The other day I saw a glimpse of The Nature Conservancy’s future – and it didn’t look like the present, but it was bright.
The Nature Conservancy in New York, as part of a larger overall Conservancy effort, is looking for ways to broaden our base of support for conservation and environmental sustainability for all life on earth. The Nature Conservancy has a million dedicated members who are primarily white, college-educated Baby Boomers. They have historically been the backbone of the organization and their support has helped us for the past 60 years become the largest conservation organization in the world and the eighth-largest charity in the United States. Our members are deeply passionate about and fervently committed to conservation. Without them, the Conservancy could not do what we do.
As the world sees a rapid change in national and global demographics, we need that passion and commitment to blossom and grow a new generation of conservationists like never before. We must seek to create a larger conservation consciousness that resonates in the 21st Century as New York, the United States and the world become increasingly young, urban, and more diverse.
By 2050, the median age of the world’s population is projected to be 37 years old and 68 percent of us will live in cities. In the United States, people of color are projected to represent 54 percent of the population by 2050. Even with the Conservancy’s tremendous track record of success conserving lands, freshwater and oceans we run the risk of becoming quaint and irrelevant in the next 40 years if we don’t connect with younger audiences, people of color, and youth. This isn’t just about growing the membership of the Conservancy. This is about building a consciousness — in America and throughout the world — that appreciates the importance of conservation, wildlife and nature for economic prosperity and human well-being. It’s about inspiring people who refuse to allow the U.S. Congress to reject critical climate-change legislation. A people who insist we use public resources to protect our lands and waters for the benefit of people and nature.
In New York City we are launching an effort to look at ways that the Conservancy can bring its strengths (science, collaboration, partnerships, non-partisanship and a solutions-oriented approach) to a place we have too long ignored. We have some valuable contributions, including the Leaders for Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF), a 15-year-old program that puts urban (and predominantly New York City) public high school juniors on Conservancy preserves all across the country. The experience is often the students’ first paid job, and I believe, a powerful combination of Fresh Air Fund, Outward Bound and Civilian Conservation Corps. We have also created a Young Professionals Group with more than 300 active members. But given New York City’s role as a global capital, it has, for too long, been the Conservancy’s “hole in the doughnut.”
For decades, we’ve worked around New York City, but not in it—conserving lands and waters on Long Island, in the Adirondacks and Catskills, and around the Finger Lakes. These are all critically important regions and great work, but it’s not enough anymore. It’s time we found ways to better reach out and resonate with New York City. We need to set and achieve urban conservation goals, to influence conservation policy, to engage young adults and the broader audience who will become the conservation leaders of today and tomorrow. There are many successful organizations working in the City and we approach this knowing that partnerships are the way to go, working with others who know the socio-political and physical landscapes, bringing the Conservancy’s scientific expertise, financial resources and collaborative approach.
Not too long ago we held a meeting of New York Conservancy staff and trustees. Victor Medina, a LEAF alum, spoke to the gathering. He told the group how he was so inspired by his summer in nature that he lost 60 pounds and has spent the last several years climbing as many high peaks as he can find, including Pico Duarte in his native Dominican Republic. He spoke about his LEAF experience, his passion for conservation and how his LEAF summer internship helped him become the leader he is today. After he closed his remarks, Victor headed to his seat. As he walked past, someone shouted, “Bill, you’d better look out—here comes the next New York Director of The Nature Conservancy!”
Got that right.