Nature Conservancy brings New Faces to Conservation

The Nature Conservancy begins a program that promotes environmental education opportunities for minority students.

The Nature Conservancy chose 100 boys to participate in this month-long summer intensive program of working outdoors. Of these 100 boys from 22 different states, 6 of these urban teenagers were sent to live on a remote barrier island where they could work to discover and explore the nature that surrounds them. The goal is to level the playing field of youth interested in environmental education, providing opportunities for minority students to get involved and succeed.

This is not the kind of program where a poor young adult from a city goes to a farm for a week to get a glimpse of something beyond a high-rise. Nor is it simply a way to address the condition known as nature-deficit disorder that is said to afflict children of the digital age.

This is an effort to create scientists and engineers who do not look like most of those already in the field.

That both environmental science and the largest conservation organizations in the country are predominantly white is no secret. The number of minority students receiving undergraduate degrees in natural resources, agricultural management or related fields hovers around 10 percent of the total, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and Department of Agriculture reports.

Prominent nonwhite professionals in the fields are rare, too; when President Obama selected Lisa Jackson as the first black leader of the Environmental Protection Agency, it was a significant moment. Groups like the National Black Environmental Justice Network, which have argued that environmental issues disproportionately affect minorities, have long pushed for more diversity in the profession.

The program has generated great interest, sparking a sense of motivation in under-privileged youth. By promising this nature focused opportunity to minority students, The Nature Conservancy is helping to close the education gap, little by little.

The idea behind the program, Leadership in Environmental Action for the Future — a name chosen in large part so the acronym spells LEAF — is to move promising minority students with a predisposition to nature into professions where conservation, the environment and natural resources are a theme. Most of the money to pay for it comes from the Toyota U.S.A. Foundation.

The students are mostly from middle-class Hispanic, black or Asian families. All live in large cities and have high GPAs at high schools whose curriculums center on the environment.

They are paid minimum wage to spend time in small groups on various projects around the country. In New Jersey, they banded osprey. The Georgia group pulled out invasive plant species, fixed trails, searched for endangered tortoises and counted oysters on an eroding shoreline.

To learn more about this program from The Nature Conservancy, read the entire article in the New York Times.

Published August 10, 2012