Conservation has a diversity problem. This St. Louis program is trying to change that.

Kemet Ajanaku, right, spots an egret near the Audubon Center at Riverlands. Teens learn the basics of environmental conservation, then lead a series of summer camps for elementary schoolers.

SHAHLA FARZAN | ST. LOUIS PUBLIC RADIO

(St. Louis Public Radio) - White, upper-middle-class Americans have held the reins of the mainstream conservation movement for decades — and some say change is long overdue.

A small group of biologists and educators in West Alton are working to jump-start that change through a series of outdoor camps. The Audubon Center at Riverlands’ Flight Crew program aims to help more young people of color connect with nature through a series of outdoor camps. 

The eight-week Audubon program trains a small group of north county teenagers in the basics of environmental science, who then pass that knowledge along to elementary-age campers from the Ferguson-Florissant School District.

On a recent morning hike in West Alton, the teens gather to observe a velvety white caterpillar inching along a railing.

The movement of the tufted insect catches Jamiah Cole’s eye.

“It’s like a wave going through its body,” said Cole, who just finished her sophomore year at McCluer North.

Nearby, two other teens cautiously crouch over a fresh pile of dung on the path. Tiny white bone fragments embedded in the scat hint that the original owner was likely a wandering coyote. 

The point is to help them develop a connection with nature, regardless of where their interest lies, said program coordinator Michelle Wiegand.

“A lot of teens in our region don’t spend a lot of time in nature,” Wiegand said. “That’s part of what this program is all about: getting more comfortable with the outdoors and hopefully developing some passion for it.”

The eight teens in this year’s program have had a one-month crash course in environmental conservation — including bird identification and Missouri wetland restoration. They’re paid for their time, with funding for the program coming from a mix of grant funding and a partnership with STL Youth Jobs. 

Alayna Abel, a junior at McCluer North High School, applied because she said she wants to help more kids get excited about the “mystery of science.”

“I feel like they should be able to experience nature in the way that I experienced it,” said Abel, who grew up exploring her grandparents’ property in Troy, Missouri. “The world is just so beautiful around them.”

At 16, she’s already thinking ahead to potential career options — including one that combines her interest in public health and wildlife conservation. Sometimes, Abel said, her friends and family have a hard time understanding why she’s so passionate about the environment. 

“They’re like, ‘Why do you care so much?’” Abel said. “I’m like, ‘You don’t understand, everything is here for a purpose. That alligator? Here for a purpose. That bird? Here for a purpose.’”

Raven Ganaway, a recent graduate of Hazelwood East High School, is trying to set some manageable goals for herself this summer. 

“I have to get used to touching bugs,” said Ganaway, now in her second year of the program. “I want to step outside of my comfort zone.”

Their training now complete, the teens will soon lead a series of one-week nature camps for about 100 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders from the Ferguson-Florissant School District.

Many of the kids don’t have a chance to experience nature at home, Ganaway said, but at camp they have “acres and acres of space to explore and learn about.”

Fellow camp counselor Kemet Ajanaku said the point is to help encourage kids to unplug from technology — even for a little while — and appreciate the world around them. 

Ajanaku, who graduated from Hazelwood East in June, wasn’t always interested in the outdoors. 

Now the 19-year-old goes by the camp nickname HOO-dini (“Not like the escape artist, but like an owl”) and plans to study sports medicine with an emphasis on homeopathic remedies.

“I can understand how nature runs more at a detailed perspective now, and I can appreciate some of the things where I think I couldn’t appreciate it before,” Ajanaku said. 

Wiegand, the program coordinator, doesn’t expect all of the teens and their campers will want to go into careers in science, but she said it’s a small step toward supporting more people of color in the field.

“They’re getting a broad exposure to different ways to work in nature or in environmental conservation,” she said. “Because we all make better decisions when there’s a more diverse pool of people at the table trying to solve problems.”

Republished with permission of St. Louis Public Radio: https://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/conservation-has-diversity-problem-st-louis-program-trying-change

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