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Growing up in Argentina, Gustavo Rosso played soccer in the streets like almost every other kid. There were no barriers. It didn't require money or a parent to sign you up or drop you off. It didn't even require special cleats. All that was needed was a ball.

But as a parent of soccer-aged kids in Minnesota, Rosso realized that a lot of kids here don't have opportunities to play like that. So he decided to do something about it. He successfully pitched the idea of a no-cost, no-barriers camp to different park systems. Recently, 25 kids showed up for the first Futbol Fan MN camp in Bloomington.

"In Minnesota we're lucky to have a diverse state where different minorities can feel welcome playing soccer," Rosso said. "From African to Hmong to Asian communities and people native from this country."

Park programming costs money. There are T-shirts, field fees and coaches. But thanks to a Metropolitan Council grant program that began in 2019 to increase diversity and inclusion in parks, Rosso's camp is just one of several free programs offered this summer at various Minnesota parks systems.

Individual parks systems apply for grants and implement the projects. In 2021, the Met Council approved just over $2 million in grants for 23 programs. The programs include a drowning-prevention class in St. Paul, a ski class at Battle Creek Regional Park, and a project to create more welcoming ways to access Theodore Wirth's Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary.

The grants coincide with more parks systems using their own money to fund full-time staff who work in equity outreach. Most of the 10 parks departments associated with the Met Council, including Minneapolis' and St. Paul's parks systems, employ a full-time equity specialist. Some smaller departments share that position with their city councils.

Diversity and equity outreach is a big job: Three out of every four visitors to state and national parks are white, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. A survey by the National Recreation and Parks Association showed that the biggest barrier to inclusivity is funding, followed by staffing. Met Council research in 2019 showed that investing in staff development and hiring diverse employees helps youths access parks more equitably.

Since outdoor spaces promote public health and personal well-being, it's critical that everyone has equitable access to parks, said Met Council researcher Darcie Vandegrift.

Early effort

In 2015, the Three Rivers Park District hired Amanda Fong as community engagement supervisor to focus on increasing diversity and inclusion among its visitors. She became one of the first people in Minnesota hired for such a position.

In her seven years on the job, Fong has noticed there is more awareness for equity in the outdoors.

"Outdoor and natural spaces haven't been spaces where everyone has felt welcome," she said. "There have been policies that excluded folks, and now there's a lot more interest in working to change that."

Last month, May Yang-Lee became the first person hired as parks equity program coordinator in Washington County. She's already realizing the impact of her job. She's connected people with Spanish interpretation services, figured out that the free park pass program could reach more people if translated, and watched kids and adults from underrepresented communities paddle and ride bikes for the first time.

Met Council Parks Ambassador Amanda Lovelee, who coordinates equity efforts, leads a monthly video call between 10 parks systems in the metro area.

Although the group shares best practices and resources, they also recognize that much of their work is unique to their area and clientele.

"It's specific to specific communities," Lovelee said. "It takes listening and trying not to tokenize a certain person. A Hmong person in St. Paul might not have the same needs as someone in Washington County. So it's important that [each parks system is] working with the community for what that community wants and needs."

The Met Council conducted research in 2019 with 85 youth participants ages 12-20, 43 parents and guardians, and leaders from youth organizations. Researchers found that highly trained staff could reduce barriers and make parks more welcoming and accessible.

The results of Met Council's youth research also sparked its equity grant program, which is committed to eliminating barriers to the metro parks it works with.

For the Futbol Fan MN camp, eliminating barriers means not charging a participation fee, allowing registration the day of the camp, simplifying registration and holding the camp after work hours. Healthy snacks and water are also provided, and Spanish is spoken at the camp.

"Our original idea is for kids to be proud of who they are, to give them the opportunity to learn and play the sport without being worried about anything," Rosso said. "Life can be full of obligations as an adult and as a kid you have a little more freedom."

But Rosso has also discovered some unexpected benefits. Nonnative Spanish speakers who attend his camp are interested in learning the language. Parents end up talking to each other and forming a community. The kids pick up park etiquette, like recycling their water bottles.

There's an end-of-summer celebration planned for Rosso's camp, with food from different cultures. The venue? One of Bloomington's regional parks, where they hope everyone will feel welcome.

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for its free newsletter to receive stories in your inbox.