The following story is written by Ashley Brailsford, Ph.D., founder of Unearthing Joy. Including the stories and contributions of Indigenous, Black, and other people of the global majority serves as a catalyst for reconnection to the outdoors for families and communities. So I decided to provide programming and development that honors culture and explores justice to unearth joy in the outdoors.

I have always enjoyed the outdoors. Whether it was exploring camping with our all-Black Girl Scout troop, spending summers on my grandparents’ farms, running through sprinklers with our neighbors, summer camps in the mountains of North Carolina, or adventuring in New Zealand through a summer exchange program, I loved the outdoors! It never occurred to me that I would one day couple my love of the outdoors with my career path. 

You see, I went to college to be an educator. I started out as a Montessori teacher, then became an early childhood professor, and later on, a non-profit leader focused on program development for families. In the midst of growing my career, I continued spending time outdoors, eventually becoming a volunteer Outdoor Afro leader in Nashville. Outdoor Afro is an organization dedicated to inspiring Black connections and leadership in the outdoors. Through that experience, I learned the power of Black stories connected to nature and how they serve as an opportunity to see ourselves in the outdoors and reconnect us to nature.

As I continued to lead outdoor events in 2020, like many folks, I was also experiencing a personal and professional transformation. Shortly after the pandemic began, I like to say I was liberated from my job as a program director, and this gave me the opportunity to pause and reflect deeply on what I wanted to do next. I knew that whatever it was it had to center JOY. During this period my son, who was in kindergarten, was no longer going to school, like many other children across the country. I used this time of freedom as an opportunity to use the outdoors as our classroom. I realized his questions served as our foundation for learning which I could build upon through books, art, podcasts, experiments, and other creative projects.

As summer came to an end, I embraced that I was enjoying our outdoor learning experiences and wanted him to continue to experience learning through nature, so I started looking into nature-based education programs. I quickly, but not surprisingly, realized how white these spaces were, both in the people who were leading these programs as well as the curriculum that was being delivered. I wanted my child to have nature-based experiences but ones in which he could see himself and that were grounded in the stories and people of our community. 

As it turns out, I had already been creating a foundation for the work I would do next. We had been volunteering at a community garden/urban farm that is owned by a Black woman, Ms. Pearl. I learned about other farmers she was connected to such as Ms. Cynthia, a former trauma nurse, turned poultry farmer. After visiting with Ms. Cynthia at her farm, I shared the idea of inviting other families and creating a learning experience. I invited some families who I knew were also homeschooling and looking for community and as we say, the rest is history.

Families play and explore nature during a lesson with Unearthing Joy

That one experience turned into a 6-week series in the spring called Gardening for Food Justice at the community garden. Then, in the fall of 2021, I created a series called Skills for Liberation in which we explored what is often referred to as “wilderness skills” but are really just skills many of our ancestors had to know in order to live and thrive (plant medicine, foraging, building fires, navigating with the stars, etc.). Since then, I have created a Creative Arts in Nature series to explore different types of art and its connections to nature such as drumming, photography, print making, etc. All of these experiences are led by Black and Brown people in the Nashville community as well as our attending parents to honor their knowledge and gifts.

The goal of the programming I have created is really to challenge what counts as nature and yes, to rethink outside, including how we engage with the outdoors and who gets to engage in the outdoors. It is not always a kayak or a hike that is appealing but rather stories, a sense of community, the arts, and joy are also central for a lot of people’s engagement in the outdoors; hence why I eventually named the business Unearthing Joy.

I get asked all the time if I am going to expand the programming that I offer and my response is usually no, because my goal was never to be the one leading programming in neighborhoods across the city or country but rather to spark conversations about what culturally-inclusive nature programming can look like in YOUR community, and encourage folx to co-create their own programs WITH their neighbors. Through workshops and consulting I get the opportunity to share the strategies I use to create my community-based programs that can be applied in your own community. These strategies are grounded in multicultural education and culturally responsive frameworks from the education field. 

Families play and explore nature during a lesson with Unearthing Joy

The majority of the work for Unearthing Joy is collaborating with nature-connected organizations such as garden education programs, early childhood organizations, funders, schools, and parks and recreation, to rethink their programming efforts so they are more culturally-inclusive of the past and present stories, roles, and contributions of Indigenous, Black and other people of the global majority. And I want to be clear that culturally-inclusive programs are necessary, regardless of the demographics you work with, in the effort to build understanding that our stories not only matter but have greatly shaped and contributed to the work connected to the outdoors. These stories and our knowledge hold great promise for providing solutions to our greatest injustices we are all facing related to climate, environment, health, and food systems. 

Our primary goal at Unearthing Joy is to honor culture and explore justice to unearth joy. To learn more about how you can transform your curriculum and programs to be more culturally-inclusive, contact us for our signature workshops for your organization on our website, or follow us on Instagram or Facebook @unearthingjoytogether. 

Ashley Brailsford, Ph.D. is an early childhood educator and nature enthusiast who launched Unearthing Joy to guide the development of culturally-inclusive, nature-based programming for families, community groups, and organizations that center the stories and contributions of Indigenous, Black, and other people of the global majority. Her experiences in teaching, professorship, curriculum development, and leadership in education coupled with time spent as an outdoor guide informs her programming and development process to create outdoor spaces into inclusive spaces that honor culture, explore justice, and unearth joy.