Urban Environments Provide Context and Inspiration for 21st Century Conservation Leaders
Na’Taki Osborne Jelks is being honored as a Next Generation of Conservation Leaders Champion of Change.
After living for five years in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley Corridor, my inspiration to help create healthy and sustainable communities came from a deeply personal place. I connected the dots between the dirty air, bad-tasting and smelling water, and degraded landscapes of this urban place and my mother’s diagnosis with cancer. Although there is no definitive proof that our exposure to pollution was the cause of her illness, that was my call to action to channel my passion, education, and training into ensuring a just and sustainable world for all.
Armed with a personal mission to be a change agent, I found opportunity in an unlikely place while studying at Spelman College and the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. As a volunteer with the Carver Hills Sustainable Communities Initiative, I veered slightly off my chemistry and civil engineering path to develop community-based environmental stewardship and restoration efforts because that is what the community needed. Many of the residents were elderly. They valued their neighborhood’s natural resources and emphasized the role that ecological restoration could play in revitalizing their polluted, low-income community for future generations and for all of God’s creation. Together we developed an environmental education mentorship program for neighborhood schools. This program connected youth to nature, guided them and their teachers in the creation of outdoor classrooms, and engaged youth and educators in the stewardship of Proctor Creek, an imperiled Atlanta waterway.
I followed this unlikely path to the National Wildlife Federation where I not only gained the opportunity to use my training as a scientist to impact conservation challenges, but to also amplify the spark ignited in me to equip and resource the next generation of environmental stewards to carry on our elders’ fight to transform toxic landscapes into healthy places. In 2001, I helped to launch the Atlanta Earth Tomorrow® Program, National Wildlife Federation’s multi-cultural, environmental education and leadership development program that creates opportunities for high school-aged youth to develop environmental literacy and life skills that help them make valuable contributions to the ecological health of their communities. Through Earth Tomorrow®, NWF is helping to create a conservation movement that reflects this country’s rich racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity and where diverse cultural perspectives and collaborative approaches to environmental problem-solving are valued.
It has been important to me to work in communities that are overburdened with environmental challenges and with less access to educational and financial resources and environmental decision-making than other communities. The urban environment is the perfect classroom — a living laboratory that teaches and inspires. It provides an integrating context for learning — a platform for engagement of youth that is based in inquiry, hands-on science, analytical skills building, and critical analysis of the “ways of our world”.
Through Earth Tomorrow® youth from underserved communities learn about and restore the polluted urban environments in which they live and connect to, enjoy, and make more abundant the great outdoors. Whether inspired by a connection to wildlife or outdoor recreation or impassioned by challenges faced by human communities in built environments, I have witnessed first-hand the significant life experiences that engagement in Earth Tomorrow® provides. These experiences motivate youth to make tangible, positive changes on the urban landscape, to restore our public lands and waterways, and to ensure the health of both people and wildlife communities are protected and sustained.
Earth Tomorrow® graduates build leadership by serving the program as Peer Mentors. They pursue undergraduate and graduate studies in environmental science and engineering, geography, environmental health, environmental law, forestry, and natural resource management. Some work for federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Forest Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Others remain engaged in community-based conservation and environmental justice initiatives.
I am humbled by the youth and young adults who attribute their career paths, passion for community service, and engagement in conservation to my work and to this program.
Na’Taki Osborne Jelks is a leader in engaging urban communities and youth of color in environmental stewardship. She served on the Federal Advisory Committee for creation of the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps from 2011-2013. Jelks is also an adjunct faculty member in Environmental Science and Studies at Spelman College and Chair of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, a community-based organization focused on building a cleaner, greener, healthier, and more sustainable West Atlanta.