Finding and Extending Peace in the Outdoors Through Parks: A 2020 Perspective of the Charles Jordan Internship
By Aleemah Ali
Aleemah Ali, our 2020 Charles Jordan Intern, was inspired to launch the Community Art Project after researching how parks can benefit urban communities, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her project combines community engagement and creative expression to safely draw the community outdoors into two Parks with Purpose in Atlanta. Her internship might be over, but her bright future is just getting started!
Growing up in Los Angeles, I did not see parks as places of refuge. Parks were often off-limits due to frequent gang-related activity and high crime rates. As a result, most residents did not utilize urban greenspaces, which led to city departments failing to keep the areas updated—a vicious cycle that rendered most parks useless to the community.
My interest in urban planning began while studying at Clark Atlanta University, which is located not far from English Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia—an area with historic social, economic and environmental injustices, such as damaging stormwater runoff, sewer overflow, pollution, and blighted greenspaces. After the Mercedes Benz Stadium was built in 2017, I noticed that Atlanta was becoming gentrified without an emphasis on maintaining community. During my senior year, I took a course called “Introduction to Urban Planning,” which taught me the history and significance of city planning and development. This course emphasized the importance of having a voice within urban development to create meaningful infrastructure that can consistently benefit the community.
Historically, African Americans have not had great experiences with public greenspaces as a result of racial disparities brought upon by exclusionary zoning laws that dismantled their relationship with nature. However, there is a critical link between urban planning and the Black community that needs to be understood to improve urban society. I began to realize that something could be done to fix development in the city, however I wasn’t sure where to start.
I sought an experience that could help me gain a better understanding of urban planning and real estate development for low-income communities, and found it in The Conservation Fund’s Charles Jordan Internship opportunity with the Parks with Purpose program. Charles Jordan was The Conservation Fund’s first Black board chair and was instrumental in getting the organization involved in urban parks. This Internship was established in his name to recognize his commitment to include more people of color into the field of urban planning. This role was a great fit for me because I believe that adding more diversity to this field will create projects that specifically address the concerns of minority communities and enhance urban life.
I began this internship at a pivotal time due to the concurrent impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and civil rights crisis creating elevated levels of stress and anxiety in the African American community. The majority of the communities we worked with had a high demographic of low-income African American families that were stuck in food deserts that lacked access to functional public spaces. Prior to working with the Fund’s Parks with Purpose program, I did not realize how parks could benefit mental and physical health. Research shows that having access to greenspaces can assist with depression while reducing stress.
Throughout the internship, I learned about the significance of community engagement and environmental conservation. I documented the impact of Parks with Purpose projects in Atlanta, Baltimore, Durham, and Raleigh and interviewed community leaders who told me how their projects benefitted their cities. I also gained an understanding of equitable environmental development that includes infrastructures like bioswales and rain gardens that combat damaging flooding from stormwater runoff and sewer overflows.
My experience and research during the internship led me to create the Community Art Project, where local artists would develop an art piece that could enhance communal health and engagement with nature at two Parks with Purpose in English Avenue—Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park and Lindsay Street Park. We engaged the community by working with Park Ambassadors and residents to create the design and plan for implementation of the project. I enjoyed working with the community while developing this project because it allowed them to be a part of change in their community. Once completed, I hope this project will enhance the physical and mental health of the residents of English Avenue through the end of the pandemic and beyond.
The Charles Jordan Internship reinforced the importance of diversity in urban planning and environmental conservation and provided hands-on experience that will help me in my career. Next, I will attend graduate school to study different ways urban communities can implement environmental conservation in their development of public spaces and affordable housing. Ultimately, my goal is to create an equitable real estate development practice to revitalize urban communities.
Aleemah Ali was The Conservation Fund’s 2020 Charles Jordan Intern. Originally from Los Angeles, California, she graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with a minor in Business Administration from Clark Atlanta University in 2020. Her passions include working toward the betterment of her community through service and education. Prior to her internship with the Fund, Aleemah was a Field Manager with the ACLU advocating for Immigration and Reproductive rights, Legislative Intern at the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, and served as the Chair of Political Action for the Clark Atlanta University NAACP.
Find Out More:
The Charles Jordan Internship was established by The Conservation Fund to keep alive the passion, commitment and wisdom that Charles brought to his 20 years of leadership on our national Board of Directors. For the summer of 2021, the Charles Jordan Memorial Internship project is “The Selma to Montgomery March: Conservation & Collaboration.” Click here to find out more and to apply.