Punneh Abdolhosseini '14: Redefining Connection To The Outdoors

While modern narratives have portrayed the outdoors as a place for recreation and solitude, nature has historically meant different things for different groups of people. For many, the land is not a place to be enjoyed but a place with a deep familiar and spiritual connection, not made for people but to live in harmony with people.

Redefining that connection is the challenge that faces Metro, the regional government that manages 18,000 acres of parks and natural areas in the Portland area. Where much of Metro’s historical focus was on the preservation of natural spaces and limiting urban sprawl, there is renewed focus on connecting the area’s diverse populations to the land.

“I think a lot of times we look at connection as walking through the woods and sitting in solitude. But that doesn’t honor a lot of cultures. That really honors one group of people,” said Punneh Abdolhosseini ’14, a community education and stewardship manager for Metro. “So we’ve been trying to dissect what that looks like by creating spaces that hold meaning for different people and different things.”

Working with Metro’s parks team, Abdolhosseini is helping to redefine what it means to make the outdoors welcoming to everyone. The result is significant changes in the organization’s focuses on programming and volunteerism, gearing more programming toward BIPOC populations and educating about historic connections to the land.

Volunteer efforts focus less on completing a task and more on developing community and fostering a connection to the land that they are working on.

“We’re being intentional about working with groups that are seeking healing with the land, but may not have access to it,” Abdolhosseini said. “And the focus isn’t on the labor. We’re going to go out there, have good food, we’re going to have babies and elders, and we’re going to get done what we can.

“Traditional volunteer programs focus on finishing a project. We’re shifting so that the outcome is a healing experience.”

A longtime outdoors enthusiast, Abdolhosseini found her beliefs challenged as a student at Pacific during a study abroad experience in Peru. She researched the effects of backpacking and mountaineering tourism on the Quechua community in the mountains around the historic city of Cusco.

Living with an Indigenous family, she remembers another guide bringing a group of hikers out to explore a nearby alpine lake. “The elder asked why these people were here. Why did they keep coming there?” Abdolhosseini recalled. “And I explained that it was for outdoor recreation. They like coming here to explore and have fun on the land.

“I remember him getting mad. ‘This isn’t a place to play. This is our home. The mountains are our god.’ And that really woke me up. I came back and I stopped doing a lot of mountain biking and rock climbing. Now I do a lot more plant medicine stuff and gardening. It really changed me and made me really think about how we use the land.”

Abdolhosseini is passionate not only about opening up the land for all cultures but also for healing and reconciliation. In addition to her work with Metro, she consults with organizations on the history of conservation and reconciliation of all cultures with the land. She has completed the Environment 2042 Leadership Program through the Center for Diversity and the Environment and is working with future cohorts of the program.

Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023