Bringing nature to the inner city

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Joey Zocher

Joey Zocher (center) on the job.

In the middle of one of Wisconsin’s most densely populated urban areas, Joey Zocher is teaching inner-city kids about nature and ecology.

As program director of the Urban Ecology Center at Washington Park, 4151 W. Lisbon Ave., Milwaukee, Zocher partners with 16 area schools to offer experiential learning courses that foster environmental respect and awareness as well as provide outdoor physical activities, such as rock climbing, canoeing, hiking and snowshoeing. The courses are integrated into the schools’ curriculum and involve repeated visits to the park over the course of each school year.

“We’re kind of like the schools’ outdoor classroom,” Zocher says. “Childhood needs to be preserved as much as any rainforest, and the kids love it here.”

In addition to coursework, the center offers a young scientist club, a volunteer stewardship program, gardening, fishing and a host of other activities that attract kids, teens and adults to the 135-acre park. Thanks to all the activity, crime in the park has fallen compared with overall crime in the city.

Zocher, who has a master’s degree in environmental education, believes that the green movement has a lot in common with the LGBT civil rights movement. She says creating sustainable communities means not only respecting the environment but also the differences among people.

“The environmental movement is all about people changing the way we’ve thought about our footprint on the earth,” she says. “That has to do with many facets, not just food and transportation choices, but also how we treat each other.”

Zocher’s commitment to the environment doesn’t end when she leaves work. She drives an old Mercedes that runs on vegetable oil. For recreation, she camps, canoes and gardens.

But Zocher is also something of a renaissance woman. She skates with the Brew City roller derby and plays in the band The Barrets, which has performed at PrideFest.

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