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Developing a Nature-Connection Internship to Improve Mental Health for Black Youth

Oakland, California

Featured image for the project, Developing a Nature-Connection Internship to Improve Mental Health for Black Youth

Photo Courtesy of: Khepera Lyons-Clark ([email protected]), Black to the Land

Black to the Land and KnowThyself carried out a Summer Nature Immersion Wellness program, at the Emerald Earth Sanctuary in Booneville, California.  The primary goal of this project was to create an interactive nature immersion internship program for Black youth and families for the improvement of their mental well being as some young adults live in areas with systemic barriers and lack of access to nature. The program consisted of activities over a duration of five weeks during the summer of 2023 culminating in a week-long session with 17 participants. Attendees took part in a variety of activities, including nature walks, landscaping, swimming in the river, yoga, nature journaling and more. The improvements to mental health were immediate and profound, and the connection to the land and nature remained after the participants had returned to their daily lives. The connection that the participants had to the land opened their minds and bodies to new possibilities. This work sparked a new level of creativity and imaginative force that we did not foresee.



About the Community

Black to the Land is a grassroots organization which promotes Black families as we create communities through ancestral practices of reverence for all Creation and Mother Earth.  The community is physically located in the Northern California Bay Area. The ultimate goal of Black to the Land is to create a small-scale society which is a healing village, designed for earth-based living in the brutal context of historic and everyday traumas of enslavement, human trafficking, and incarceration. Here is an Anthropocene Alliance interview of Zappa Montag, the founder of Black to the Land for more information.

KnowThyself is designed to serve the needs of the liberated child. Koren Clark  understands that connection to land is an essential need. True sites of learning must be both healing and liberatory in nature. Clark works to create “liberatory zones” through the creation of spaces that connect people to themselves, each other and the earth. KnowThyself provides liberatory educational training, curricula and land based healing retreats/workshops designed to liberate the inner child of adults and meet the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of children.

The key community priority with Thriving Earth Exchange is to work on a holistic approach to mental well-being along with ecological sustainability and justice. Our project is centered around the idea that the mental and physical well-being of historically oppressed people can be greatly improved through closer contact with nature, and through work that is restorative, healing, and sustainable to both humans and our environment.

We have a presence in the public school system, and seek to create educational materials and programs for young people. We are also part of the larger environmental movement, and seek alliances with water protectors, land protectors, animal rights activists, and many other interest groups.

Results of the Project

In order to successfully implement our program, we partnered with Emerald Earth Sanctuary, an intentional community based in Mendocino county, California, who offered land and facilities to carry out the nature immersion program. We also partnered with the Anthropocene Alliance who helped us obtain a grant which funded necessities such as food and transportation. After deciding our activities and curriculum, we reached out to participants who either recognized a need to connect with the land, connect more intentionally with other like minded people or to heal.

We began with an interest form that was sent out to the folks in the community who were interested in environmental studies,  education, and cultural healing activities. We relied on Koren’s KnowThyself’s programming which included rest rituals and activities centered on the Ancient Kemetic calendar allowing our biorhythms to get in sync with the land and each other. We had people who were in charge of food, housing and field trips ( like our trip to the water). Zappa held reflection spaces  between activities which allowed folks to share organically and answer relevant survey questions to assess the outcomes of the activities.

Participants filled out a short survey assessing their stress levels before the activity and after. The sample sizes of the pre-activity and post-activity surveys during the immersion program were seven and six respectively.

Black to the Land focused on providing immersive ecological education during the program. KnowThyself provided the mental wellness curricula which included land based indigenous healing and art activities. The core immersion activities included the following among others:

  • Young women’s empowerment retreat One of our young women members hosted a young women’s retreat, focused on healing, detoxing from tech and overstimulation, self exploration and sisterhood. Activities involving self-reflection, practicing gratitude, observational journaling, and recognizing inter-connectedness was an integral piece of the immersion. An ancient African yoga practice called Kemetic yoga was also practiced to revitalize the body and ground them in nature.
  • Nature walks/ecological education Throughout the Summer Immersion program we embarked on a series of nature walks at Emerald Earth, and neighboring ecosystems. The walks were designed to educate participants about local flora and fauna, micro climates, and ecosystems, as well as provide a form of walking meditation for improved well being. Participants also learned about medical uses and practices of plants and herbs by local indigenous tribes whose ancestral land we were exploring.
  • Mindfulness meditation practice and yoga in forest As a part of our devotion to honoring ourselves as a part of nature, we intend to utilize the wilderness to practice mindfulness meditation and yoga practice on the land as a means of grounding ourselves and fostering a deeper connection between mind, body, spirit and nature.
  • Trail Clearing and Pond Cleaning In order to give back to the land, the participants engaged in trail clearing and cleaning the local ponds. The concepts of reciprocity and restoration were emphasized during these experiences.

The primary outcome of the project was the development and implementation of a nature based mental wellness Summer program.

It included a week long nature immersion from July 14 to July 21, 2023 held  at the Emerald Earth Sanctuary land in Boonville CA (unceded Pomo land)  by Black to the Land and KnowThyself as the hosts. The process involved several months of planning and revising our scope and objectives. We realized that our initial goals needed to be scaled back somewhat as we created a pilot program that could serve to inform future endeavors. Originally we wanted to be able to work exclusively with young people from impacted black communities, but revised the program to include adults, and people from our immediate community due to various constraints (legal issues, time constraints, and relationship building). However, we were surprised to discover that when we did a simple invitation to our immediate community, which included adults, youth, and families who were extremely receptive to joining our program. All of our community members expressed a need to tend to their wellness.

Survey Results

Despite the number of respondents being low, interesting results were seen in change in stress levels of participants before and after the program. The chart below shows the stress levels before the activities of the immersion program.

The chart below shows the stress levels before the activities of the immersion program.

The chart below shows the stress levels after the activities of the immersion program.

The chart below shows the stress levels after the activities of the immersion program.

Despite the results having a small sample size, we can observe that the participants did experience an overall decrease in stress levels after the nature immersion activities.

Lessons Learned

The core members of Black to the land and KnowThyself were an interesting conglomeration of facilitators who were connected to each other through deep community and blood ties. Namely Black to the Land was initially led before the onset of the project by Zappa Montag and his daughter Bibi Sarai Montag, who were then joined by the KnowThyself team consisting of Koren and her daughter Khepera Lyons Clark. During the middle of the program our community experienced a devastating loss. Zappa lost his beloved daughter, Bibi. Our respective families then galvanized to show support, to heal on the land and reach out to community members. This led to a  beautiful movement of many young women, around Bibi’s age who wanted to do more than participate, they wanted to lead. The liberatory activities that KnowThyself led helped them to nourish their leadership and they soon helped to develop ideas for how to expand and improve our work for the next incarnations. We had to reduce the immersion program length from an initially planned 4-6 weeks to 1 week and include day activities outside of the immersion.

In order to make the program succeed we had to rely more on our immediate family and community and less on recruiting tactics. Our immediate family and community felt driven by a need to connect to each other, their inner being and the land. The need was to nourish their collective and individual wellbeing as well as community grief. Most of our wellness activities stemmed from an organic place that promised to address the needs present in the community and in ourselves. In order for the activities to be successful three things had to happen. Firstly, we couldn’t just lead the activities as we needed to participate alongside the participants. Next, we also needed to step away from rudimentary program guidelines and allow leadership from the young participants in activities that felt aligned with them and the direction of the program. Finally, we needed to pause and be responsive to some of the tensions that arose from reconnecting with a land that was transitioning from Emerald Earth Sanctuary to Black to the Land.

Interest Survey Results

We prepared an extensive survey to gauge interest in nature immersion and plan our program. This survey was sent to the respondents in May, 2023 which was two months before the immersion program in July.  A total of 21 responses were received. The distribution of ethnicity is shown in the plot below. The majority of the respondents were African-Americans.


When asked about how they felt when they were spending time in nature, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Similarly, most agreed that spending time in nature improved their mental health as shown in the chart below.


Approximately 40% of the respondents stated that they rarely access outdoor spaces.


When asked if they agreed with the following statements:

  • ‘Being in nature makes me feel peaceful’
  • ‘Being outdoors makes me feel happy’

A total of 19 out of 21 participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statements.

Overall, the respondents were interested in nature connection and the immersion program was an opportunity for them to spend time off the grid in nature while learning about the local ecology. They also strongly valued spending time in nature and saw the time as beneficial to their mental well being.

Participant Testimonials

Here are a couple of testimonial quotes below.

“It was a life changing experience that allowed me to connect to myself, to nature and community in a way that I have never before. I continue to look for places in nature to help ground me while living in the city.” – Otito Greg-Obi

“I had a fantastic time at the Black to The Land Nature Immersion Session at Emerald Earth Sanctuary. Before coming to Emerald Earth, I was feeling unaligned and ungrounded. The time spent walking in nature, connecting with the land through restoration projects, and connecting with my community was much needed. While trail clearing, I would often find myself pausing to take in the scenery and being grateful for the opportunity to be there. Many black people, specifically black children, living in the United States do not get the chance to be in that kind of environment. I felt safe and grounded among the towering pines and oaks. I let my worries be washed away by the Navarro River. I loved the Black to the Land Nature Immersion Session, and I hope that people will continue to experience Emerald Earth Sanctuary for many years to come.” – Munachiso Obiefule

The testimonials we received from Munachiso Obiefule, Khepera Lyones Clark, Amasha Lyons Clark, and Otito Greg-Obi collectively highlight the transformative impact of the Black to The Land Nature Immersion Session at Emerald Earth Sanctuary.

Timeline and Milestones

Timeline: 18 months

Key timeframes:

  • Curriculum and survey development: April – November, 2022
  • Promotion and recruitment: January – May, 2023
  • In-person program: July, 2023
  • Data analysis and testimonials collection post program: August-September, 2023

Project Team

Community Leads

Zappa Montag headshot

Zappa Montag was born in New York City in 1969, and moved almost immediately to the California Bay Area, and then to Mendocino County at the age of three.  His childhood spent in the Redwood forest on unceded Pomo land shaped his world view, and his vision for the future.  He went on to receive a BA Peace and Conflict Studies, with a focus on Environmental Justice, at UC Berkeley.  From there he jumped into the world of public education,  activism, and fatherhood, while also eventually attaining a MA in Education as well.

Koren Clark headshot

Koren Clark, (she, her, hers) MEd , is an Oakland, California native. She is an educator, writer and a speaker and liberatory content design strategist. with over 25 years in the field of education. She calls herself a human here to humanize and believes in the power of activism through education as a way to activate our humanity. She believes in empowering youth by supporting them with experiences to connect to themselves, each other and the earth. She works to support their empowerment by providing the adults and organizations that work with them by designing curriculum content and strategies in support of their liberation. Her educational career has led her to study and work in Harare, Zimbabwe, Berlin, Germany and Cairo, Egypt.

Ousseynou Ndoye headshot

Ousseynou Ndoye is a junior at Athenian school. He is interested in economics, marketing, and environmental science. He also enjoys nature and hiking.

Khepera Lyons-Clark headshot

Khepera Lyons-Clark is a senior undergraduate at Barnard College of Columbia studying sociology with a minor in environmental science. She is a visual artist, photographer, designer, stylist and scholar, passionate about afrofuturism and surveillance capitalism’s impact on community and self identity. She is a spirited community justice activist dedicated to using art and media and connection to nature as a means for Black liberation.

Sarai headshot

Sarai Montag is a poet, and lover of all things literary.  She is currently a college student in Northern California and hopes to graduate with the tools to succeed in finishing her environmental fantasy novel which will have Bipoc representation for young, gifted brown girls and women like her!

Community Scientist

Jylana L. Sheats, Ph.D., MPH, is a behavior scientist with advanced training in public health and behavioral medicine. A researcher, practitioner, educator, and thought leader, Jylana has designed a career where she provides cross-sector guidance on the science and design of health behavior change solutions; equitable community engagement and participatory approaches; inclusive science communication; social innovation; and STEAM diversity. She was a 2021–23 Civic Science Fellow with the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program. Committed to advancing science and equipping the next generation of scientists, healthcare/ public health practitioners, and scholars, Jylana is a Clinical Associate Professor at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine; and Associate Director of the Aspen Institute Science and Society Program. Well-published and an international speaker, Jylana’s individual and collaborative efforts have been documented via book chapters, peer-reviewed articles, and new media. Her professional efforts have been recognized via receipt of research honors and awards such as the Dr. Tony A. Mobley International Distinguished Alumni Award from Indiana University–Bloomington’s School of Public Health; a National Institutes of Health’s Building Research Careers in Women’s Health award; an NIH Obesity and Health Disparities Programs to Increase Diversity Among Individuals Engaged in Health-Related Research (PRIDE) award; and multiple Inspire leadership awards in her capacity as a former corporate behavior scientist at Johnson & Johnson. A graduate of Spelman College, Jylana also has degrees from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and Indiana University–Bloomington. She completed her postdoctoral training in behavioral medicine at Stanford School of Medicine.

Community Science Fellow

Ankur Shah Headshot

Ankur Shah is the Director of Operations of Mycelium, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the circular economy. He has an academic background in Earth science and physics. He is extremely passionate about urban sustainability, climate solutions, and environmental education. He frequently produces informative videos on environmental topics on his YouTube channel.

Collaborating Organization(s)

AA logo

Anthropocene Alliance: Anthropocene Alliance (A2) has more than 100 member-communities in 35 U.S. states and territories. They are impacted by flooding, toxic waste, wildfires, and drought and heat — all compounded by reckless development and climate change. The consequence is broken lives and a ravaged environment.The goal of A2 is to help communities fight back. We do that by providing them organizing support, scientific and technical guidance, and better access to foundation and government funding. Most of all, our work consists of listening to our frontline leaders. Their experience, research, and solidarity guide everything we do, and offer a path toward environmental and social justice.


Know Thyself Logo

Know Thyself: KnowThySelf Inc. offers culturally relevant Montessori materials, designed to meet the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of children by any means necessary.

KnowThySelf Inc. materials provide children a mirror reflecting the most essential parts of their identity, and a window allowing them a greater understanding and appreciation of the people around them. Our organization celebrates all the diversity the world has to offer.