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Angelou is cultivating a generation of youth of color to be stewards of our land and natural resources and ultimately shift the demographics of the environmental conservation movement.
The New Idea
Angelou Ezeilo is working to address the major disconnect in this country between people of color and the environment. To do so she founded the Greening Youth Foundation with the goal of changing the face of conservation in the United States while simultaneously providing pathways for skill development and into meaningful careers for young people of color in America. In cities like Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Selma and beyond, African American youth in particular face unemployment rates well above the national average, and often limited opportunities for career development. Meanwhile, the leadership and workforce responsible for protecting and stewarding our public lands and championing the next phase of the environmental movement is less and less representative of our more diverse population, and is getting older. Beginning with launching talented young people into conservation careers, Greening Youth Foundation seeks to establish a new paradigm of ‘sustainable diversity’ whereby communities of color become the backbone of the next conservation workforce and the source of its leaders.
GYF has worked with thousands of young people and placed more than 750 in jobs around the country, but the goal is a broader paradigm shift: with federal agencies, universities and local municipalities across the country, as well as civil society partners, enabling a sector that has consistently failed to reach and engage the African American community to do so at time when its success and future relevance increasingly depends on it. And in the process, flip the narrative about young African American men and women by giving them pathways to be stewards and restorers of our shared natural resources.
There is very little diversity in the conservation and environmental fields and this has been a recognized problem for almost a generation. Mainstream environmental organizations in the U.S. are anywhere from zero to 11 percent people of color; that’s a far cry from what is reflected in the general population, which is about 38 percent people of color and will grow to 56 percent by 2060, according to the US Census Bureau. In a study examining diversity in 158 environmental institutions, the Minority Environmental Leadership Development Initiative found that 33 percent of major environmental organizations and 22 percent of government agencies had no people of color on staff. Another study found that people of color make up only 11 percent of the staff and 9 percent of the boards for organizations that are members of the Natural Resources Council of America. This matters because as America’s demographic changes, the environmental movement must change with it to have mass appeal and stay relevant well into the future. A more diverse movement is capable of expanding its constituent base, gaining political wins, more membership, a broader volunteer base, richer partnerships, and more financial support – not to mention developing more creative, higher quality ideas.
At the same time as the movement struggles with diversity, young people of color are experiencing disproportionate levels of unemployment. More than this, from the streets of Sanford, FL; Selma, Alabama; Newark, New Jersey; Ferguson, Missouri to Baltimore, Maryland, young African American men and women are reacting to tragic incidents that stem from them being viewed by many as valueless human beings. In addition to limited pathways for workforce development and meaningful careers, a pervasive sense of hopelessness is taking root that is shaped by the deficit narrative about African American communities in this country and that only deepens as that narrative is internalized.
The environmental field – and for that matter, the outdoor recreation industry too – has consistently failed to reach and engage communities of color, despite the fact that these communities are as concerned about the effects of environmental degradation as much as anyone (especially since those effects are often disproportionately felt by the least privileged). As a result, our entire conversation about who enjoys the outdoors and how – and who should be responsible for stewarding our natural resources – has become skewed and divided. Conversations about ice caps and polar bears dominate those about urban environmental justice, and too many citizens tune out. Meanwhile, swaths of brilliant youth of color that represent a talent pipeline are largely unaware of the opportunities that exist for them. Thankfully there is an increasing recognition that the very survival of the environmental movement and its institutions requires a new approach.
Angelou’s strategy is to turn a major problem facing the environmental conservation movement into an opportunity for a category of American young people for whom opportunities are thin. Her strategy is premised on two core beliefs: first, that early exposure to public lands, their historical significance, and the environmental movement more broadly, together with workforce development opportunities in conservation will enable young people of color to ‘fall in love’ with this work and grow a pipeline of talented future conservationists. Second, that as this pipeline grows, in partnership with major public land and conservation agencies, the face of the environmental conservation movement will change in a way it must to stay relevant and robust in the future.
Greening Youth Foundation manages three reinforcing programmatic components. First is environmental education for grade schoolers in partnership with the public school system in Atlanta as well as other youth organizations like the Boys & Girls Club and after school rec centers. This initiative provides basic environmental and wellness education for 3rd graders so they begin to develop early environmental literacy. Second is the Youth Conservation Corps – GYF’s cornerstone initiative. GYF recruits young people 17-25 and in partnership with land management agencies provides them with paid training and workforce development opportunities in their cities and states – which is especially appealing in the Black community. These take a variety of forms, for example the Urban Youth Corps program had a recent month-long restoration project of the shotgun homes in Atlanta’s Martin Luther King historic district. Another project in Denver recruited inner city youth to retrofit national park structures at 10 different Colorado sites. Many of the participants were Native American young people who had never been to these nearby parks.
With these projects and many others, young people are trained in light construction, conservation, agriculture, forestry, trail restoration, leave-no-trace methods in addition to other key skills like teamwork, financial literacy, job interviewing and more. After each training program they are sent to a site with the goal of being hired at the end of the tenure by the partner organizations. GYF has managed this process for hundreds of young people and placed more than 750 in jobs across the Unites States. A specific training site was established in Atlanta and the goal is to replicate similar sites across the country .
The I identifies talented college students and connects them with National Park Service sites. The goal is not just individual job placement, but institutional change at both the universities but especially the agencies so they begin to shift their marketing, outreach and recruiting practices so that traditionally invisible talent pools become a permanent source of recruits.
For Angelou, diversifying the pipeline to public land management and other environmental careers is a step toward a broader culture shift where the country begins to think differently about who can and should enjoy our public lands, experience the joys of outdoor recreation, and take responsibility and leadership for stewarding our precious shared resources. And this is a shift that must happen at a moment when the environmental movement faces an identify crisis and continues to struggle to engage communities of color. As the face of those who work and lead our conservation work changes, Angelou expects to reach a tipping point where pathways into environmental careers extend into urban communities of color, but also where our culture as a whole has made room in the environmental movement to be fully inclusive and relevant to all Americans. This is what Angelou means by ‘sustainable diversity’: nurturing a relationship with the environment for all citizens so that ownership over our planet’s sustainability is distributed and thus stronger well into the future.
Angelou recognizes that the moment is ripe for her work. For the first time the White House is making it a priority to shape a park system that reflects all of us, with President Obama in 2016 adding national monuments that celebrate individuals like Cesar Chavez and sites like the Stonewall Inn where the gay rights movement was born. Our parks and land management systems are demanding a new workforce and environmental leaders of all stripes are thirsty for solutions that begin to address its diversity problem. As such, over the next two years Angelou is focused on positioning her work to date as a model for inclusive sustainability, deepening her impact and amplifying what works.
Greening Youth Foundation’s projected budget in 2016 is $2 million. Its programs are funded by the federal government, foundations, and a handful of private corporations. Over the next several years, Angelou plans to work more closely with the billion-dollar outdoor recreation industry with the belief that they too have a vested interest in both reaching a new talent pool as well as engaging more diverse communities with its products and services.
Angelou grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. Her father was a musician who played with major names like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, but he and Angelou’s mother also owned a record shop during her entire childhood – selling records, posters and other 1970s items, and giving responsibility for popcorn and concessions to Angelou who remembers the intoxicating feeling of being in charge of something and keeping a portion of the proceeds. When her father retired from music he became a real estate entrepreneur. In this way her parents stood out from the many other adults in her family who chose more traditional careers (like the Post Office) and rarely took risks. Her grandmother, meanwhile, ran a church in New Jersey and recruited Angelou to accompany her when she would bring dinners to the sick and shut-in, or when she would volunteer at the church during a community event. For Angelou, this became a normal part of her weekly routines, and when she looks back, it was her grandmother’s commitment to others which shaped many of her own decisions in life.
At Spelman College, Angelou and her peers were challenged to be the change agents in the world who would re-shape it, rather than stand on the sidelines. She studied public interest and environmental law, and was soon working in New Jersey to protect farmland from development and keep small farmers solvent, and eventually for the Trust for Public Land doing land acquisitions of various kinds. Wherever she went, she seemed to be the only Black woman in her field, and she simultaneously recognized how disengaged communities of color seemed in the conversation about public land, conservation, and the future of the environmental movement. But when she found herself negotiating with an elderly woman that reminded her of her own grandmother to sell her property well under market value for a public development project, she decided her talents would be best used elsewhere.
Angelou’s love for the environment dates back to her childhood when she had the chance to escape the dense urban streets of Jersey City, New Jersey and spend summers in upstate New York on her family’s farm. This was a time for escape, for thinking, for wonder. But so few young people living in cities had the same exposure. Greening Youth Foundation began as an effort to provide environmental education and outdoor experiences to young people of color in Atlanta. In time she saw tremendous opportunity in providing more than just education, but real pathways into meaningful careers that could simultaneously bring diversity to a movement that will need broad appeal to stay robust and successful for generations.