Personality: Nathan Burrell
Spotlight on founding member and board chair of Groundwork RVA
11/18/2021, 6 p.m.
For many in Richmond, the COVID-19 pandemic has led many to seek refuge in nature. For Nathan Burrell, the experience also has been a validating one.
Mr. Burrell is a founding member and board chair of Groundwork RVA, which seeks to cultivate the next generation of conservationists through its work transforming blighted and neglected spaces into public assets.
“The pandemic has shown us the great need for beautiful, welcoming green outdoor spaces in every community,” Mr. Burrell says. “These spaces quickly became an escape for many in Richmond, but that access to many of these spaces was not afforded to all due in large part to the lack of those types of amenities in their communities.”
Like health disparities from COVID-19 itself, Mr. Burrell notes the racial disparities inherent in who has easy access to Richmond’s greener landscapes for solace and escape. Furthermore, he sees how the impact on Black and Brown communities lacking these resources can compound to become greater issues such as overheating and flooding.
“Groundwork RVA believes that both of these disparities can be overcome by working with communities to implement community greening and green infrastructure projects,” Mr. Burrell says.
Mr. Burrell was part of a group of like-minded environmental advocates who started Groundwork RVA in 2014 to “facilitate environmental, economic and social well-being in neighborhoods” with the aid of Richmond youths.
The organization’s programs include a community bike shop in Bellemeade to promote transit and connectivity; revitalizing neighborhoods and expanding natural resources through their Green Team initiative; and providing learning and work opportunities for at-risk graduates through its Green Workforce.
Groundwork’s programs have led to a greater range of vegetation and natural greenery in the city, with 2020 alone see- ing the group plant 250 trees on Richmond Public Schools lands and 30 within the Bellemeade community.
For the last seven years, the group’s efforts have been supported almost entirely through grants from the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the City of Richmond. Now, Mr. Burrell wants to ensure Groundwork can continue its mission with a combination of largely individual donations and some grants from government and philanthropic groups.
To do so, he has a five-year strategic plan that will capitalize on the annual efforts of Green Workforce teams, bringing its for-profit successes to more of the organization’s operations. The plan also will allow the group to expand its services for Richmond youths, establishing green infrastructure apprenticeships and more community-focused ventures.
The urgency in Mr. Burrell’s work is driven, in part, by what he sees is ahead in the nation.
“By 2045, the U.S. population will be a majority- minority country,” he says. “I truly believe that if we, as a society, have not done the work to engage minority communities in the outdoors and in natural resource management that we will lose many of the sacred places in our country due to the fact that a majority of the population does not use or care about those resources.”
He believes in the importance and relevance of Groundwork RVA’s work and the benefits it will bring to individuals and communities for years to come.
“We know as a society that trees and green spaces make a community more resilient to the effect of climate change,” Mr. Burrell says. “But what we also know is that spending just 5 minutes in nature will not only lower your blood pressure but also relieve stress. All things that every community should be afforded!”
Meet a chief architect in building a greener Richmond and this week’s Personality, Nathan Burrell:
No. 1 volunteer position: Founding member and board chair of Groundwork RVA.
Occupation: Deputy director of government and community relations for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Date and place of birth: Aug. 16 in Lancaster County.
Where I live now: Richmond.
Education: Bachelor’s in parks and recreation management and a minor in environmental studies.
Family: Wife, Tracey Brockwell; and daughter, Zora Burrell, and son, Khalil Burrell.
Groundwork RVA is: One of about 20 trusts (or nonprofits) across the country that focuses on youth development and training. In Groundwork RVA’s case, we show up in Black and Brown communities by empowering youths to develop not only the hard skills of natural resource and green infrastructure management, but also the soft skills needed to be the next leaders of social and environmental change in their communities.
When founded and by whom: Groundwork RVA was founded in 2014 after a group of local environmental and trails advocates engaged in a feasibility study with the National Park Service that was completed in 2013 by Groundwork USA that showed not only the need but support in Richmond for such an entity.
Groundwork RVA’s mission: To work with Richmond youths to facilitate environmental, economic and social well-being in neighborhoods through the transformation of blighted and neglected open spaces into public assets.
Guiding principles: 1. Greening Richmond: Collaborating to maintain and expand access to Richmond’s network of green spaces and sustainable infra-structure by converting brown-fields to active use; enhancing the health of the James River and its urban tributaries; and maintaining Richmond’s parks and schools.
Preparing youths for success: To prepare youths for career success by designing, interpreting, building and maintaining Richmond’s green network.
Improving health and quality of life of all residents: To work with Richmond youths to learn about and advocate for better quality of life and improved health for Richmond residents by expanding bicycle, pedestrian and transit connectivity to parks and recreational spaces; to jobs and service centers; and to places of cultural importance.
Realizing racial equity: To realize racial equity and promote social justice by cultivating youth leadership in conservation, recreation and civic participation related to the development of public assets.
No. 1 goal as Groundwork RVA’s board president: The transition from an organization that was almost entirely funded by grants from the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the City of Richmond to an organization that is now mainly funded via individual donations as well as philanthropic and governmental grants.
How I will accomplish this goal: By developing and implementing an updated five-year strategic plan that not only seeks to capitalize on the for- profit work that our green workforce teams complete but also will allow us to realize the development of green infrastructure apprenticeships and expansion of community-driven opportunities and services provided by the youths on our green teams and the Bellemeade Bike Shop.
What the pandemic has highlighted for Groundwork RVA: The relevance of our organization. The pandemic has shown us the great need for beautiful, welcoming green outdoor spaces in every community. These spaces quickly became an escape for many in Richmond, but that access to many of these spaces was not afforded to all due in large part to the lack of those types of amenities in their communities. We also have seen that existing health disparities in Richmond have further exacerbated the impact of the pandemic on Black and Brown communities. Groundwork RVA believes that both of these disparities can be overcome by working with communities to implement community greening and green infrastructure projects that provide remedies to the burdens of overheating due to lack of tree canopies and flooding due to the lack of green spaces and green infrastructure.
Why the mission of Groundwork RVA is important: Groundwork RVA’s mission is relevant today and in the future because as a society, we cannot solve or improve the effects humans are having on the environment if we are not engaging all populations in this fight.
How Groundwork RVA is influencing next generation of urban conservationists: By developing youths into critical green thinkers who value community and have the skills to not only incubate a community-driven idea but also to implement it.
Message to youth who say they cannot make an impact on the climate crisis: Be the change you want to see in this world!
Biggest problem Richmond faces with environmental injustices: The lack of funding and requirement that communities most affected by climate change and environmental issues are the ones that have the least environmental infrastructure. The fact that we, as a city, know that the heat island effect is real and is caused by a lack of tree canopy in the most impacted communities, yet we still have no mandate or plan to reinstall the plethora of missing street trees or mandate that new development maintain a certain percentage of tree canopy. Number of trees Groundwork RVA planted and in what communities: Last year: 250 on Richmond Public Schools lands; 30 within the Bellemeade Community (Minefee Green Street project). In 2021: 50 at Sankofa Community Garden; 50 fruit trees at Hillside Court (to be installed); 50 to give away to community members; and 10 additional within the Bel- lemeade Community (Minefee Green Street project).
Upcoming events: Saturday, Nov. 20 — Garden planting at Hillside Court Mini-Farm. We also are seeking a Green Team program manager. See our website: groundworkrva.org
A perfect day for me is: Any day on the river or on a trail in the woods.
What I am learning about myself during the pandemic: How much community and conservation truly means to me.
How I quiet my mind during challenging times: Hug a tree and get outside and recreate. That combination has never let me down!
Something I love to do that most people would never imagine: I love overnight canoe camping and would highly encourage others to try it!
Quote that I am inspired by: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” It reminds me that there is always more that I can do!
Friends describe me as: An outgoing, fun person who cares about others and is passionate about land conservation.
At the top of my “to-do” list: Getting my garden ready for spring planting.
Best late-night snack: Anything with peanut butter and I am in!
Best thing my parents ever taught me: To work hard and look out for others along the way.
Person who influenced me the most: Ralph White.
Book that influenced me the most: “The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming” by Masanobu Fukuoka.
What I’m reading now: “Race, Riots and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America” by Victoria W. Wolcott.
Next goal: Engage more communities in conservation efforts that truly changes lives.