Nature Club: Using Environmental and Harm-Reduction Lenses to Tackle New Topics

Environmental Learning for Kids
10 min readMay 29, 2024

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Listen to the interview

Franklin Cruz (elle/él, they/he), ELK’s recently-hired Community Programs Coordinator, gives an interview on their educational philosophy and the wide range of topics students want to learn about during Nature Club. ELK’s Events & Marketing Coordinator, Lauren Keller (she/her), asks them about the purpose of Nature Club, their favorite memories, and how they approach delicate yet critical subjects.

Participatory Education in Action: a student tells Franklin her dreams for Nature Club

Lauren: Alright. Thank you for taking the time to talk today. To start, I’d love it if you could tell me a little bit about the basics of Nature Club. ‘Who’s it for?’ ‘What does a typical day look like?’ That kind of stuff.

Franklin: So, Nature Club, as I inherited it, is an after-school program for kids from McGlone Elementary and McGlone Middle School who get out early on Thursdays at 12 p.m. and then they just essentially need a place to go land. So, it’s between us, the Boys and Girls Club, and the library. And so, the Boys and Girls Club is a really popular location. It’s all sports activities and recreations and games. There’s not really a lot of facilitated program there. The library does have some facilitated games but also, it’s very open-ended, open facilitation, choose your own adventure kind of style. When kids come to ELK, though, we do have a plan. So, when ELK starts at 12:30, they usually get here, and for the first half hour I just am aware of that they’ve had a day. They are also children and just kind of need a moment to discharge whatever they have. And so, we have a half hour of just eating and playtime. It is also supposed to be their scheduled phone time. So, when they are allowed to just TikTok and text and make videos and whatever they want because it’s just a thing that they need. And then at 1 is our first actual activity and opening. We have started doing this practice that I brought from my Native community, which is a spirit plate. We have Chef Sabriya who cooks us weekly catered lunches, and so we take a little bit of her catered lunch, and the students all choose a menu and then we put it on a plate and just essentially think of like people who have passed, people who are going through stuff, ourselves, Mother Nature — anyone who deserves good vibes. And then, as Nature Club continues throughout the day, that plate will collect good vibes, and, later on, we put it out into nature for the animals to consume whatever it is. And we have a lot of animals in our Open Space who are just trying to survive. So, we just give the energy back to nature. And so, then from there, our usual activities are whatever they plan for the week. They have, what I use is, a community participatory model. They told me what they wanted to learn when I first got here. They had a whole selection process. Everyone nominated different topics. We all then voted for the topics that we had weeks for. We all then decided the order of those topics, and then they all understood that it was my job to fulfill all of that and they just had to come through and get that programming. We’ve done everything from mammals and bodies and slavery and Jesus, extinction. Um, we also had an art activity with the Arsenal [Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge]. And this is after I inherited the club, almost into its third — second? — third, like, trimester and almost done. So, I had some fun adjustments and also just winging it.

Nature Club students designing art for the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Lauren: Super cool.

Franklin: Yeah. And I think at the end we all just clean up, put the spirit plate out. It’s usually 3:00 by then, and they can hang out if they want to more, but Nature Club is officially over at that time.

Lauren: Awesome. So, you’re tackling a wide range of topics, so I bet you’re getting some really good stories out of those meetings. Do you — what’s one of your favorite Nature Club memories so far?

Franklin: So far, I think it — for one, just the selection process of topics just literally being like ‘What do you want to learn about?’ and the things that didn’t even make it onto there. We had LGBTQ history, they wanted to learn about genetic development of genders and just like how bodies end up being the bodies that they are. They also wanted to learn — what else did they want to learn about? — they wanted to learn volleyball. Just wanted to learn about grass. They just wanted to learn about prairie dogs. They just wanted to learn about season farming. They want to learn about nutrition, physiology, neurodiversity, like these are all the things that did not make the cut. And I was like, ‘That would’ve been cool! But it’s not what you wanted to learn about. And it’s not my place to choose for you.’ And then I think just the — I can start to see the relationship building between us: the ‘Who are you? You’re not the guy who I knew before … Okay, you’re cool; you’re fine, I guess … Oh, hey. I actually kind of like messing with you and, like, playing and stuff like that … Oh, these are actually kind of fun games. I’m going to start coming back more,’ and then there are, I think, some hesitations between folks who the transition was not nice, and the transition was not healthy, and so they have either fully elected to never come back, and like I have never seen them, but like previous editions of people, like, know that they used to come. Some come back but then kind of hang out and then leave. You know, it’s just like a quick check-in, like, I think they want to see that Nature Club is still Nature Club, but it’s not necessarily the same thing no more. And so, they’re like, ‘Mmm. Okay, cool.’ And then I think the ones who are more open and integrating and being like, ‘Oh, this is cool. It’s not the same, but it’s cool!’ So then, just kind of being realistic as a Homo sapien of being like, ‘There’s so much I can do about that. And, in the being true to myself, I also can’t lie to them and keep Nature Club the same way ’cause that wouldn’t be true to who I am.’

Lauren: Right. Yeah. That’s a hard — it’s a hard thing with the transition, but you’ve made big strides with Nature Club already. *Laughs* [Franklin’s] fist pumping right now.

Franklin: Oh yeah, I forgot this is audio. Audible fist pump!

Lauren: Um, but, you know, with the students who stay, and with the selection process of those topics, what then happens when you lead these programs about this wide range of topics? Like, give me an example of how you’ve gone about tackling something like Jesus, which I know you haven’t gotten to yet.

As a challenge, Nature Club students completed puzzles representing religions and spiritualities whose practices, traditions, and ceremonies rely on a healthy environment

Franklin: It will be today. Um, but we have a good plan. I think, like, the easy ones are like the mammal ones — makes sense. Extinction — makes sense. The art one was a little more of a stretch for them, but, also, we’re making art for the Refuge, for its entrance, based on the animals of the park — makes sense. Um, once we started getting — and I’m trying to think of, like, lesser ones because I think slavery and Jesus were the hardest ones I had. Oh, we had a drug prevention one recently! And you’re like, ‘Okay, I mean, I can kind of see how, environmentally, drug prevention is a thing that can be talked about, but, also, why is ELK talking about this?’ But as the Community Coordinator for this space, like, who lives in the area, I’m also just super aware of how exposed these children are to drugs all the time. Like, it is so casual for them to just see weed, needles, alcohol, all of this being used, whether in the streets, in the parks, or in their own personal families, and we all are aware of health and its environmental, like — what’s the word? — relevance. And so, if we, as environmental people, are concerned about the health of our environment — and that includes drugs — then, as ELK, I am appropriately positioned to talk about this in a community that deals with drugs, with the high population of children around.

Lauren: Right.

Franklin: So, I was like, ‘Oh, cool, this now makes sense.’ And then we just made a scavenger hunt game where I hid elements of drugs and, like, drug conversations, and drug preventions around; they found papers, put them onto a board, had to categorize them correctly; and then we had a conversation about personal, social, and environmental factors of drug prevention. And then we just, like, learned about the effects of drugs on the body so they are aware of the harms that could happen. That’s like a harder one. Then, the slavery one that we did — that one was an interesting one, because why would ELK talk about slavery? And slavery from the most superficial levels has no environmental impact. It’s a full social, economical, and class conversation. But then, because they wanted to talk about it, I had to figure out a way to do it, and we ended up landing on biomimicry as a lens. So, slavery is humans taking advantage of other humans. As an analog, where can we see that in nature as well? So, then we talk about symbiosis, and then we talk about Cordyceps. We talk about ant colonies who truly colonize and enslave other ant colonies. We talk about plants and choking vines who literally, like, do that. And then we also talk about other folks like Hernán Cortés, who colonized Mexico. We talked about — what was — uh, the Mexica empire and how they colonized their tribal communities as well. We talked about so many other places, and — it’s like — this is a process that is seen in nature. But then we combined it with the other element, which is harm reduction, which is all of these creatures — every single category or every single organism — this group does not care what happens to the other organism. That is what makes this possible. That is what makes this okay in their eyes. So, parasites do not care what happens to you, choking vines do not care what happens to you, and so on and so forth and so forth. If you want to believe that this is a system that is natural and is just okay to practice, you are permitted to because nature does do that. If you are a Homo sapien who believes in harm reduction, though, then you do not practice these things because you are aware of the harm to the other individual. And then we talk about things like commensalism and symbiosis, where it’s just like, ‘Oh, you could kind of help someone, and they don’t have to help you.’ That’s fine. And also mutualism, which is the better one: ‘I help you, and then you help me.’ And it’s like, ‘Why don’t we talk about that?’ There is no reason we all have to lean towards parasitism or slavery and believe that, ‘Oh, well, that’s just a natural thing that happens in the world. So why ever fight it?’ It’s like, ‘Oh, because there’s two other types of symbiosis that we can achieve with harm reduction.’

Lauren: Awesome. Thank you so much. I hope you have a great time at Nature Club today.

Franklin: Yeah!

About Environmental Learning for Kids: Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK) is a local nonprofit that creates a sense of belonging, self-discovery, and adventure in the outdoors for underrepresented young people of color and their families, transforming youth into environmental stewards and trailblazers that promote equitable outdoor access, sustainable practices, and community uplift. Learn more at elkkkids.org.

About Franklin Cruz (Interviewee): Franklin is a queer Latin dancer, poet and environmental nerd born in Idaho, raised Texan and polished in Denver. Born from an immigrant family, their work has placed them in science museums, as an emcee for dance & poetry competitions, conferences and environmental spaces. A Tedx Mile High performer and Nature of Cities residency his worked throughout the southwest, Peru, Puerto Rico for universities and environmental leadership camps. Their work encompasses self love, immigration, culture, conservation and more. Franklin always aims to address intersectional liberation, confronting our complicity to privilege and oppression and the lesson of specificity over simplicity.

About Lauren Keller (Interviewer and Author): Lauren is ELK’s Events & Marketing Coordinator. She was born and raised in Miami, Florida but has done meaningful work in Colorado since graduating from Colorado College with a BA in Environmental Studies in 2021. Lauren is passionate about harnessing visual media to share the wonder of the natural world with everyone. She is currently pursuing an MA in Biology with a focus on conservation communications. In her free time, you can find Lauren reading, playing games, cooking new foods, or searching for wild animals to photograph.

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Environmental Learning for Kids

Environmental Learning for Kids cultivates a passion in science, leadership, and service in a diverse community of learners.