Seeking Outdoor Space with Mickey

Mikelina ("Mickey") Belaineh, shares her deep and shifting experience with the outdoors in the latest Field Notes. Growing up in Texas among an extended Ethiopian family, they were surrounded by open air and afforded the space to fully enjoy it. Now the Director of Impact at the Last Prisoner Project, they contemplate their personal relationship to nature as well as the physical and sociological impact being outdoors offers to marginalized communities at large.

When and where did you first explore your relationship with the outdoors?

  • When I think about the outdoors what comes to mind is the beach and the ocean, the trees and the grass. These are the spaces I grew up in and with… So for me now, when I think about the outdoors I think about coming back to myself, coming back to my inner child. Growing up I spent a lot of time outdoors, in the beach, in the dirt. The outdoors is where I feel safe.  I grew up in a Texas suburb, that has now grown into somewhat of a city-- it's really the space that connects Dallas to Fort Worth. It's a lot of what you would expect when you think of Texas, horses strewn about, a lot of open flat land (the sky is the main attraction where I grew up-- and you likely wouldn't know what a personality the sky has until you've spent time in very flat lands). Before I knew the city, all I knew was abundant nature-- therefore, I am realizing now how much I took it for granted. Before I could walk, I was camping in South Padre with my parents and their friends (I'm a first born, so I spent my early years as an accessory to these young immigrants getting to know the foreign land that is Texas-- considering they came from Ethiopia). We had a huge backyard with lots for me to explore. I spent a lot of my childhood sitting outside lifting the largest rocks I could manage, to see what hidden worlds lay beneath. We had honeysuckles that grew in our backyard along the fence, they're pretty abundant out there from what I recall-- and I remember being fascinated by the idea of being able to get something sweet from something growing wild outside.

As a Texas native, how accessible were outdoor activities and leisure as you were growing up? Has your relationship with the outdoors changed since you moved to New York? How?

  • The outdoors is where I grew up to be honest, Texas has year round warm weather (though it has changed recently with climate change)-- and that meant I spent year round outside. Playing in the backyard, the park, sports training-- everything happened outdoors. And so now, the outdoors is healing for me-- and it helps me to feel closer to myself, and my family and community who I don't get to see as often as I would like. Since being removed from the world I had grown accustomed to (where "nature" as we typically think of it is abundant), through mindfulness I've come to learn that Nature is a mindset, it is everywhere around us, even in New York. I’ve had a lot of privilege most of my life, with access to untouched, wild nature. I had to let go of my attachment to what type of nature I have access to. Instead of seeing the beauty of the nature around me, I used to be upset it wasn’t the nature I was used to/nature in the way I wanted it to be. But recently I’ve learned to be grateful for all nature that surrounds me. And ultimately reminding myself that we are nature too, we are not separate from it. In New York, I chose to find ways to make nature a part of my going to the park, noticing the plants on stoops, and getting to know the birds and biodiversity of my neighborhood. Showing up in this way has made me see the city in a different perspective and has made it feel more like home..

What would you say are some of the major barriers to access for outdoor space and accessibility (especially for BIPOC communities)?

  • Easy and meaningful access to nature is a human right that has now been turned into privilege, where we are asked to pay premiums for to access nature... whether it’s affording to live in a neighborhood with parks or owning a car to drive to natural landscapes or to travel... these luxuries are not afforded to most BIPOC. We have been cut off from nature in similar ways that systems of power have excluded BIPOC from a high quality of life. When we talk about mass incarceration, history of redlining, substance disorder... these are all connected to our lack of access to nature. In advocacy spaces we often grapple with how to treat these social ills, and nature is a free remedy. 

What would it look like to reallocate police funding into revitalizing city parks or parks in BIPOC communities?

  • Spending time in green spaces, nature, etc. has an unquantifiable list of healing benefits, including positive impacts on mental health, physical health, trauma healing, and more. To keep this response short and avoid a number of rabbit holes we could get into, I'll say it like this: 1) Mass Incarceration and the Impact of the War on Drugs has had on BIPOC communities is undeniably the number one social issue plaguing the United States today, given its impact across all facets of life and the disparate impact experienced by all BIPOC people (see racial and ethnic disparities in arrest, conviction, incarceration, etc.); 2) We know that at the root of mass incarceration is state sanctioned violence against BIPOC communities (War on Drugs, Over policing, etc.) + willful negligence on behalf of government (not only investing in the resources communities need, but actively blocking communities from being able to invest in themselves) --> BIPOC people have been hurt and are hurting (trauma)--> Nature and Green spaces = good for the environment, good for healing, good for BIPOC people. But the way our society works, it's damn near impossible for BIPOC people to get easy access to their healing. 

    Where are we investing our dollars? What outcomes are we putting our money towards? Right now, jurisdictions all over the country are considering investing millions of dollars into capital construction projects to build new jails and/or prisons (especially for womxyn b/c they are the fastest growing correctional population right now-- specifically BIPOC womxyn)-- imagine if those millions of dollars went towards alternatives to incarceration that focused on centering healing, time in nature, something beautiful. (Note: overwhelming majority of womxyn are not incarcerated for perpetrating violence against another person-- they are rarely every deemed a public safety threat by the courts, and therefore are being incarcerated for no reason other than punishment. Additionally most of these "crimes" are "crimes" of poverty and homelessness. Again-- how do we want to spend our resources? What's good for people and the earth?)

As a pro athlete, how has time outdoors contributed to your pursuit of wellness?

  • I try to do as much of my training as I can outside, I realized it is more aligned/conducive to my health than a gym. This leads to a deeper, sustainable health rather than a performative or aesthetic one.  You don’t have to manufacture fitness.. take your shoes off and plant your feet on the ground--ancestral wisdom, spiritual wisdom, and even Western medicine (who's always late to the party) tell us that ~15-20 minutes of "grounding" (being barefoot in the grass) has a plethora of healing benefits. Without getting into the details, it is just good common sense. Though technology has advanced at an exponential rate over the years, decades, etc.-- human wiring hasn't really changed that much. We were made to be walking, running, jumping, climbing, hanging-- engaging with nature and the elements for survival. So, it stands to reason that reconnecting our skin with the earth would have some deep balancing effects (regardless of your beliefs or spiritual leanings). For what it is worth, I will say that the most critical elements of my movement protocol as an athlete are: spending time in grass/outdoors, hanging from stuff, walking outdoors, deep breathing outdoors.  Standing on uneven ground for example forces your body to stabilize and practice balance (think about how sore you are after a hike-- you can't re-create that soreness in the gym because there's nothing like your muscles having to adapt to the changing nature of the rocks and uneven terrain). Nature tells our body to move in ways that are true to our inherent body. If most of our ailments are caused by lack of nature, then spending time in nature can undo a lot of that harm. Exercising in nature, building up my resilience to different weather conditions... whether it is hot or cold, sunny or rainy, that gives my body different stimuli that keeps it dynamic and alert, and leverages my body’s remembering.

What practices connect and ground you? What are some communal practices we can normalize to re-indigenize & reconnect with nature? 

  • I take every opportunity I can to ground myself in nature. So this looks like, going and meditating in the grass at Von King park (barefoot, as much skin contact as I'm up for that day with grass), taking weekends to explore other parks I can access. When meditating in or with the earth (I say in-- because my favorite place to be is IN the Ocean :))-- I get out of my mind, and into my body and spirit. It's about aligning my frequency with the frequency of the earth I'm with. Sometimes I feel for the history of a space-- like in the park, feeling for the love, creativity, thought, and resistance residing there from communities and individuals past (artists, athletes, musicians, thinkers). I would love to see us find ways to collectively re-wild nature in our individual spheres. Especially those of us in cities, it would be cool to see a mass effort to re-nature our spaces. 

What has nature taught you about yourself? 

  • Nature taught me how to love myself, deeply. When I look at nature deeply-- I see love, beauty and purpose without judgment. For example, the mountains are beautiful and majestic and amazing for hiking and exploring-- even though the mountain is not the ocean. And the ocean is deep, and wondrous, and essential-- something I could not live without, and it is not like the mountains. I could go on and on with how in nature, it's easy to see the inherent abundance of life. To put it another way, because I love animals-- I think about how a lion is an amazing creature because it is being a lion and not trying to be a tiger, and we love and appreciate them for that. A lion is meant to be a lion, a tiger a tiger, a goldfish. The ocean is meant to be the ocean, with all it's ebbs and flows and storms and moodiness. And we are meant to be whoever and whatever our true nature is. We're part of the whole ecosystem-- though capitalism has worked very hard to make us forget (because living this truth isn't aligned with corporate interests)-- nature is always there to remind us.

What are your favorite places to escape to nature in NYC/ your neighborhood? 

  • Von King Park (bed-stuy), Prospect Park are the main ones and the most consistent-- Forest Park (a new find in Queens), Riis Beach, The Botanical Gardens, Fort Greene Park are honorable mentions (but less frequented because of transportation).

As we transition to fall, how can we emulate the seasonal pace of nature to guide our own internal and external movements? 

  • When in doubt-- don't resist, accept and find a way to be grateful. For example, I'm a summer baby-- it takes a lot of mindfulness for me to maintain and continue nurturing my joy/spirit when the seasons begin to change and I start to see a stretch of colder weather ahead of me (remember, I only started having a winter ~6 years ago-- Texas didn't/doesn't really have seasons). That being said, what has helped the most has been finding ways to enjoy the change. In the fall, it's not as hot out and the cooler air allows for deeper breathing. It also does wonders for our Central Nervous System, promoting healing, slowing down, and recovery (also major benefits for those of us navigating anxiety, depression, chronic pain/inflammation, etc.). So walks outside take on a different feel and effect, when I train outside-- it'll be for shorter periods of time and I'll adapt my training methods to my environment, finding ways to leverage the cold and how it impacts my physiology. Additionally, I end up doing more indoors (because nature is pushing me to be indoors more as it gets colder and colder)-- which facilitates new growth, different projects, different hobbies getting nourishment, I appreciate the outdoors from inside (different engagement). The key (for me) is learning how to leverage the blessings Nature is providing. It's always got some goodness for us, we have to be open and willing to receive though. If we are not mindful to create space for us to be in love and in relationship with nature, it's easy to lose sight of our interbeing.