Building a Broader Conservation Movement

By Mark Tercek, President and CEO; and Hazel Wong, Director of Conservation Campaigns

As Black History Month comes to a close, it is a good time to reflect on the many contributions the African American community has made to conservation and the environmental movement.

Unfortunately, large conservation organizations still have a long way to go in addressing the lack of diversity among our staff and supporters. It’s sometimes suggested that communities of color are less supportive of conservation, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Over the past 26 years, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and our partners have generated nearly $50 billion at the ballot box to fund conservation and open space projects. Time and again, we have had enormously broad and diverse support for these programs, including from the African American community. In many cases, citizens vote to raise taxes in order to protect our natural resources. In 2012, for example, 82 percent of African Americans voted to reauthorize Forever Wild, a land and water protection program in Alabama. At the federal level, we’re enormously grateful for the continued strong support from members of the Black Congressional Caucus. This group has been instrumental in supporting federal funding and policies to protect our natural world and prevent environmental harm. Poll after poll—both state and national—show immensely diverse support for conservation. From communities of color, to women to urban residents, we continue to find that a very broad representation of America is on the side of nature and the environment.

Many African Americans have been superb champions of conservation, including in the field of environmental justice. Why, then, are they less likely to be members and leaders of large conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy? What can we do to chart a new course for the future?

To be sure, The Nature Conservancy admittedly has a lot of room for improvement in this area, but we are genuinely committed to building a diverse workforce and a broader conservation movement. Here are some of the new strategies that we are encouraged by.

First, we will do all that we can to recruit more staff and volunteer leaders who reflect the diversity of the people and communities we serve. We have a robust organization-wide initiative underway to achieve this goal.

Second, we must be proactive in ensuring that tomorrow’s conservation leaders reflect the communities they will serve. For example, TNC’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) Program, provides paid jobs for urban high school students in natural areas across the country. Assessment of LEAF participants reveals the program’s positive influence on the students’ environmental knowledge, as well as their self-reliance and resilience. Alumni surveys also show that these students pursue nature-related careers at a rate that is nearly six times higher than the national average.

Similarly, our GLOBE (Growing Leaders on Behalf of the Environment) program provides paid college job opportunities to students from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Students acquire skills beneficial for a conservation career, develop a support network within the conservation community, and learn about potential conservation careers in the sciences and beyond.

These kinds of investments in young people need to be expanded to assure that students from all backgrounds have access to and opportunities for careers in conservation.

Large conservation organizations should also seek out more partnerships with African American communities. In 1995, for example, The Nature Conservancy partnered with the nonprofit group, Bayview Citizens for Social Justice, to defeat a proposal to build a federal prison on land adjacent to TNC’s Virginia Coast Reserve. The prison would have had an adverse effect on water quality and destroyed important waterfowl habitat. It also would have displaced the town of Bayview, an African-American community of descendants of slaves who had lived there for some 300 years. Many residents lived below the poverty level in substandard housing with inadequate water and sanitation. Over the next decade TNC helped Bayview acquire land and rebuild its community with improved housing and sanitation. In return, the town agreed to manage its land for conservation values as well.

From Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York to Bogota, Nairobi and Beijing, we are looking to advance urban conservation projects that not only benefit nature, but also the most vulnerable communities who are the hardest hit by natural disasters – namely, diverse communities, the economically disadvantaged, and the elderly. Our Coastal Resilience work around the world is also looking at explicitly considering vulnerable populations in deciding where and how we work.

Finally, and just as important, we are thinking hard about how we talk about nature in order to reach as diverse and global an audience as possible. There are many good reasons for protecting nature, including its innate value. But we can reach even more people by also highlighting the benefits of nature for everyone—clean air, fresh water, fertile soil, protection from floods and storms.

Protecting our planet’s lands and waters is a value shared by many, yet the biggest conservation groups have historically neglected to reach beyond our largely homogenous base of supporters. In one recent survey, 81 percent of African American respondents agreed that conserving our country’s natural resources is patriotic. That is a core value we can all share as the common ground to develop a more inclusive movement, and to show that nature is part of the solution that benefits everyone.

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy and author of Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive By Investing in Nature. You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek.

Hazel Wong is Director of the Conservation Campaigns Team, a division within External Affairs at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) charged with generating conservation funding by placing measures on the ballot in states through the initiative or referendum process.  Hazel has been on the forefront of researching how to engage communities of color in conservation and advocating for more diverse representation in the conservation community.

[Image: LEAF intern Kiara Knight releases bottlebrush crayfish during a canoe and science trip down Russell Creek, a tributary of the Green River, near Greensburg, Kentucky. © Joanna B Pinneo for The Nature Conservancy]

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