On an early autumn Saturday in New York City, as the morning light glints off skyscrapers and traffic whooshes across the Brooklyn Bridge, a teenager is slogging through a sulfury-smelling patch of land on the crenellated shoreline, picking up sun-bleached soda bottles and crumpled fast-food wrappers.
With a huge smile.
“If we don’t sustain nature, we can’t expect it to sustain us,” she says.
Sixteen-year-old Janina Georges has taken the morning off from SAT prep to join a group of volunteers cleaning up a pocket salt marsh tucked between reclaimed piers in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Growing up in Queens, Georges always loved her family’s visits to the ocean. But a summer spent restoring oyster beds in Rhode Island—thanks to The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program—transformed her passive appreciation into a sense of responsibility and empowerment.
Drawing from high-performing students at sciencefocused urban high schools, this paid summer internship program gives young people like Georges—who might not otherwise consider environmental careers—firsthand experience with conservation and why it matters to urban areas.
A recent survey of LEAF alumni suggests that Georges’ activism isn’t unusual. Half of those who responded said they continued to volunteer for environmental causes after their internships ended, and one-third pursued a career path in environmental fields—a rate nearly six times higher than the national average. The program’s influence on young women has been particularly impressive: Seventy-two percent of female LEAF alumni surveyed had chosen to major in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), compared with only 33 percent of female college graduates nationwide.
What’s the secret of LEAF’s success? Ask anyone from students to senior Conservancy staff, and all fingers point fondly in the same direction: Brigitte Griswold.
Griswold, now director of all the Conservancy’s youth programs, has spent the past 10 years growing a small internship program started by the New York City chapter into a national undertaking that transforms lives, fosters the next generation of environmental leaders and brings the Conservancy’s ideals into the heart of diverse, urban communities that the organization traditionally hasn’t reached.
More than half the world’s population lives in cities, and by 2050, the proportion is expected to reach 70 percent. Research shows that a passion for conservation usually stems from childhood experiences in nature. But for many urban youth—especially in neighborhoods where parks and open spaces can be hot spots for crime—connecting to nature isn’t as easy as simply stepping outside.
LEAF works with students who have already shown an interest in conservation —they all attend high schools that draw students into environmental studies through a rigorous green curriculum. They have high GPAs and want to take the next step through this competitive internship.
After their junior year of high school, LEAF interns spend a month working on Conservancy preserves. They join in projects the preserve is already doing, whether it’s removing invasive species, surveying flora or fauna, or maintaining trails.
The students live in small groups with a mentor. For young people living away from home and outside a city, often for the first time, getting pushed outside their comfort zones leads to personal growth. In addition to the work responsibilities, LEAF interns cook their own meals and clean their living quarters. Parents love it when teenagers come back doing laundry and helping in the kitchen.
More important, the immersion lets the students explore nature and understand environmental issues. When they return home for their final year of high school, they begin to see ties between their work and the ecosystems that cities depend on for clean water and air, food and recreation.
“Nature is the great equalizer,” says Griswold. “It’s the common ground LEAF uses to bring people together from all kinds of different backgrounds. Nature does not care what your class, color or creed is. And when we start from that common ground, we find that people can build authentic relationships to each other through that. Every culture has an inherent connection to nature. Sometimes it takes nature to help people realize that they also have an inherent connection to each other.”
Griswold’s connections to LEAF alumni continue for years. She attends not just high school but college graduations. She coaches the young people in making career choices, whether they tie directly to environmental work or not. She has even helped those in need pay for clothes when they land a job that requires a wardrobe upgrade.
“This isn’t [just] a job to Brigitte. It’s a way of life,” says Hazel Wong, the Conservancy’s director of conservation campaigns. “The LEAF kids are her kids.”
Griswold, 38, took an unusual path toget to where she is. She grew up on 18 acres in South Carolina, where she had the farm-life experience of raising chickens, ducks and cows that often ended up on the dinner table. After graduating from the University of South Carolina, she moved to New York City, drawn to its diversity of cultures and experiences. “I felt like I was traveling the world, without leaving town,” she says.
During the dot-com boom, her English degree got her a job with an Internet advertising firm. When that start-up went bust, she jumped to another. The pattern repeated for several years. Eventually, she and a partner created a company that sold advertising space on medical Web sites to pharmaceutical companies. “I learned more from that experience than I ever did in college or anything else to that point,” Griswold says. But after three years, she was ready to do something with more significance.
In 2003, Griswold joined the Conservancy as the administrator for the board of trustees in New York. Tacked onto the position was oversight of a small but effective internship program.
Conservation advocate Wendy Paulson, former chair of the Conservancy’s New York board, was a supporter of the program from its earliest days. “Brigitte saw firsthand the transformative impact it had on students and committed herself to it wholeheartedly,” she says.
Griswold’s work had found her. What had been an adjunct to her job became a passion project. She was again running a startup.
By 2007, Griswold thought LEAF was ready to grow, but it would be several more years before the necessary internal and external support aligned. The Conservancy’s chief scientist, Peter Kareiva, sums up the tectonic shifts that were taking place in the organizational thinking at the time: “You have declining support for environmental issues, changing demography, kids spending less time outdoors and urbanization. Those things combine to say, ‘Hmm, maybe we should do something a little differently.”
That realization eventually led to the Conservancy’s urban strategies initiative, which aims to add an urban focus to some of the organization’s areas of traditional strength. Connecting conservation to people in cities is a no-brainer, for example, when you demonstrate how metropolitan areas would shut down without drinking water provided by nearby lands and rivers, the air cleaned by local forests, and the storm protection afforded by coastal marshes, estuaries and reefs.
To address the scale of environmental challenges we face, engagement from cities, diverse populations and young people will be particularly critical. In the United States, more than 80 percent of the population lives in urban areas, and whites will be a minority by 2043—that’s true already for children under five. Youth of all backgrounds are getting more “screen time”—staring at video games, televisions and computers—than time outdoors.
Griswold has advocated LEAF as one way for the Conservancy to respond, and her passion has proved contagious.
So contagious, in fact, that the Toyota USA Foundation has made three incrementally larger pledges since 2010, totaling $7.9 million. That has grown the program to 150 interns a year who come from 25 green high schools in 11 cities to work and learn on Conservancy preserves in 30 states. And thanks to significant media coverage, millions of people have heard LEAF interns tell their stories in the past few years, in outlets as major as NBC Nightly News and The New York Times.
LEAF interns often have a powerful effect on a more intimate audience, too: their friends and families. They come away from the experience better informed and capable of articulating their environmental ethic in ways relevant to their own communities.
Griswold sees that as a crucial skill for tomorrow’s conservation leaders: “What some people call cultural competency, and what others call emotional intelligence, is going to be just as important, if not more important, than technical skills,” she says.
Griswold’s passion and vision come through when she explains what she sees LEAF doing. “The skills needed for leadership in the 21st century are about empathy, embracing risk, questioning, holistic systems thinking, collaboration, good communication and expanded worldviews. The next generation of leaders must be adaptable in ever-changing environments to come up with new solutions for conservation—and not be afraid to fail,” she says. “So many times, failure is a critical part of succeeding.”
Failure can even be fun, as Damon Noe, stewardship coordinator for the Conservancy’s New Jersey chapter, knows well. He has hosted interns on his preserves since 2005.
Early on, Griswold and a videographer visited in hopes of documenting LEAF’s magic. A boat ride through the Delaware Bayshore estuary made for great footage, as did scenes of the interns climbing nest platforms to band fledgling osprey. But it all took longer than expected.
“When the tide goes out, it doesn’t go out gradually,” Noe says. The party raced for the landing, but the boat slid to a halt in smelly black marsh mud 150 yards from shore. Greenhead flies buzzed and bit. “I hadn’t known Brigitte all that long. She was dressed really nice,” he says. “It was a disaster.”
Slithering, crawling and wading, everyone eventually made it to solid ground. “We were completely mucked out. They wouldn’t let us back into the office until they sprayed us down with a hose,” Griswold says.
And yet, says Noe, “it turned out to be one of the things the kids liked best.” A photo memorializing the misadventure still sits on his desk. He says he finds it hard to say goodbye at the end of each internship season. “You get attached. It’s pretty powerful,” he says. “This is the generation that is going to inherit the work we’re doing.”
“LEAF empowers these young people to explore their world in new ways."
Back in New York, the day has grown hot by the time the cleanup is complete. Walking through the park in search of a cold drink, Janina Georges talks easily with Griswold, who has become a mentor. When Griswold asks about college applications, Georges jumps into a list of schools that offer her planned major—marine biology.
Songyi Ee, another LEAF alum, has already found a shady spot and some lemonade. She echoes how transformational the program was. She had planned to become a pharmacist, but her 2008 internship sparked an interest in conservation instead. It also led to a part-time job with the Conservancy’s development team that has lasted through her college years. She says the support and guidance Griswold offered made those changes possible.
“Brigitte feels like family,” Ee says. “She has such genuine concern for the issues and love for the kids. She does everything in her power to connect people to good opportunities.”
Yet for all the praise that comes her way, Griswold is quick to emphasize that the students are the real stars.
“LEAF empowers these young people to explore their world in new ways,” she says. “I open doors. My reward is watching what they do when they go through those doors.”