Building the Future

The Earth Tomorrow program celebrates 20 years in Atlanta.

  • Samantha Miller
  • Connecting to Nature
  • Dec 09, 2021

Students at Earth Tomorrow’s Summer Institute help pull weeds from food gardens at Atlanta’s Love is Love Farm.

THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION'S EARTH TOMORROW® PROGRAM in Atlanta, Georgia, is celebrating 20 years of youth-based environmental education. Originally started in Detroit in 1994, Earth Tomorrow in Atlanta began in 2001, led by environmental scientist Na’taki Osbourne Jelks. To date, the Atlanta program has engaged more than 5,000 young people—primarily youth of color—in environmental service-learning projects, career prep and leadership skill building. 

Each year, Earth Tomorrow accepts about 500 high school students for yearlong, hands-on classes and activities taught by science teachers, volunteers and local environmentalists. Students lead schoolwide projects focused on food sustainability, urban ecosystems, climate change, environmental justice and college and career preparation. In the summer, students can participate in a weeklong residential Summer Institute at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where they learn environmental data collection and analysis, enjoy outdoor activities and interact with environmental leaders.

The Summer Institute is so rewarding that many graduates return to serve as peer mentors. “I continue coming back to the Summer Institute because this has been the foundation of my career in environmental education,” says Joshua Bellamy, now a teacher, birder and wildlife activist. 

Focus on equity and justice

While Earth Tomorrow participants learn recycling, gardening and other skills, they also learn to address social inequities. “By centering environmental justice and addressing issues that commonly impact communities of color, the program teaches that young people can help create healthy, sustainable communities,” says Crystal Jennings, NWF’s senior manager of youth leadership programs. 

The best solutions come from people on the front lines facing climate change and environmental racism. Issues such as limited access to fresh food, inadequate tree canopy and proximity to polluting industries disproportionately impact communities that are majority people of color and low income. Parts of Atlanta, like most urban areas, face such challenges daily. Yet Earth Tomorrow students leave the program empowered with the knowledge, passion and career readiness needed to address these problems in their communities.

“I wish everyone could meet an Earth Tomorrow student and the community leaders who come together to help make the program possible,” says NWF’s Head of Innovation Partnerships Carey Stanton, who created the model program. “If they did, they would realize that investing in young people is absolutely critical to creating a more equitable and sustainable future for everyone.”

Samantha Miller is a coordinator of NWF’s Community Wildlife Program.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Blog: Celebrating 20 Years of Earth Tomorrow »
Cultivating Conservation Leaders in Detroit »
Learn More: NWF's Education Programs »

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