By Polly Ikonen, Senior Counselor
We recently spoke with Annie Burke, executive director TOGETHER Bay Area, about the group’s efforts to address two important challenges: climate change and social inequities. In the following Q&A, Annie shares her thoughts on these, as well as how our relationship with the outdoors will evolve in light of COVID-19. You can also listen to a special episode of “KQED Forum” which features TOGETHER Bay Area and suggests several ways to still “get outside” while sheltering in place.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (or POST) and Save the Redwoods League, two LCI clients, are founding members of TOGETHER Bay Area. In addition, valuable financial support for the organization is provided by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, another LCI client.
Describe the mission of TOGETHER Bay Area and how it has evolved since originating as Bay Area Open Space Council.
TOGETHER Bay Area is a regional coalition of nonprofits, public agencies, and Indigenous Tribes working for lands, people, and communities. We connect, convene, and catalyze action for a just and equitable society where we live in relationship with the land that sustains us now and will sustain future generations. Right now we have 55 members, some of whom have been members since our first founding in 1990, when a group of parks and open space leaders – including LCI clients Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) and Save the Redwoods League – formed the Bay Area Open Space Council.
The Bay Area Open Space Council went through a significant transition in 2018-2020, and the result was our second founding, if we can call it that. With critical financial support provided by another LCI client The Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria and several other members, we developed a new mission, vision, and values so that we can more strategically address the two challenges we face collectively: climate change and social inequities. We restructured ourselves to be more inclusive, more focused, and more effective. And we changed our name to reflect the changes.
What is TOGETHER Bay Area doing right now?
We didn’t have a global pandemic and economic collapse in mind when we re-imagined this organization, but we are 100% built for this moment. We’re doing a lot. The two things I’ll highlight are our regional public education campaign and our advocacy efforts. The public education campaign involves our members and partners and is all about keeping our parks and the public safe (#loveyourparks6feetpart!). There is such heightened awareness right now of the value of parks and trails and time in nature. We need to take this opportunity to welcome new park users and work together to keep people and parks healthy.
The other area of focus is our advocacy program. We are communicating often with Bay Area legislature members in Sacramento (or their homes, really) about what’s happening and what is needed in policy and funding to address the challenges our members are facing. We want a just and sustainable economic recovery that also supports climate resilience projects. We think that’s possible, and we’re working to make it happen.
You clearly have a passion for your work, having brought this organization through 2+-year crucible of re-envisioning its existence and its future. Where does that passion come from?
Yes, I love the work I do! I grew up playing on San Mateo County beaches and running cross-country in the East Bay hills. Now I get to work with the smart, dedicated leaders who take care of those beaches and maintain the trails I ran on. And help them achieve their missions! That’s pretty cool. Another reason is that for as long as I can remember I have loved bringing people together and working towards a common goal. Now I spend my days connecting people who might not otherwise know each other, and I create the space for them to collaborate. It feels like magic to me, sometimes. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I’m sure that by learning about each other, by understanding our differences, by talking about what’s possible, amazing things can happen.
How are you managing through the statewide pandemic lockdown? Any survival tips to share?
These are extraordinary times! I don’t know that I have any tips to share. We’re all figuring this out together, in real time. One thing that I’m doing now that I didn’t do so much before is pay attention to the birds around my house. I’m trying to be a ‘bird listener’ and learn their calls. I learned the Bewicks Wren the other day. The Golden Crowned Sparrow and House Finch are two of my favorites. I’m learning that their calls change in different seasons and that it’s all way more complicated than I thought it’d be. But I am loving the excuse to slow down and pay attention.
Do you think the future of spending time outdoors will look any different post-pandemic than it did before?
We’re in the process of answering that question as a society. Going forward, I hope that we will take better care of our natural world because we’ve learned – not for the first time – that we depend on it for our health. I hope that we will be more inclusive and compassionate towards people who share the trail with us. I hope that we will support the local economies including local farmers and ranches. I think we get to make these changes right now, and it’s up to each of us to do our part to create the future that is healthy and equitable.
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