Taking Action is Key: Advice on Engaging Young People in Nature

Written by Monique Dailey who has been an SCA member since she was 10 years old. She’s been a member of the local high school Community and Conservation Leadership Corps Crew at parks in DC, a national high school crew member at Salmon-Challis National Forest in east-central Idaho, and an SCA intern and high school crew leader in the local DC area.

My experience with the outdoors, and with the Student Conservation Association, started at age 10 because of a dog - a dog and a woman who enjoyed going to the park every day. A park that none of us neighborhood kids even knew existed because where I grew up going to a park was never considered an option. Even walking your dog was an anomaly given how prevalent drug use and gang violence was in my neighborhood in Washington, D.C. So when we saw this woman walking every day smiling and waving, we were curious as to where she was going. One day a group of us kids asked her and she invited us to walk with her.

Monique Dailey and the First Lady plant trees at a local DC Earth Day event.

The decision to go with her to the park undoubtedly changed the course of my life. I instantly fell in love with the beauty of the park. It was so unlike anything I experienced in the concrete jungle - the colors (how can anything be so green?), the sounds (a bird tweeting, the wind rustling through the leaves, and, sporadically, the silence), and the feeling of breathing the freshest air I’ve ever breathed. All of this was found a mere two miles away from my neighborhood.

After that day I knew I wanted to preserve areas like this for the rest of my life. With assistance from SCA, that woman started a community group to maintain the new-found passion that we kids discovered about becoming more connected with the environment. I have remained involved with SCA ever since. I’ve done community crews, national high school crews, internships, and even led crews and managed programs.

Monique engages local DC kids in an SCA community crew program at a local community park.

I’m sharing this story because my connection with the natural environment is an unfortunate anomaly where I grew up. There was never a real push to visit our Parks nor was there real access. Combined with the harsh realities of growing up in an impoverished neighborhood, there was just no real priority to foster environmental stewardship in youth.

These are the same obstacles the National Park Service and environmental organizations face today in getting urban youth actively involved in conservation, and the obstacles discussed at America’s Summit on National Parks on January 24-26 in Washington, D.C. (http://www.2016parksummit.org/)

The purpose of the Summit was to discuss the future of America’s national parks, including connecting youth and urban communities to parks and the environment since this is a major focus of the National Park Service and environmental organizations such as SCA in the coming years. I was invited to attend America’s Summit on National Parks to represent my generation as one of the future leaders in environmental conservation. No pressure, right?

While there, I was able to meet leaders, philanthropists, politicians, and educators from across the country in the field of conservation. We talked candidly about my nearly 16 years of experience with SCA and how the experience shaped me into the person I am today. We also discussed ways to get more young people actively involved in environmental conservation.

Monique presented Liz Putnam with The Corps’ Networks Legacy Acheivement Award on Feb. 12, 2012.

My advice to the National Parks Service and to other environmental organizations wanting to involve young people from all backgrounds is this: You need to get young people out there and you need to go into their communities to do it. What I’ve learned is that the barriers aren’t insurmountable. However, it is important to actively pursue youth to bridge those missing connections. Reaching out directly to young people in their communities allows you to start to plant the seeds of environmental stewardship. It’s hard for any young person to connect with an environment they don’t understand. But, I believe active participation is key. Go to where the kids are and bring that enthusiasm to them!

When I hear the phrase “Taking action for a new century”, I think of my generation - 18 - 29 year olds referred to as the Millennial Generation or Generation Y. We are the most educated in history as well as the most confident, upbeat and progressive. We are more ethnically and racially diverse than any previous generation in American history. Thus, equally important is keeping youth involved even after they participate in service projects in high school and internships in college. The ultimate goal is to foster that connection through adulthood.

There are scores of people in my generation who are ready and willing to play a role in environmental conservation. There are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers like myself who are eager to start a career in service. There are scores of others who would be more than interested to teach youth about the environment and participate in service projects and events in their communities. It’s a matter of staying engaged and going to where the young people are whether through social media or physically working in their communities. Taking action is critical.

As we make efforts to conserve and interact with the environment in a sustainable manner, it’s important to ensure that we involve everyone and not waste the opportunity to connect and learn from the young people who will soon be the shepherds of our natural resources. We have the energy and enthusiasm and we’re looking for a way to focus it to make a difference in our planet…we’re just hoping someone will show us the way.