People, Parks, Power: Changemakers leading the charge for environmental justice and equity

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles - People, Parks & Power - that dives into the commitment of local people working to make long-term, systemic changes to positively affect greenspaces and - in turn - the overall health and well-being of Springfield's Southside and beyond.

A local organization that received a $500,000 national grant to promote park equity wants all residents to be within a 10-minute walk of green space.

In Springfield that means a focus on the Southside. But The Conscious Connect Community Development Corporation says that the People, Parks, and Power (P3) grant that it was awarded affects everyone, wherever they live.

“Parks and green space do not exclusively serve the residents who live in proximity to them,” says Karlos L. Marshall, co-founder of The Conscious Connect.

Marshall and Moses B. Mbeseha cofounded the nonprofit organization in 2015 with a goal to revitalize the community. It first worked to end book deserts, offering tomes in small businesses and building little libraries. Thousands of free books have been distributed since then, including many that are culturally relevant to the kids who receive them.

That morphed into finding – and creating – more spaces for kids and families to read. The Conscious Connect has built several parks from land acquired and cleared by the Clark County Land Bank, adding amenities like benches, basketball courts and little libraries.

Now, with the two-year P3 grant that was awarded last summer, the organization can focus on policy action and systemic changes to make long-term advances in who has access to parks, Marshall says.

The grants were awarded to just 14 groups in order “to build power and reverse deep seated park and green space inequities in Black, Latino and Indigenous communities across the country,” according to the Prevention Institute, which announced the inaugural group of organizations to receive the grants.

Historically, black, brown and low-income areas don’t have the same access to parks and green spaces, Marshall says.

“I think the same can be said here in Springfield,” he says.

While the grant doesn’t provide funds for physical infrastructure, it will help to lay the groundwork for greater green space equity. This includes strategic policy recommendations and monthly meetings by a coalition of neighborhood organizations with overlapping missions.

Funding has allowed The Conscious Connect to accelerate its goals, says Mbeseha. Projects that might have taken five or more years now may be completed in a fraction of the time. Speeding up the process are coalition members who are paid, as is a full-time project manager and two part-time resident advocates.

Marshall and Mbeseha, who have collected local honors as well as accolades from further afield, also are dedicated to the mission.

Marshall, 32, was born and raised in Springfield near Davey Moore Park. The Springfield High School graduate earned a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Dayton and also is the chief diversity officer at Dayton Metro Library.

Mbeseha was born in Cameroon and moved to the U.S. as a child. The 32-year-old, who holds master’s degrees in business administration and public health, will start in July as the director of the health equity fellowship program at the University of Dayton.

The two friends found that they shared the same ideals when they met working the same summer job before their senior year at Wittenberg University.

The plan from the beginning was to beautify and improve the area, responding to the needs of the community, Mbeseha says. The way they’ve done so has progressed naturally from literacy to environmental justice.

“Our goal is to serve the community in the ways that we feel align to our mission,” he says.

Access to parks and green space has a number of benefits, Marshall says. Not only can new and improved parks become destinations, but they also can be part of a greater climate resiliency strategy. What’s more, research shows that replacing vacant and abandoned lots with things like gardens and green spaces can reduce gun violence.

“Parks and green space have also shown to improve the mental health of residents within that geographic area,” Marshall says.

The work done by The Conscious Connect – whether it is improving green spaces through the P3 grant or some of its other focuses, like literacy and mentoring – is all interconnected, he says. 

“Parks and green space are a pillar and anchor to a vibrant community,” Marshall says.
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Read more articles by Diane Erwin.

Diane Erwin is a freelance writer and former reporter for the Springfield News-Sun. A graduate of Ohio State University, her articles have appeared in a number of publications in Springfield and Dayton. In addition to her journalism background, she has worked in marketing and written copy for businesses throughout the country. In her spare time, she likes to read, dream about Schuler’s donuts, and travel near and far with her husband and two children.