Investing in youth is an investment in a sustainable future
By Brigitte Griswold, Director of Youth Engagement Programs at The Nature Conservancy
In a recent New York Times op-ed, President of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker critiqued America’s current culture of unpaid internships – which he believes creates a system where “contacts and money matter more than talent [and] contributes to an economy in which access and opportunity go to the people who already have the most of both.”
We in the non-profit environmental community must take his points seriously and invest in deeper efforts to empower youth from all socioeconomic backgrounds to achieve their full potential as environmental leaders. The good news is, we can collectively work together to attract and retain the young people who will ultimately help us solve multifaceted global challenges—like climate change—which demand more varied viewpoints and experiences than ever.
Providing competitive wage career development opportunities is especially important considering the fact that half of all public school students are now living at or below the poverty line and in light of recent studies which suggest students receiving paid internships receive more job offers and higher salaries than their unpaid counterparts. From this perspective, providing paid professional opportunities in the environmental sector is a double win – we can help tackle the intractable inequities that still plague our nation, while at the same time equip the young people who are most likely to be impacted by challenges like climate change with the skills and networks to lead the solutions necessary to sustain the environmental movement into the future.
At The Nature Conservancy, we are committed to expanding opportunities through innovative partnerships with organizations like Lowe’s, who support paid internships as part of our broader youth engagement initiatives. For the past twenty years, we have been building pathways to conservation careers through these kinds of paid high school and college internships – and we will soon be launching a new two-year paid fellowship for recent graduates.
These efforts are now paying off.
Consider Fazena Bacchus, who participated in paid internships with The Nature Conservancy during her high school and college career. Before even graduating college she was offered a job as a water resources engineer at ARCADIS, a leading global design and consultancy firm for natural and built assets. She’s now focusing her professional life on sustainable water issues.
“One important thing that I’ve learned is that you don’t have to go far to work on natural issues,” said Fazena. “I’m in an urban environment and working as a water resource engineer in the city. Water and natural resource use is an issue for any city, it’s not a distant problem.”
Or Orlando Raez, an urban planner who is hoping to broaden his impact for his community by running for Mayor of his adopted hometown of Hollywood, Florida.
Orlando credits his paid high school internship with the Conservancy with sparking his interest in environmental science and land conservation. “When I began to see the ecological connection between all places, I started to realize the importance of land use and policy decisions on our future. Although I plan for the growth and prosperity of cities, I also take into account the creatures that share our world. I’ll make sure my daughter’s generation, and others after, continue sharing this world in a balanced way.”
And, Jonathan Richardson.
Jonathan’s paid internship fueled a passion for nature and conservation that now touches every area of his professional life. He works at a major search engine company – assisting with LEED certification, grey water run-off, urban agriculture, composting and waste management. He also started his own business installing living ecosystems in the form of terrariums in office buildings across New York City.
“I see how nature and the environment are important parts of my everyday life, and I hope to pass on that understanding to my daughters. I think it’s important for their happiness and for the future health of our planet that children growing up today have an appreciation and love for the natural world, the way that I did,” Jonathan said.
There is no shortage of interested young people ready and waiting to contribute their many talents. As one of my former interns, Samantha Hoffman, likes to remind me, “We have all the potential in the world – what we lack is opportunity.”
It’s up to us in the environmental community to provide those opportunities. And there is perhaps no generation more uniquely equipped to deliver a substantive return on investment to the environmental movement writ large. This generation is poised to develop innovative solutions that can redefine what the environment means in an increasingly globalized, connected, and urban world. After all, they are the largest generation—1.8 billion strong—and are characterized as more diverse, technologically savvy, optimistic, and entrepreneurial than any other generation in history.
Fazena, Orlando, Jonathan, Samantha, and countless other young people like them are now charting the course to a future where both people and nature can thrive. And that’s the kind of investment—which ultimately secures our movement’s very future—that is unequivocally worth making.