A Season of Healing

Keisha Prawl-Woods stands in the forest

Keisha Prawl-Woods, director of financial services in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, attends Wekesa’s kickoff event, forest bathing on campus.

Spring 2023 Explorations

REI-Funded Center Promotes Nature-Based Research and Reparation

The new Wekesa Earth Center, part of UMD’s School of Public Health, is rooted in West Africa, but its promise to offer deeper understanding of the human-nature connection will come to fruition in College Park and around the country.

“Wekesa,” which means “born during harvest time,” will conduct research on the connection between nature and wellness, offer programming that offers people new ways to interact and feel a belongingness with the natural world, and discuss the ways that land-based brutalities and injustices like lynchings or forced exiles of indigenous people have manipulated the land as a tool of creating harm and perpetuating anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.

In recognition of her nature scholarship, Associate Professor of kinesiology Jennifer Roberts received a grant of $160,000 from REI’s Cooperative Action Fund, the nonprofit branch of the outdoors company, to establish the center. The Wekesa Earth Center will be led by Roberts and Shannon Jette, also an associate professor of kinesiology. The fund supports organizations that seek to rectify the longstanding exclusion of people of color from activities like hiking, mountain biking or climbing, and promotes justice, equity and belonging in the outdoors. A 2021 Outdoor Industry Association survey found that nearly 75% of people who participated in outdoor activities are white.

Wekesa Earth Center officially launched in April with on-campus forest bathing, in which people spend time in nature for physiological and spiritual well-being. This fall, the center will host a workshop at Abiquiu, N.M.’s Ghost Ranch, most famous for its association with artist Georgia O’Keeffe. There, 25 scholars will discuss topics like green space, belongingness, ecological reparations and nature justice.

The center represents an expansion of Roberts’ and Jette’s NatureRx@UMD, a chapter of a national movement encouraging people to go outside to improve their mental health.

“I really wanted to make sure (the center) was something that would promote equity, reconciliation and healing in regard to nature and increasing belongingness,” says Roberts.


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