The lifelong Northern Virginian talks about her experiences growing up in the region, her role as a member of NVCT's Board of Directors, and what inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility looks like in the world of conservation.
By Aaron Kershaw
Published: July 15, 2021
Q: Where are you from, and were you able to forge a connection to nature in your childhood?
Great, yes. I was born in Newport News, Virginia, and then my parents moved to Reston when I was like, two years old. So I grew up in Reston, Virginia. It's a planned community in Northern Virginia that really embodies the biophilia aspect pretty naturally in its core philosophies. I grew up being able to walk to a grocery store or walk to a community center or a pool, walk to my parks, of course, and have a very short ride to my school, and I really enjoyed that. I think for a large extent, took it for granted that I lived in this, not only idyllic suburb but a suburb where I had access to nature and my parents had planned for that. They really created it as a core value, so I grew up taking my bikes to the pool with my brother and experiencing the local trails, really, really granularly, plant identification pretty passively as a child, which I really enjoyed. Nowadays, I think people would really call me less of an outdoors enthusiast. I'm not your average hiker, biker, walker even, but I really think what makes me feel proud about where I come from is that I've always had a deep appreciation for nature. And an understanding that inherently, it is necessary for our daily lives.
Q: What made you interested in advocating for inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility?
I'm Indian American. I'm first-generation. My parents were both born in a city called "Hyderabad" in India, which is in the south. I think it's very interesting to talk about where we come from and how that informs who we are. I carry a lot of privilege with who I am in India; my family carries a lot of privilege of who they are in India. And when my parents came to this country and made a lot of sacrifices were forced to assimilate in a lot of really interesting ways. You carry culture through assimilation, but you also retain culture yourself when you create a mixed culture between you and your birth country. I really appreciate that difference in myself now, but for the longest time, it was really hard for me to feel separate from my peers or outnumbered by individuals who don't look like me being a minority essentially. And as I've gotten older, it's been increasingly interesting, especially for me to think about how we're preparing our world in the future. To be open so that nobody ever feels left out in any way, simply. I don't want my peers to feel like they don't belong in an urban landscape if they don't look a certain way. They don't act a certain way, or they don't have a certain amount of money to be able to afford a luxury condo building with a rooftop deck. You know, and it all kind of goes into that for me.
We are the generation that is moving things forward for environmentalism, for access to open spaces for nature. While simultaneously, we are destroying our planet. Especially in our urban corridors, we are losing out on opportunities to protect vital lands. I think when I first heard about NVCT, I was really challenged by the mission to take on this huge issue by the simple act of providing tax benefits. And I think that's not a message that's going to naturally resonate with Gen-Z and millennials, but it's one that is a pivotal step in the confines of capitalism to ensuring we have a better, greener future. So we don't have to be so nihilistic about what the future of our planet may look like if we begin preparing today. We won't have to worry about it.
Q: As a lifelong Northern Virginian that's served on the Arlington Parks and Recreation Commission for the last four years, I'm curious if you see parks as the connective tissue between urban areas and nature?
I really do. Public parks will always hold an important utility in our community landscapes. In the United States, we really take it for granted that we have access, especially in our urban corridors, to these beautiful, manicured public spaces. And that's even in the context of what we think about parks being in the past, right? A green pasture, maybe some program space for a particular sport, like basketball or soccer. A baseball diamond or whatever, but also in forward-thinking about how the mission of a lot of urban communities is to turn mixed-used spaces into really passive corridors where anybody can enjoy nature, and it's not necessarily programmed to "Oh well, this bench is for the spectators" and "this bench is for the visitors" as opposed to being the space where we all come and congregate, "look there's a free bench, let's go hang out." And I am really impressed, especially by many of the jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, to take on that task really actively. In order to promote a park space, a natural park space.
That's my angle of why I love being part of the commissions in Arlington, in particular, that are focused on Parks and Rec, but on the flip side, I'm also super passionate about bringing in more mixed-use land that corporations are taking from us in this area. That building entities that are raising multi-unit dwellings that are just a hundred apartments in one little complex. What are they doing for all of us to contribute back in terms of open space? Yes, those grants those land parcels will largely only support the community members that they are targeting. Employees of large corporations or residents of a large condo building, but I think that acknowledgment and also having strict guidelines in our jurisdictional practices outlining the requirements that we need for public spaces ensures a longevity that we will always have some green space in our communities.
Q: What does the IDEA Committee mean to you?
Really, to me, is three core important principles that any IDEA Committee should embody, and the way I view it is very narrowly. One is to provide a safe space for anybody in the organization to be able to talk through any issues that they are facing within the realm of IDEA. So that is issues you are having in the IDEA space, or we are having in the IDEA space, but we're also creating a safe community where any idea (not IDEA, but the word idea) could be tolerated in that space. There's no bad, or wrong, or stupid questions or answers to be told. We're supposed to hash it out here. This is the space.
The second big initiative to me is to iteratively improve on how we can support staff. That's like in the advancement category, right, the retention category, what does it look like, and how are we made up? But also, how are we ensuring that this organization in perpetuity maintains these values and goals. Are we doing the right things? Are we talking to the right people? Things like that, and then thirdly, I think the biggest category and the category we are all most excited about, advancing NVCT's mission in IDEA. So, making us more applicable and ready for grant funding. Making us more accessible to communities that we haven't already talked to, to add to our punch list of new conservation practices. Things like that, that really expand upon our mission to be as in-depth and pervasive as possible in the trust space.
Q: What do you say to people who don't see value in being sensitive to issues impeding diversity and inclusion?
First and foremost, it's like, "get with the times, dude," I'm not here to convince anybody that there is marginalization in the United States by any means. And it is the way that the world is going that we are hearing from people who don't look like us and trying to empathize with them in everyday life. But beyond that, there's something that everybody can gain from being more diverse—being more equitable, being more inclusive, and being more accessible. Everybody can gain something in that, and if at min, it means that nobody is left out, then I am happy. But it's not just that nobody is left out, it's that we are pushing ourselves to think about how we can attract as many people as possible, not as an active practice, but for skeptics at min we are trying to keep everybody who wants access to have it.
Q: How can we plant seeds of IDEA principles amongst staff and board members? And how should we outwardly project IDEA to the public?
For the first part of the question, I think it is on the idea committee to a large extent to be organized and thoughtful in the way that we are communicating our accomplishments and our plans to the board and staff as a whole. And that's by being specific and concrete about what we are doing and what our goals are. And we are on our way to doing that, I think with the VEE Grant, I don't know if we're going to talk about that in this, but I'm super stoked about that in not only what it allows us to do, but there are some conditions that come with getting a very dedicated amount of funding.
It means that you do have to plan and means that you do have an outlook. It provides opportunity, but it also gives you goal posts and boundaries and a road map to start working on. So I'm super excited about how we're going to be able to communicate both internally and externally, just about our accomplishments in VEE. But I think largely, I'm thinking more about the external communications. We should strive not just to match our peers or match people in our space, but be leaders here because this is an untapped market. And one that we know is going to really flourish in all of the jurisdictions that we are a part of.
People are going to enjoy that we are emphasizing IDEA, and we should capitalize on that. Because if we don't, we're missing out on a vital segment where honestly, we could be a huge player in. So yeah, we should be on the vanguard for a lot of those things.
Q: How do you feel people from diverse backgrounds connect with nature and conservation?
That's a good question. I think it goes back a little bit to what I was saying before. We're starting to deemphasize the importance of having really programmed spaces for specific uses. "This is the playground where you go over to the big swing," and "this is the playground where you have really modern cool spinning things." As opposed to, this is a mix-used space. Some people using for commuting back and forth, some people walk their dogs here, and some people take their children and find a way to play games.
That is the beauty of having a more active piece of ground that we can all use, but I also think it's about different segments of our population, yes in terms of racial diversity, but also in terms of age a little bit too. My grandparents are in Texas right now; they got stuck here (in the US) due to the pandemic. Long story short. And they're not having the best time because they want to be back home in India. It's tough, right? And they found a lot of solace in the twice-daily walk. Now that we all are vaccinated, my grandparents are coming here in July into Northern Virginia, staying with my parents in Reston. I just can not wait for them to be here because in Texas, forget a good trail; they don't even have a sidewalk. And here, I just know that they're going to take a lot of value in that daily walk. They're not going on any fancy or strenuous hike or anything; they're literally going on a 20-minute walk. But I just know it's going to be so much nicer for them to take that here. It's going to add something that they've been missing, and partially that's because of where they come from. And I can reflect back on what their walks are like at their home.
It's also that I know that Reston, I know that Northern Virginia, I know that Arlington has done a really good job at making sure that anybody can access that public green space for their enjoyment. And I'm not going to get as much out of that trail, that 15-minute walk as my grandparents will, but I know that it being there is important for all of us.