Chino Hardin took 11 people who jumped him camping. He isn’t sure what led to this decision. He wanted to retaliate at first, and he could have. He had the muscle, and he knew where in Brooklyn to find those involved in the assault. Instead, a calm came over him.
Hardin’s time in prison six years earlier taught him the language of restorative justice, which was reinforced in his subsequent work protesting prison development projects. The concept aims to identify and repair harm caused by a crime, including relationships impacted. He later decided to use those principles to build trust with the people who attacked him, who were skeptical at first. They feared his invitation could be a trap; distrust went both ways between Hardin and the group. They met with them in neutral spaces and over phone calls for a year to forge relationships before they embarked on the trip.
Finally they camped, and under stars laced by leafy treetops, Hardin watched the group “open up and connect” with each other and nature.
For Hardin, the trip healed wounds left long after the scars on his face faded. It showed the power of forgiveness. Since Hardin’s release from Rikers Island, his heart changed, which he credits in part to many solo camping trips.
“It takes a lot to kind of grow from being institutionalized, to grow and heal from who you have to be on the inside to who you want to be on the outside,” Hardin said.
That trip nearly 20 years ago was the first he took with other people, and it was far from his last. He’s been connecting people with nature to restore themselves and build community ever since.
His own experiences inform how Hardin helps others through NuLegacy, a program within the Brooklyn-based Center for NuLeadership on Human Justice and Healing where he is co-executive director. He leads camping excursions, hiking trips and travels across the U.S. mostly with participants who were also previously incarcerated. Other people he guides were impacted by the prison system in some way.
Hardin spent most of his life in the city, though he now lives about 100 miles away in Millerton, a small New York village. The only natural spaces he could access growing up were football field-sized squares of grass dropped between blocks of apartments, or New York City’s larger parks, Central and Prospect. Hardin first saw forests and mountains while shackled on a bus traveling from Rikers Island to a prison upstate.
Many people Hardin takes on camping trips share this upbringing of being surrounded by more high-rises than trees. But like him, they wanted a break from the noise and hustle that comes with living in New York City.
“All the parks (New York City has) are much appreciated, but if you could count the trees, it’s not enough,” Hardin said. “That total exposure — where you actually get to see the galaxy, because the stars (upstate) are amazing, and you hear your inner voice because there’s no other sounds except for the sounds of nature — is so important.”
The quietness of the great outdoors gave Terrance Sumpter time to think about his life, where he’s been and where he wants to go, and it brought some peace of mind. He braved the Michigan cold with Hardin for the first time about three years ago. Both grew up in Bed-Stuy, a Brooklyn neighborhood where many people who participate in NuLegacy programs live.
The appeal of freedom and open space piqued Sumpter’s interest when Hardin said, “Come with me, I got you,” and led him to an oasis away from Brooklyn. They’ve adventured across the country many times since.
“Being out in nature is definitely a healing experience,” Sumpter said. “You get to wake up early and … be calm, because in the city you always want to find something to do, but when you’re out in nature there’s nothing to do and you’re not mad about it.”
Forty-two percentof people incarcerated in New York prisons as of June 2022 came from the city, according to a Prison Policy Initiative report. They primarily call the same few areas home, including Bed-Stuy and four neighborhoods surrounding it.
This data could identify areas in need of community-based programs aimed at preventing people from getting involved with the criminal legal system, the report reads. It’s important for formerly incarcerated people Hardin works with “to find their way,” with some guidance if needed, he said. He gives them physical spaces and opportunities to do so. NuLegacy is Hardin’s method to “disrupt and stop the cycles of violence, fear and trauma caused by mass incarceration,” the program’s webpage reads.
Hardin believes land “holds” trauma for people and can help them “unpack it,” so he exposes people “to the most organic places of nature.” Once he got out of prison, the clogged Brooklyn streets felt suffocating. Instead of watching a local Labor Day parade he’d attended each year since he was a child, Hardin found a sleeping bag and a hatchet, then set out on his first camping trip.
Something happened to his spirit when he braved the outdoors. He struggled some during his stay at Macedonia Brook State Park, enduring bee stings and frigid weather. It was the first time he “ever experienced suffering that wasn’t through the hands of a human.” He felt free.
“It awakened something in me … almost a joy,” Hardin said. “I decided right then and there that I would never spend another Labor Day in the city, and I would always go camping. And I did.”
Hardin and Sumpter returned from another weeklong camping trip to Michigan in September, revisiting the state where Sumpter discovered the healing powers of nature. Next, NuLegacy wants to raise funds to take a group hike along the Appalachian Trail.
Hardin won’t move back to New York City. It’s not that he doesn’t love it, but “parts of (him) are still healing,” and he felt the space and silence of the mountains chose for him to confront his past traumas there. But he hasn’t stopped helping others in the city and beyond form their own kinship with the outdoors.
“We come from the land and our blood is in it, our DNA is in it,” Hardin said. “When all things are said and done we will return to it in some shape, form or fashion.”
Sammy Gibbons is a culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region How We Live team. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @sammykgibbons