Diana Braithwaite has been a familiar face among college students and underserved communities for years. Before she joined the Audubon On Campus team in 2019, Braithwaite developed programs and organized resources that would help students from underrepresented communities, women, and veterans break into the field of digital advertising. More recently, Braithwaite taught students how to organize on their campuses in an effort to register their peers to become potential blood stem cell or bone marrow donors. That effort is particularly important because there's a large discrepancy in the availability of compatible donors across racial backgrounds: African Americans only have a 23 percent chance of finding a bone marrow donor due to lack of a large pool of compatible donors; white Americans have a 77 percent chance of finding a suitable donor.
But while she enjoyed organizing college students, the realities of working on behalf of people with serious illness took a toll. “When you start losing patients who couldn’t find a match, it became very, very hard work,” Braithwaite says. As she began thinking about the next step in her career, she reflected on her work at the bone marrow donor registry and realized that she still wanted to directly engage younger people from many different backgrounds and communities. So where would her expertise of working with overlooked communities be best suited?
Braithwaite, knowing that the mainstream conservation and environmental movements had a middling track record in engaging exactly the communities she had experience with, realized that she could make the Audubon On Campus program both successful and more inclusive.
The Audubon On Campus program provides college students with the framework, tools, training, and support to mobilize their peers and communities in environmental activism. By establishing a campus chapter, becoming an Audubon Ambassador to push advocacy efforts on campus, or certifying an existing student club as an Audubon affiliate, students can make meaningful change in their communities. Braithwaite and her colleague Gustavo Figueroa provide guidance on getting the chapter up and running as well as hosting projects and events such as bird walks or advocacy days. Thanks to the Audubon On Campus team’s efforts in redefining the program’s place within Audubon and making sure students and chapters receive the support they need from the network, Audubon On Campus now has more than 125 campus chapters and affiliates in 20 states.
“My favorite part of working with college students is connecting them with opportunities they did not know existed as careers,” says Braithwaite. “Many college students are unaware of the impact they can make on the world before leaving school. Learning to organize around a cause while also educating your peers to do the same is extremely impactful.”
Braithwaite attributes much of the program’s success to Audubon’s focus on reaching the students traditionally left behind by the conservation movement—and the institutions that serve them. Braithwaite specifically engaged students and faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges, and minority-serving institutions like Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Braithwaite also understands the importance of recognizing students from community colleges, whose work engaging schools and organizations beyond their campuses is overshadowed by similar efforts at big-name universities. “I have found my work with community college students to be some of the most exciting and impactful,” says Braithwaite. “Students enrolled in community colleges enjoy raising awareness about causes that are important to them not only with peers but also family, friends, and colleagues.”
When Braithwaite reflects on the success she’s had with the Audubon On Campus program, and especially her success working with students at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, one major theme emerged: the need to listen and work with what you learn.
“As we start having conversations with these HBCU and minority-serving institutions, I notice that the students and faculty members are so open to learning and collaborating on project ideas that come out of the discussions, which is just really exciting,” Braithwaite says. “When you’re working with folks that do not yet have a relationship with Audubon, it takes more listening than speaking to keep communication open and frame our work in a way that resonates with their communities.”