Action for Conservation: Our work building the next generation of environmental leaders
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This past summer, an oil chief executive labelled Greta Thunberg and her network of young school strikers the ‘greatest threat’ to the fossil fuel industry. We shared this news amongst our team with great excitement and hope. It is a strong sign that the momentous global youth-led movement, that’s standing up to the most destructive powers on our planet, is having an impact.
Greta’s school strike campaign builds on the hundreds of movements started by young environmentalists before her – including 18-year-old Tokata Iron Eyes, who co-led the historic protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, the 19-year-old founding director of Earth Guardian, just to name a few - and the many movements that exist alongside her. These movements demonstrate what happens when young people are inspired, empowered and angry and have a clear alternative vision for a world that is greener, fairer and well, still exists. Supporting young people to lead change by sharing their voice and taking hands on action is what drives our work at Action for Conservation.
Action for Conservation was founded five years ago with the aim of empowering young people from diverse backgrounds to become the next generation of environmental leaders. When the organisation was founded we had no idea that the youth-led environmental movement would evolve to what it is today. We were, however, aware of some very troubling statistics. UK wildlife has suffered significant damage over the past 40 years, with over 40% of species now in decline. The environmental sector is also failing to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce; just 0.6% of the workforce identifies as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. This has an impact on young people of colour and other minority groups, as it creates the misconception that the environmental movement is only for white middle-class people and makes them less likely to fight to protect nature when they’re older.
Our work aims to flip these statistics on their head by doing things differently and working with teenagers, a group that is underserved by the sector, and specifically teenagers from cities with little early childhood experiences in nature. We lead a series of linked programmes that support young people to engage with environmental issues on their own terms and then develop the skills and knowledge to take action in meaningful ways, eventually building to a point where they feel equipped with the right skills and confidence to join the growing movement of young people taking action for people and the planet.
It starts with our WildED programme, which brings the magic of nature into schools in urban area across the country. Through WildED we create safe spaces for young people to explore environmental issues and take action in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them. The WildED programme is supported by early-career environmentalists who share their expertise whilst helping young people connect their ideas to local campaigns and projects. Increasingly, we are helping young people understand how conservation issues intersect with issues related to social and environmental justice to ignite a passion in young people whose interests lie outside of the ‘traditional’ conservation space.
WildED participants are then invited to join our residential camps, which we run at National Trust properties in National Parks throughout the country. Here, young people from diverse backgrounds come together for five days to build on their environmental knowledge and skills, get up close and personal with nature through bird ringing, stargazing and outdoor adventures and create new connections – both with people and nature – that motivate them to take action when they return home. Our camps are supported by early career volunteers from a wide range of organisations, including: WWF, the Blue Marine Foundation, Step Up to Serve, the Wildlife Trusts, British Trust for Ornithology and environmental campaigners, filmmakers and artists who inspire and educate participants with their experiences and expertise. The camps are often hailed by young people as ‘lifechanging experiences’ – feedback we’re really proud of.
Camp participants are then invited to join our Ambassador Programme for a year of structured support and mentoring as they lead change in their communities and find their voice nationally. For us, this is where the magic really happens; the Ambassador Programme is the foundation for our work to build a youth movement for nature. Our Ambassadors have created community gardens, organised climate conferences with schools in their community, delivered TEDx talks, led workshops and assemblies, organised local school strikes and other protests, volunteered with conservation organisations, spoken at international conferences and set up youth ranger groups. Many of our Ambassadors have also gone on to successfully apply for leadership opportunities with other organisations, including the #iwill campaign, Groundwork, the NCS Regional Youth Board and London Wildlife Trust’s Keeping It Wild Forum. And increasingly, our Ambassadors are driving systemic change in big NGOs and Government to shape youth involvement in environmental decision making.
After years of supporting our Ambassadors to access opportunities with our brilliant partner organisations, the moment came this past summer to launch our very own conservation initiative: the Penpont Project. The Penpont Project is the largest youth-led nature restoration project of its kind in the world and aims to reverse ecological and climate breakdown whilst creating a global gold standard for youth-led environmental action. Taking place on a 2,000-acre estate in the Brecon Beacons National Park, the project is run by a Youth Leadership Group of twenty 12 - 17 year olds from diverse backgrounds who are making decisions in partnership with the landowners and tenant farmers. Whilst still in its infancy, the project will demonstrate what happens when young people have opportunities to transform their passion into impactful environmental efforts on a large scale. We hope it will provide a blueprint for others who want to trial a similar approach.
This feature highlights the many brilliant organisations and individuals supporting the youth-led environmental movement, and we’ve had the pleasure of working with many of them. As we bear witness to species decline and ecosystem collapse, and with just twelve years left to limit the worst impacts of climate breakdown, we must work together to act on the positive vision for the future that young people are articulating. To do this, we need to redress the balance of power and give young people from all backgrounds meaningful opportunities to be part of environmental decision making and shaping the solutions we so desperately need.
To learn more about our work and explore how we can work together please email our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First published in CJS Focus on the Next Generation in association with Action for Conservation on 2 December 2019. Read the full issue here