CHADRON – Monique Fair, a self-described inner-city child from Denver who earned a degree in ecology and wildlife management at Chadron State College, now spends much of her time sharing her passion for the natural environment with children from her hometown as the Education Program Manager and Event Coordinator for the Sand Creek Regional Greenway.
“Individuals from my background don’t have much exposure to the natural world, or much interest in it,” said Fair, a 2014 graduate, during an interview this spring. “My goal is to bridge the gap between minority populations and the natural world that is outside their back door.”
A 14-mile long trail that connects Commerce City, Denver, and Aurora, the two-decade old Sand Creek Greenway is funded by the three cities it connects, state and federal government grants, and a long list of private companies, foundations, and individual donors. Fair has been working for the non-profit organization that oversees the greenway for about a year. She got the position after working as a horticulturist for the Denver Zoo for a year. She was also in the natural resource department of the city and county of Denver for four years.
As Event Coordinator for the greenway, Fair organizes workdays three times a year that give volunteers the opportunity to help with environmental restoration projects along the trail, which winds its way along Sand Creek to its confluence with the South Platte River and connects with other segments of the metro Denver area’s extensive trail network.
Paved for most of its length, the trail traverses primarily urban areas, but the creek attracts many birds, animals, and insects.
“Our slogan for the trail is ‘Wildlife in the City,’” said Fair, who is also working to create habitat for pollinating insects along the greenway. “Denver is growing, so we are attempting to create space for animals, including insects.”
But the majority of Fair’s work is focused on getting school children interested in and involved with the natural world.
“About 75 percent of my time is inspiring them and connecting them to plants and trees and bees and beavers – all the cool stuff they feel a disconnect with,” she said.
A program called Generation Wild, aimed at connecting children to the outdoor world and directed largely at low-income households, supports Fair’s educational outreach. The effort includes six-week programs of hour-long, hands-on sessions on things like investigating animal tracks, and making milkweed seed balls to help sustain pollinating insect populations.
“It’s my personal belief that once your feet are in the soil or if you’re holding a crawdad, there’s a transformative moment that happens that can’t be replicated in a school,” she said. “Seeing that inspiration and connection is motivational.”
Fair said she came to Chadron State on a whim after a track scholarship to the University of Wyoming fell through because of an injury. Recruited and supported by former coach Ryan Baily, Fair was an outstanding student-athlete, despite health issues that hampered her career. She holds school indoor records in 60, 200 and 400-meter events and outdoor records in both the 200 and 400-meters.
Fair credits Rangeland Professor Dr. Teresa Frink and former Professor Dr. Chuck Butterfield with inspiring her to enter a field that often isn’t considered by people of color.
“I look different than everybody in the field and they never made me feel like an outsider,” she said. “Most people are surprised that this is the field I’m in, even my friends I interact with.”
Coming to Chadron from inner city Denver as a freshman was a culture shock, said Fair, but she found the community welcoming.
“Chadron gave me so many opportunities,” she said. “It has become a second home.”
Finding a job that utilizes the training and experience in ecology and land management gained at Chadron State and aligns with her long term goals has been fulfilling, Fair said.
“We want to create the next generation of doers and we want them to be diverse,” she said. “There are a lot of career opportunities in the natural world. It’s important to educate all kids, minority and majority, that they can have an impact and what that looks like.”