Conservation Movement Must Become More Diverse

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Published on April 7th, 2011  |  Discuss This Article  

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. This post was originally published on The Huffington Post.

Environmental Justice journal recently published a new study by EPA officials and others that challenges the conservation movement to become more racially diverse.

The authors are right in challenging us.

Minorities currently comprise about one-third of the US population, and by 2050 will represent more than half of the American people. But their participation in the conservation workforce is woefully low.

Likewise, I recognize how our supporters tend to be somewhat homogeneous — mostly white, older, middle-class and from suburban or rural areas.

While these long-time supporters have been essential to our success and we love them and their support, we really need to broaden backing for the environmental movement if we want to be successful in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, there is also a growing gap between nature and people, particularly among youth and urban communities. Kids spend far less time outdoors than we did 30 years ago – opting instead for video games, television and other indoor activities. And as the majority of Americans now live in cities, fewer people understand how their well being is inextricably linked to the health of the natural world.

The failure to fully engage minority and urban communities is not only bad for the environmental movement, it also gets in the way of minority communities having a direct say on the future of the lands and waters that provide people food, shelter and income.

We think it’s time to engage minority students in conservation activities now so that they can become future leaders in environmental stewardship.

One initiative my organization has launched is called LEAF (Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future), and so far it shows great promise to make a big difference in children’s lives as well as for the conservation movement.

The program brings high school students from largely poor and urban areas to nature preserves across the country where they participate in paid internships on Nature Conservancy projects, working throughout the summer alongside environmental scientists and conservation managers.

For almost all of these students, it is the first time they really leave the city to spend time in nature.

One of our students, Josh Carrera, was living in difficult circumstances in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn when he first joined LEAF in 2007. Josh spent his summer with LEAF working in a nature preserve in Vermont, planting trees and helping combat invasive species. While in the program, he visited the University of Vermont, and was later accepted with a full scholarship into the University’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

Josh just finished a semester abroad in his home country of Ecuador studying the Andean Bear and is now in the Brazilian Amazon studying resource management and human ecology.

But Josh’s story is not unique. A recent survey of LEAF alumni showed that 34 percent of the program’s graduates have gone on to study life sciences in college (vs. 6 percent of the national average) and more than half of LEAF graduates volunteer for environmental causes.

LEAF currently partners with high schools in New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut and Atlanta, and we plan to grow the network of schools to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago by 2012. This is in large part thanks to support from the Toyota USA Foundation.

LEAF is just one way the conservation movement can reach out to new and diverse communities. But it demonstrates the benefits this outreach can have on both people and nature — today and into the future.

But I believe Josh said it best:

“When I chose to study the environment, I did not realize that I would be one of a handful of minority students that are pioneering a movement to help the environmental community become more diverse. The majority of conservation practitioners in America do not reflect the cultural diversity of this country, or the greater world. I believe that for conservation to truly succeed in the future, it must create more opportunities for students of color to become successful practitioners that reflect the communities they serve. I want to be a role model for other city youth to pioneer this movement with me.”

Hear Josh and other students talk about their growing interest in conservation:

(Image: Students at the High School for Environmental Studies (HSES) in New York City participating in a Conservancy sponsored nature studies intership on Owls Head Mountain in New York. Image credit: ©Amy Deputy)

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