The new leaders are waiting: Scaling up inclusion and diversity in environmental organizations.

A posting by Helen Whybrow in ‘Saving Land’ the Land Trust Alliance’s newsletter entitled  ‘2042 Today: Cultivating Conservation Leaders of the Future’ (Fall 2011) described a 2010 leadership retreat for diverse conservation leaders under 35 where “for most of them, this [was] the first time they [had] been in a group of conservationists where people of color [were] the majority.” The event, developed as an ongoing collaboration between the Portland, OR based Center for Diversity and the Environment, and the Center for Whole Communities in Vermont, got me thinking about some research my Tufts Masters Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning students and I did for the Massachusetts Audubon Society (Mass Audubon) in 2005.

The premise of 2042 Today is similar to the focus of our research for Mass Audubon: in 2042 the population of U.S. metropolitan areas will be predominantly people of color, the current leaders of conservation organizations will have retired, so who are the new leaders? How should conservation organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere respond to the demographic and cultural shifts that are unfolding and will gain pace? What strategies for the inclusion of a more diverse base should be developed now that this is not only a moral question, but one of organizational effectiveness and even survival?

For Mass Audubon, of which I am now a Board Member, our aim was to understand how to engage diverse audiences and to identify the barriers that keep under-represented groups from regularly visiting the Society’s two major urban sanctuaries Boston Nature Center (BNC) and Broad Meadow Brook (BMB) in Worcester. Massachusetts, like the nation generally, is diversifying rapidly with half of all new immigrants coming from Latin America and the Caribbean, and another quarter coming from Asia. These new immigrants come from precisely those under-served groups Mass Audubon seeks to attract to its sanctuaries, both urban and rural. The good news is that we have excellent data on who these new Commonwealth residents are, the bad news is that most environmental and conservation organizations are not yet mainstreaming or scaling up inclusion and diversity or changing their operating paradigm and work practices in line with their changing client populations, although many with more foresight, and perhaps an enlightened sense of self preservation such as Mass Audubon, recognize the need for such change and are acting on it.

After our data gathering which included focus groups, interviews, online surveys and a literature review, and as a first step in helping them think about mainstreaming and scaling up inclusion and diversity, we advised Mass Audubon to decide on its core focus, as there were at least two core operating paradigms which were influencing work practices, based on our research at the BNC and the BMB:

  • The ‘People’s needs and nature’ paradigm, typical of the BNC.

Here, the emphasis was on meeting people’s needs through nature. The sanctuary had an idea of who ‘the community’ was (or rather who the communities were) through undertaking a community needs analysis, listened to what their needs were, and had, in the main, fashioned its programs and practices around these needs. This picture of the ‘teen ambassadors’ is the only one on Mass Audubon’s BNC webpage and reflects the BNC paradigm:

  • The ‘Nature’s needs and people’ paradigm, typical of the BMB.

Here, the emphasis was on a more traditional approach to nature conservation and land management around which programs for local people were fashioned by staff. This picture is the only one on Mass Audubon’s BMB webpage and reflects the BMB paradigm:

We emphasized strongly that both paradigms were Mass Audubon mission-related (“to protect the nature of Massachusetts for people and for wildlife”). One was not better nor worse than the other and we argued that both paradigms were operative within Mass Audubon generally, not just in the two centers we were studying. Indeed our research showed that they represented ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ approaches within the organization.

In short, in our report Mainstreaming Diversity: From Policy to Practice we argued that pursuing the ‘People’s needs and nature’ (progressive) as opposed to the ‘Nature’s needs and people’ (traditional) paradigm would produce very different outcomes over the longer term. Given both the changing demographics of Massachusetts, and the related need, both moral and effectiveness/survival-related, for conservation and environmental organizations to mainstream and scale up inclusion and diversity, we argued that the ‘People’s needs and nature’ paradigm was the most appropriate strategic choice. It was best suited to facilitating conversations about inclusion, diversity and cultural identity (interpreted more broadly than just ethnicity or religion) that are clearly essential if Mass Audubon wants to retain the support, political, funding and otherwise, of a majority in this rapidly changing Commonwealth.

Based on our research, we recommended that Mass Audubon needed to:

  • Institutionalize cultural competency. All cultures can’t be treated the same. They are different with different perceptions, expectations, aspirations and customs. The cultural competency approach was suggested as a way for the Centers and Mass Audubon generally to begin to understand cultural difference and to integrate it into their strategic approach and programs.
  • Develop better organizational clarity and communication. There needed to be more organizational clarity and better communication about the need to attend to diversity and cultural issues, especially about both the aims and goals of this.
  • Diversify staffing. Staff must reflect the communities served and the wider Commonwealth, in racial, ethnic, cultural and socio-economic ways.
  • Develop systematic and systemic community outreach. Community outreach needs to become both systematic and systemic. It needs to be based not only on educating people and communities, but more importantly, on listening to them. It needs to employ many techniques such as word of mouth, community TV (especially ethnic channels) and use many locations such as health clinics, markets, places of worship, cultural and ethnic festivals.
  • Develop a ‘community relevant’ curriculum. Literature, focus group and user data suggested that the curriculum should become more related to life issues faced by local people and communities.
  • Formalize diversity in writing. Diversity was a word on most staff members’ lips, but was more difficult to find in written form. Diversity should not be solely related to verbal aspirations, it must permeate all levels of the sanctuary/organization, from staff recruitment and review to marketing, from curriculum to community outreach. [Note: In discussions following the research, the word diversity was followed by the word inclusion, and the Diversity Committee became the Diversity and Inclusion Committee].

Today, Mass Audubon is leading the way in showing how conservation organizations should respond to the demographic and cultural shifts that are unfolding, and is demonstrating some the strategies for the inclusion of a more diverse base. It now has two female senior managers of color; the Director of Marketing and Communications (2011) is African American and the Director of Education (2007) is Latina where there were none when we did our research in 2005. It has a more diverse Board and Advisory Council. It has utilized my Masters students to undertake innovative research in the diverse communities of Lawrence, Framingham and Holyoke MA, to help it expand its constituency, cultivate stewardship statewide and to help it understand how best to serve these and other communities for whom traditional programming and/or sanctuary space is neither seen as relevant nor accessible. The students’ report: Nature’s New Curriculum: Creating Educational Opportunities in Urban and Diverse Communities contains creative solutions, many of which Mass Audubon is implementing. It has also hired consultants to help it meet not so much the challenge, but the opportunity presented by mainstreaming inclusion and diversity.

The number of innovative programs such as 2042 Today: Cultivating Conservation Leaders for the Future is growing. One other notable example is the Toyota/National Audubon Society Together Green program, with its Lead Green fellowship to recognize and nurture the leaders of tomorrow; Grow Green grants to support creative projects that contribute to significant gains in habitat, water and energy conservation and Go Green volunteer projects to create a call to action for real conservation impact in diverse communities.

Organizations such as Mass Audubon are committed to strategies for inclusion and diversity. Programs such as 2042 Today and Together Green are showing us who and where the new leaders are. There’s still a long way to go, but this we know: what to do, how to do it and who and where the new leaders are. Let’s not keep them waiting. Let’s scale it up now.


  1. Ajamu Brown on September 2, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Your recommendations for Mass Audubon could easily be applied to food justice organizations in New York City as well. Thanks for sharing Dr. J!

    • Julian Agyeman on September 2, 2011 at 4:25 pm

      Absolutely Ajamu, these recommendations are pretty generalizable.

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