The Aldo Leopold Foundation celebrated its 50th session of the Land Ethic Leaders program in May during a special St. Louis-based workshop focused on diversity and inclusion. Created in 2010, the Land Ethic Leaders program is the Foundation’s principal tool to catalyze conservation leadership at the community level by training participants to ask big questions about the relationship between people and nature. Too often in conservation, trainings focus on the who, what, where, when, and how of environmental problems. These are important, but neglecting the question of “why” can lead to hopelessness and disengagement. Aldo Leopold’s idea of a land ethic is a “why” that can provide a platform for opening up dialog, stimulating deeper thinking among participants about how they can be agents of change in their communities by engaging people in a discussion of shared values and concerns.
The St. Louis session, in partnership with the Audubon Center at Riverlands, dealt specifically with broadening the conversation by focusing on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in conservation. For two and a half days, a remarkably diverse group of twenty-five came together to reflect, learn, and share their care for people, land, and communities. The workshop was anchored by a series of participant-led reflective discussions that used short pieces of literature from various racial and cultural perspectives to spark conversations about the opportunities and challenges of building an inclusive land ethic.
The majority of the program took place at the Little Creek Nature Area, a 97-acre natural reserve operated by the Ferguson-Florissant school district. The site hosts year-round environmental education integrated into the curriculum for students at all schools in the district, which consists of an 80% minority student population. The Audubon Center partners with this district in a number of programs, so it was an ideal setting to host ethical discussions of diversity and inclusion. Guest presentations brought in expertise and also highlighted community assets in the St. Louis region. In the opening session, participants had a chance to meet Deeohn Ferris, National Audubon Society’s Vice President for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, who helped ground the group in a basic understanding of EDI issues while exploring the connections between racial segregation and income inequality.
That evening, J. Drew Lanham (a board member of both the Leopold Foundation and National Audubon) spoke at the Ferguson Community Center to a public audience from the community as well as trainees. An avid birder and gifted educator, Drew used a unique range-mapping exercise to argue that if conservation and community integration are to be effective, we must understand the spatial intersections between communities of color and conservation work. After the event, he signed copies of his new book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair With Nature.
The group started the second day at Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing, an underground railroad site on the St. Louis shore of the Mississippi River. There, Angela Da Silva of the St. Louis Urban League shared a first-person reminiscence of the life of a young slave girl and helped the group to see the river through the eyes of black slaves who sought to escape to the Illinois shore. Mary Meachum, a free black woman, coordinated nearly 50 other people to facilitate the escapes. The group then collected several truckloads of litter and flood debris along the Great Rivers Greenway bike trail at the site. After several literature discussions back at Little Creek Nature Area, the group heard inspiring stories from teens and staff involved with the St. Louis Green Teen Alliance, an informal collaborative of organizations employing young people of color in community gardens, environmental education, and land stewardship.
The final workshop day was hosted at the spectacular Audubon Center at Riverlands amidst the sights and songs of a wide array of migratory birds at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, where the focus shifted to next steps. Participants brainstormed a long-term vision and action plan to stay engaged. Attendees came from a broad range of backgrounds: local government, the arts, community and youth development, K-12 and higher education, and many conservation agencies and organizations, including the St. Louis Zoo, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Missouri Department of Conservation, and of course Audubon, to name a few. The group plans to continue meeting on a regular basis to open up avenues for more collaboration across organizations, and to advance social, economic, and environmental justice in the region.
It was an auspicious way to usher in the 50th session of the Land Ethic Leaders program.
Join us for one of our upcoming Land Ethic Leaders workshops in June or August!