Supporting and Empowering Tomorrow’s Natural Leaders

Georgina Umney is a participant in Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Tomorrow’s Natural Leaders programme 2017-18

‘One person can make a difference to the world and everyone should try’. This well-meaning quote from J.F. Kennedy is a source of equal inspiration and exasperation to many environmentally conscious young people across Britain. In an interconnected world where news of environmental catastrophe is unavoidable, honest guidance of what can be done to help can seem bewilderingly elusive. Despite the rich diversity of jobs required to upkeep Britain’s climate and conservation efforts, the path to environmental action is convoluted and poorly defined by schools. Generally, careers in conservation present themselves as practical, scientific, educational, or unpaid and are almost always dictated by academic ability. To even the most passionate young environmentalist the financial, educational, or social barriers littering the way to employment can be enough to dishearten a potentially earth changing future.

Pivotal as the next twenty years are in defining our environmental future it is of national importance to ensure every passionate young person has the opportunity to contribute their efforts. Environmental education should be as exciting and diverse as the students themselves, covering a range of interlinking skills from practical management and theoretical work to collaboration and campaigning. Even for those achieving bachelors and masters degrees the path to making a difference is rarely clear, as limited entry-level job opportunities are highly competitive and ultimately force young people into a nomadic life, having to relocate wherever work is available, be it paid or unpaid. Many roles are part-time, short-term and rurally isolating from other likeminded young people. This seems an inefficient use of essential skill and dedication at the disposal of the environmental sector. Amidst fierce competition interviews are prioritised for candidates with higher education and voluntary experience, firmly reinforcing the division of labour in the environmental sector.

But what if a fisherman feels passionate about advocacy, or a writer has untapped talent as a ranger? By taking passion as the basis for education rather than academic background, organisations could create a level playing field from which young people of all backgrounds and abilities can meet and form alliances, empowered with the tools for collaboration. The employment issues facing young people, and the environmental challenges facing us all require truly creative solutions and will demand overlapping skills from all walks of life, including artists, scientists, farmers, fishermen and women and rangers, coming together to implement real, holistic change.

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is currently trialling such a scheme by educating ninety-six 16-25 year olds over the course of four years. Tomorrow’s Natural Leaders brings together young ambassadors of varied ages, backgrounds and levels of experience ‘up skilling and empowering them to inspire young people and community members to take action on local environmental projects and campaigns across Yorkshire’. Spread between two farms, two nature reserves and a marine education centre each trainee’s experience is uniquely determined by their location, interests and enthusiasm. Exciting alliances are formed as young people from the worlds of English literature, outdoors education, farming, photography, forestry, animal husbandry and art come together over practical exercises, group learning and self-led projects. Some have travelled, some are graduates, others may not have had either opportunity but all are equally ambitious, enthusiastic and open to collaboration, having been selected based on an equal appreciation for the natural world and drive to make a difference.

This programme is just one of 31 nationwide Our Bright Future projects made possible by the Big Lottery Fund in order to empower 100,000 young people to become skilled and engaged citizens who will be confident in working together towards a healthy planet, a thriving economy and a bright future. This ambitious five year project is well on its way to beating that target, helped along by their #OurBrightFuture #OwningIt campaign. This campaign enables Britain’s budding environmentalists to share ideas, gain new skills and connect with others by creating a platform for their environmental ventures on social media. Launched in October, #OurBrightFuture was used on Instagram 447 times in its first month, reaching over 1 million feeds and #OwningIt reaching twice this number by December. These posts remind followers that wherever and however they’re working for nature across Britain their efforts are an invaluable piece of a bigger picture.

Now in its second year, the Tomorrow’s Natural Leaders project has already seen three participants move on to paid employment with Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, helped 81% of participants gain employment elsewhere and inspired and engaged over 740 other young people. There are organisational benefits to offering more entry-level roles that channel open-minded enthusiasm and fresh inspiration in to the sector, empowering highly capable young people to contribute towards meaningful work. More organisations must be willing to help young people to help themselves, by indiscriminately advertising opportunities to learn, collaborate and gain paid employment. With structured support from experienced organisations Britain could develop a self-sustaining network of multi-talented young environmentalists working together to tackle climate change, with no passionate person left to question, ‘what can I do?’

Photo credit ©JaneWarman

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