When Tamara Lee Pinard, The Nature Conservancy in Maine’s Community Initiatives Manager, attended the first Changemakers Environmental Network gathering in 2016, she was inspired. Nestled in the woods of a remote section of Camden Hills State Park, Tanglewood 4H center provided an excellent backdrop for participants to focus on relationship building and learning through stories. Whether gathered in an open circle on the dewy grass learning about the work of the youth-led group that organized the gathering, working through prompts with intentionally cultivated lunch groups, or listening to stories around a campfire, every aspect of the gathering invited participants to open up, be curious, and think differently.
Supported by the Maine Environmental Education Association (MEEA), Changemakers is a youth-led network that connects young Mainers from diverse backgrounds who are passionate about the environment with peers and mentors. The annual Gathering is an intergenerational, youth-planned and facilitated event that focuses on bringing people together who are passionate about the environment and are committed to building a more just and sustainable Maine. The Gathering provides networking and connection, skill-building workshops, self-reflection, heads-together innovation and solution building, and a chance to gain hope and inspiration from other people who are working to make a difference for Maine’s environment.
“I saw how this approach changed the typical power dynamics, opening a space for youth voices to not only participate in the conversation, but lead it,” says Lee Pinard. “And I knew that TNC’s support could really help further this work.”
Lee Pinard and MEEA’s Executive Director, Olivia Griset, began having conversations about how the two organizations might collaborate. Lee Pinard approached the relationship with full acknowledgement of the size and power of TNC and the need to honor the expertise and approach of this much smaller organization.
In the first phase of the collaboration, TNC Maine provided funding to MEEA to build more capacity and deliver more of their effective programming. To ensure those typical power dynamics wouldn’t come back into play, it was also vitally important for TNC to avoid attaching any specific requirements, direction, or list of deliverables to the funding.
MEEA decided to use the funds to create a fellowship program involving three young people from the Changemakers network, who would work part time each year to provide more formal learning and leadership opportunities for participants. Throughout the fellowship, Changemaker fellows learn a multitude of skills, including meeting facilitation, event planning, networking, website building, grant writing and fundraising. A 2020 Fellow, Amara Ifeji, is now serving as MEEA’s Director of Youth Engagement and Policy.
“The experience was transformative,” recounts Ifeji. “I have a passion for environmental and social justice and, as a Changemaker, I discovered that I can build that passion into a career.”
In fact, Ifeji has been selected as one of fifty emerging leaders in climate, equity, and sustainability for 2022, by Grist, a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories about climate solutions and a just future.
Taking the Next Step
This was a great start, but there were still important gaps. Careers in conservation with organizations like The Nature Conservancy often require at least two or three years of experience, yet few opportunities exist to provide that experience, especially for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) applicants. TNC Maine and MEEA began a process to address this issue. But it wasn’t easy: building relationships and earning trust takes time, effort, humility, and learning.
From this intention, the idea emerged of co-creating two-year, full-time residency positions that would work for both organizations, gaining experience and contributing to both missions. Among other things, this meant building trust between a broader cross section of TNC Maine and MEEA staff.
Red Fong, MEEA’s Director of Operations, researched other organizations’ similar efforts and brought that knowledge into the process of co-creation. “Red stressed the importance of having time to build authentic relationships among MEEA and TNC Maine staff who were each going to serve an integral role in supporting and supervising the residents,” says Lee Pinard.
In 2021, after more than a year of work, TNC Maine and MEEA hired two Residents. The Residents have jumped in with both feet.
Deb Paredes is working for MEEA on a program that connects BIPOC communities with environmental issues and for TNC on community resilience in the face of climate change. A graduate of the University of Maine where Deb studied biology, ecology and environmental science, Deb has served as an AmeriCorps Energy Efficiency Coordinator and worked with Window Dressers, an organization that brings community volunteers of all economic and social situations together to produce low-cost insulating window inserts—adding warmth to interior spaces, lowering heating costs, and reducing carbon dioxide pollution.
“I envision a society that scales back and consumes less,” Deb explains. “Local farms, small businesses, and emphasizing skills currency more than wealth accumulation can connect people to each other and the natural world in healthier ways.”
Sinet Kroch is playing a support role in planning monthly equity programs for MEEA on topics such as conflict resolution and social empowerment. For TNC, she is providing climate adaptation resources for Maine communities. She aspires to become an environmental activist, specifically in tackling the global issues brought on by climate change, and help at-risk communities adapt to life in a changing climate.
“I want to stand with those who need a voice,” says Kroch. “I’m optimistic about the future though—youth have a lot of power and strength.”
TNC’s Lee Pinard agrees. “Engaging young people with diverse backgrounds in meaningful environmental work is a critical investment in the future of conservation.”
It Takes Time and Effort
“TNC’s commitment to undoing harm and restoring trust with historically and currently marginalized communities–who also bear the largest burden of the environmental crises–starts by acknowledging how our conservation work contributes to inequities,” says TNC Maine’s State Director Kate Dempsey. “Only with that understanding can we begin to change how we do our work and build trust. We can then forge lasting relationships that break the current societal norms that advantage some over others because of their skin color, religion, age, or how they identify themselves in the world.”
So far, the partnership between TNC and MEEA has provided encouraging steps in a very long-term process of building trust and understanding. MEEA’s Fong sees an opportunity for systemic change.
“The priority outcome,” says Fong, “is to transform TNC and the environmental sector and undo some of the harm that’s been done to BIPOC communities.”
MEEA’s Griset closes with a word of caution.
“This work is all about creating connections and relationships to catalyze innovation and change,” explains Griset. “But done poorly, the process can perpetuate the systems that continue to marginalize, causing more harm than good. People need to feel safe and supported every step of the way—and it’s a long way. There are no shortcuts.”
To learn more, reach out to MEEA’s Director of Operations, Red Fong, at firstname.lastname@example.org.