, which immediately put his plan to tailor ICO programs to each community into action. Construction and planting was accompanied by information about food security, food deserts, and the importance of growing one’s own food--all of which was relevant to the needs and lives of community members.

“I [started with a garden because I] didn’t want to just dive right into the community and take people on hikes. I wanted to take my time.”

Taking the time to get to know a community is something that Mabari does quite often in developing these relationships with partners, volunteers, and participants. He doesn’t seem to mind that this work calls for patience and attentive conversation--in fact, he rather enjoys it.

“That’s the fun part--building the relationships, getting people involved and having them believe in the vision. Connecting our young people to the outdoors, encouraging leadership and advocacy.”

A local high school, a middle school, and a church--all of which are organizations that commonly form relationships with ICO groups--have recently become the newest members of the Philadelphia ICO. Mabari hopes to soon add another, more unexpected partner to the ICO community: Military Outdoors.  

“My big vision is that we have a collaboration between these two groups that have so much in common--more than people realize. Both youth and veterans face major life transitions, both face challenges in figuring out where they fit in life and in society. They’re two different groups, but if I can find a way to ‘rally the troops’, pun intended, and connect them we could potentially have an infused program that has veterans taking youth on outings or vice versa. There is potential for both groups to be impacted in a positive way.”

There’s little doubt that Mabari’s gift for drawing people together will make this vision a reality. In between planning sessions, though, he turns his attention to his immediate goal with ICO’s young participants.

“I do want them to fall in love with, to understand, and to appreciate--or even just to become aware of--the environment.”

Part of the reason that he has set this as a priority in his work is because he often sees his own experiences reflected in the lives of some of the youth involved.

“I wasn’t always enamored of the outdoors. For a period in my life as a teen and in my early adulthood, I was totally disconnected from [them]. I wasn’t always this green-loving inner city kid.”

In his youth Mabari instead found himself walking a path that he describes as “self-destructive”--a path that claimed the lives and freedom of many of his childhood friends and nearly took his. What changed everything, he says, was the birth of his daughter.

“I wanted her to experience and appreciate the beauty of this world at a young age as I have as an adult. I wanted to provide more experiences and resources that would potentially shield her from the pitfalls and influences that once trapped me. I wanted to expose her to various things that I either didn’t have or [didn’t] connect to [until] later in life.”

Outdoor access and exposure was one of those many things. It’s not uncommon to see them walking together in a park or exploring a forest; Mabari brings her along when he leads outings.

Anyone who attends these trips with Mabari knows that, for him, they are much more than opportunities to be outside. These are opportunities, he explains, that have the potential to make a real difference in the lives of the underprivileged youth from his community.

By the end of an outing he wants young participants to be able to answer two questions: “What did you learn about life?” and “What can you take from this outdoors experience to instill in the context of your community?”

Over the course of his career Mabari has been many things: a group counselor for a D&A program, a summer camp teacher, a high school corrective action counselor, an AmeriCorps stewardship crew leader. It shows. Like a true educator and seasoned youth mentor he sees the potential for life lessons in everything, and the outdoor experience that ICO facilitates is no exception.

“I want them to think ‘If I’m scared of doing something new, I remember when I crossed that river or I took that 3 mile hike. Let me use some of that passion and strength to plow through this GED test or this college application or to plow through and say no to drugs or to plow through and attend those last 3 weeks of school so I can graduate. That is my aim. And, at the end of the day, if the Mother Nature that I grew to love can be the only and most beautifully organic classroom possible I’m all for it.”

Providing young people with the opportunity to see themselves as having strength, courage, and passion is an extraordinary gift. Not only for the youth but for the leadership teams as well.  

“Recently someone said to me ‘These kids should be grateful, [ICO is] giving them something special.’ And I said, ‘Actually, I think that they’re giving us something special. For a lot of them this is their first time outdoors and they are sharing that with us. For a young child to put their first experience outdoors in our hands...we have to take that seriously, we have to make that sacred.”

Taking it seriously, making it sacred.

Mabari realizes that any number of obstacles threaten to make the realization of such a goal difficult. Funding and time are always limited.

But he sets the bar high because he knows it can be reached.

"We" Before "Me": Mabari Byrd Builds Community