Since 1995, the LEAF program has had a tremendous impact on urban youth—opening their eyes to career possibilities, building self-confidence, work skills and conservation literacy. In 2011, The Nature Conservancy conducted an independent outside evaluation to determine the long-term impact of the program, which has served approximately 500 students from 1995-2011.
Overall, the evaluation set out to answer the question: “What are the long-term impacts of The Nature Conservancy’s LEAF Program on an urban youth population?” The survey measured environmental values, activism, academic outcome, career track and support for conservation. Highlights confirm that LEAF alumni are active conservationists in their personal and professional lives.
The Conservancy’s LEAF program offers youth both career development and a direct hands-on environmental stewardship experience. Working with mentors and scientists, LEAF interns are well-supported and guided to gain work and life skills within a context of connecting with nature. These types of mentored experiences in nature are the key component to producing life-long conservation supporters.
Global conservation consistent with the Conservancy’s mission requires a diverse constituency of support. The LEAF program is designed to develop just such a constituency. Urbanization is a growing national and international trend. More than half the world’s population already resides in cities. In the United States, that number is now more than 80 percent. By targeting urban youth from populations largely underrepresented in the conservation movement, the LEAF program is training and developing the next generation of conservation leaders.
For the purposes of the survey, the LEAF program goals were translated into a set of short and long-term program objectives:
The report indicates that the program successfully achieves its stated goals, particularly in the area of conservation support, environmental values and community level environmental activism.
Based on alumni respondent demographics, the program successfully targets ethnic and racial groups that are underrepresented in the conservation community. For almost all of the youth participants (93 percent), the LEAF program represented the first sustained exposure to nature.
Sustained exposure to nature, particularly with a mentor, is one of the fundamental experiences thought to lead to long-term conservation support and environmental activism – a key program goal. In addition, allowing the students to perceive themselves as having a positive impact on the environment encouraged them to develop confidence in pursuing environmental and personal goals beyond the summer program. Ninety-two percent of alumni expressed a sense of empowerment from the LEAF experience. Urban students felt relaxed and at peace immersed in nature and expressed greater interest in environmental issues and a greater awareness of conservation career paths from the LEAF experience.
Ninety-six percent of alumni went directly to college and attained higher education levels compared to their peers nationally. When comparing completed educational levels of alumni with national averages, alumni compare favorably: 21 percent of alumni completed bachelor’s degrees as compared to 9 percent nationally.
Compared to the achievement gap between the national population, LEAF alumni excel: 21 percent of alumni completed their bachelor’s compared to 6 percent nationally. When compared to the population at large, many more LEAF alumni were employed and more had experience with employment in environmental organizations. Alumni in a variety of professions incorporate environmental practices in their work, and a high percentage are in education-related careers. Employed LEAF alumni also earn markedly higher incomes compared to national averages.
Results indicate the LEAF program successfully meets objectives of cultivating long-term and high-level support for environmental and conservation values. LEAF alumni are aware of and rank almost all environmental factors as extremely serious among a list of various current issues. Compared to the national average, alumni place greater value on environmental issues, such as climate change and loss of natural areas.
LEAF alumni exhibit more environmental behaviors than the general public and spend a substantial amount of time outdoors: 2-4 hours per day. LEAF alumni are environmental advocates; they take a stand for environmental issues with their peers and in their communities, and 72 percent define themselves as environmentalists. Over half have volunteered for an environmental organization over the past year – more than twice as many as the national average.