As NWF Celebrates, Young Leaders Look to the Future

Inaugural assembly dedicated to renewing the conservation movement

04-18-2011 // Max Greenberg

The National Wildlife Federation awarded Robert Redford the Conservationist of the Year award during its 75th Anniversary Gala and Conservation Achievement Awards Dinner on April 13, but that might not have been the most significant thing the venerable old organization did last week.

NWF also convened a truly first-of-its-kind event, and one that may tell us something about the next generation of conservation: the Young Leaders Assembly.

The inaugural assembly consisted of more than 65 young environmental leaders from around the country who spent three days discussing ways to inspire and invigorate the environmental movement in the years ahead. Split broadly into groups concentrating on climate change, wildlife conservation and connecting people with nature, the high school, college and post-grad participants tried to answer one vital question--how will NWF and the broader conservation community continue to engage people across a broad spectrum of interests, concerns and demographics at a time when resources and public attention are in short supply?

"Every great organization builds into it operation, the ability to renew itself. NWF, on the eve of our 75th anniversary has convened a group of young leaders who have already demonstrated a commitment to our environment," said John Hammond, NWF's Southeast Center Regional Executive Director, a key organizer of the event. "These young leaders have been asked to challenge our assumptions and to assist us in the strategically critical exercise of re-envisioning our an effort to have our mission remain relevant for future generations of leaders."

Hammond added that the young leaders would be encouraged to challenge NWF’s assumptions about what is relevant in the organization's message, help identify what is salient among emerging leaders who care about the environment and work to determine the best way to frame its mission so as to energize the movement at large.

According to Josh Saks, senior legislative representative for NWF’s water resources campaign and a featured 'Subject Matter Expert' at the assembly, the gathering confirmed that the conservation movement is in good hands moving forward, no matter the specific outcomes of the event.

"The [conservation] community needs an influx of new talent sometimes, like any community, and it's good to know younger people are out there pushing for the issues they care about," Saks said. "Their passion is an invaluable resource, and, frankly, inspiring."

Brainstorming and inspiration dominated the assembly, but a lot of the best thinking was realistic, and undertaken with immediate real-world solutions in mind.

Dele Akinpelu, a Wayne State University student studying Environmental Science and Geology, reunited with several long-lost high school acquaintances from his native Detroit at the assembly, and he came away with a unique appreciation for the variety of participants.

"I'm glad the Federation decided to do something profound...this was decisive and wonderful in the way that both new and old members were able to get together," Akinpelu said. "To take these actions, people that we have fostered, and ensure that the people of our communities will have a say or input on the overall process" is a step forward for the environmental movement.

All in all, what did the assembly accomplish? As blogged last week by NWF Oil Spill Response Manager Crystal Webb during the event, it was uncharted territory, and difficult to reduce to a list of key takeaways. The primary goal--and greatest achievement--of the conference was to provide young leaders with a platform to have their voices heard by their elders in the field and an opportunity to connect with similarly passionate people across the conservation community. As attested by the business cards exchanged, shared values (and differences) aired and new ideas broached, it was a resounding success.