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Undergraduate and graduate students Fredy Quevedo, Lateshia Dove, Jared Gleason, and Kristel Ong are actively involved in the study.

RST Researchers get grant to combat systemic racism in access to nature

Two researchers from the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism in the College of Applied Health Sciences are among the recipients for this first year of Call to Action funding from the Office of the Chancellor.

RST Professors Monika Stodolksa and Kim Shinew received a grant of $93,428 for their project entitled, "Combating Systemic Racism in Access to Nature, Open Spaces, and Parks and Recreation." Drs. Stodolska and Shinew plan to give a formal evaluation of continuing efforts by the Urbana Park District (UPD) to increase access to nature and recreation opportunities among diverse residents, as well as create a blueprint that can be shared nationwide on how to dismantle systemic racism and increase access to nature and recreation among people of color.

Parks and recreation services play critical roles in making neighborhoods and cities livable, the researchers said, helping to improve mental and psychological health, increase physical activity, decrease obesity and hypertension, and increase community pride. The critical roles of nature and recreation in people’s health and wellbeing have been underscored by the COVID pandemic, Drs. Stodolska and Shinew said.

Data collection is underway and undergraduate and graduate students Fredy Quevedo, Lateshia Dove, Jared Gleason, and Kristel Ong are actively involved in the study.

Drs. Stodolska and Shinew said the study builds on the research project their team conducted in 2016-2017 that evaluated the needs, interests, benefits, and constraints regarding the utilization of Urbana Park Districts’ programs among underserved residents. This area of research is important, they said, due to historical and contemporary systemic racism and exclusionary practices that have caused people of color to have fewer opportunities to access recreation services and natural environments at the community and national levels, making them less likely to obtain the physical and mental health benefits these types of experiences provide.

The previous study, Drs. Stodolska and Shinew said, showed that constraints such as fees, transportation, racial tensions, lack of knowledge of opportunities, safety, and language barriers negatively affected minority residents’ ability to access parks and recreation programs.

Thanks to the results of the researchers’ previous study, the UPD has, over the past four years, implemented a number of steps to improve the provision of their services to underserved residents that included the establishment of the new Outreach and Wellness Division, staff diversity trainings, development of a new action plan, translation services, multi-language signage, restoration of local parks, changes in marketing campaigns, new programs delivered on-site in low-income underserved neighborhoods, targeted outreach efforts, and a new “You Belong Here” campaign.

The UPD also was able to leverage resources from local grants to provide on-site scholarships to reduce the cost of recreation programs for low-income residents, the researchers said. The UPD staff estimated that the new outreach efforts resulted in more than 2,000 “new” users—mostly African American and Latinx children—being able to access play opportunities, recreation programs, and nature in Champaign County.

“Such efforts undertaken by the UPD are pioneering and, thus, have the potential to serve as a model for recreation agencies across the U.S. on how to dismantle obstacles to accessing nature and recreation opportunities that have roots in the historical systems of oppression,” Drs. Stodolska and Shinew said.

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