The CREW Urban Youth Equestrians supports urban youth of color to develop a sense of Community, Relationships, Empowerment and Well-being (CREW) through working with horses. Founded in December 2020, the small volunteer staff and board has created, according to their website, a “safe, nonjudgmental and welcoming space where urban American Descendants of Slaves, Indigenous/Native, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and all youth of color in Saint Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota discover confidence and power in themselves through horses.” The dedicated Board began lessons with their first kids just 24 weeks after their initial ideation meeting. They have since grown to having 20 youth ages 7-17 enrolled in lessons and collaborating with five other nonprofits which serve urban youth.
The programming for youth is scaffolded so youth can learn to work with horses over time.
“Our curriculum starts at the ground-level, then kids move into riding,” Jenny Benton, a founding Board Member of The CREW said. “Our program isn’t a camp. We hope that the kids who come to us, stay. As they become adults, we want them to continue to be part of The CREW as volunteers or staff.”
“Our work is student-led,” Benton said. “Yes, we have rules to keep youth, staff, and animals safe, but youth so rarely have the opportunity to choose what they want to do. Some come out to the pasture to read books. Some want to draw while they are there. Some want to train the horses. They have autonomy over how they spend their time.”
Youth get to choose how they spend time with horses: they can read and draw near them, or learn to work with them directly.
Horses & Racial Equity
A brief conversation with Benton and another founding Board Member, Kenatia Gilmer, makes the connection between horses and racial equity very clear.
“When I think about what it means to be an equestrian, I think of someone who lives horses,” Gilmer said. “They are taking care of them, the land they eat from, the stable they live in. All of it. In Minnesota, equestrian life is a prestigious and exclusive space, and historically and currently a space where white people dominate.”
Gilmer and Benton pointed out how common it is for white people in Minnesota to grow up on farms, have family land, or second homes that are cabins and to own boats. Youth of color don’t have the same access to this culture because of systemic racism.
“We want to kick down that stereotype,” Gilmer said. “Connecting with a horse allows our kids to check in with themselves, to learn empathy, to learn to steward a place and belong to it. That practice shouldn’t be exclusive to only white people.”
The organization focuses on recruiting volunteers of color who work directly with the kids.
“We want our kids to know from the first time they step out of the car that this is their space, and it is absolutely possible for them to have horses and all the opportunities the equine industry has to offer,” says Benton.
Seeing adults who look like them working with the horses helps them internalize this is truly a path they can choose. The CREW has several ally volunteers who have been working with them since before the program launched to find grant opportunities, provide grant writing guidance, foundation contacts, and other opportunities to expand their program.
“We are doing something unique, and we can see people are starting to catch on to the importance of what we are doing,” Gilmer said. “I keep thinking about how in the first few weeks of programming, one of our youth taught me that grass is sweet-tasting, and that’s why the horse was eating it. There is something so important about being connected to a place, especially after what our kids have been through during the pandemic and following the murder of George Floyd.”
Fiscal Sponsorship & Growth
As the organization grows, The CREW recognizes the need for a strong foundation in bookkeeping, budget development, and grant writing.
“We need to be able to apply for grants, seek out mentorship, and be connected to others in the nonprofit sector,” Benton said. “Propel offers that and through our work with them we are able to gain resources to move ourselves forward.”
The CREW hopes to continue to reach kids and communities, and one day become a statewide recognizable program.
For now, they are focusing on purchasing a van to provide transportation to and from the barn and finding a sponsor for an experienced lesson horse as the kids advance to riding.
To grow, Benton, Gilmer, and the board are focused on their fundraising program by seeking out grants and individual donations, as well as building collaborative relationships with other nonprofits which serve urban youth.
“We have a huge opportunity to diversify who has access to careers related to horses, to the land they live on…it is exciting, and I think people will want to be a part of that,” Benton said.
To learn more about the The CREW, visit their website. You can make donations here: https://www.thecrewurbanyouthequestrians.org/make-a-donation.