Training the Next Generation of Conservation Icons

Audubon is building a more sustainable future by incubating the leaders of tomorrow, today.

At a time when it’s clear we’re going to face conservation challenges for decades to come, who is responsible for training the next generation of conservation leaders? At Audubon, we’ve welcomed that awesome opportunity and the responsibility that goes with it.

Throughout the year, Audubon has between 25 and 30 fellows and apprentices and more than 60 seasonal interns working with our nearly 600 full-time employees. As I speak with these talented young people we’ve hired in areas like science, policy, and communications, one of the things I hear over and over is this: “I didn’t even know this could be a career for me.” 

That disconnect is real and troubling. Right now, the conservation community is so insular and non-diverse that lots of the young people who could be making our work more relevant in America today don’t even know we’re here.

Rather than wait for the problem to solve itself—which it won’t—we’ve launched a new ­college chapter program, which has taken off like a flock of Sandhill Cranes at dawn. And our Walker Fellows program, funded by board chair Maggie Walker, provides real-world training for young social media journalists, half of whom we’re proud to say have gone on to full-time jobs at Audubon and elsewhere.

With a grant from Robert Smith’s Fund II Foundation, we’ve established yearlong apprenticeships for seven early-career leaders, and we’ve embedded them within our policy, science, chapter, grassroots, and communications teams. Our goal is to provide concrete skill-building opportunities so that at the end of the year the apprentices will land jobs within the conservation movement—and we’re committed to helping them find those jobs. I don’t know about you, but I take great joy in opening doors for the people who will eventually run Audubon and other parts of civil society. In fact, I think doing so is an organizational responsibility.

I take great joy in opening doors for the people who will eventually run Audubon.

The good news is that a career in conservation isn’t a hard pitch; it’s really a matter of whether organizations like Audubon will devote the dollars to building these programs. For Millennials and Generation Z, the fact that climate change is happening and is caused by human activity is not up for debate; this knowledge doesn’t follow political party lines or ideology. The only debate is how to address climate change to mitigate the worst impacts that it will have on future generations’ quality of life.

Recently, a longtime Audubon supporter met one of our terrific new young leaders and asked, “Why do you think there’s so much energy around civic matters right now?” And our new Audubon leader answered, “Maybe we’ve been here all along and we just haven’t had a seat at the table.”

Audubon is a big tent; it has big tables. Not kids’ tables and grown-up tables, but work tables around which we can all gather to make the world a better place.

This story originally ran in the Spring 2019 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.