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Did You Know You’re in a Conservation District Right Now?!

Hello to all! My name is Sharma Torrens, and I am thrilled to have joined the AAEE Board recently. I am the Conservation Education Director for Arizona Association of Conservation Districts (AACD). The AACD is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizationthat supports and promotes Arizona’s 42 Conservation Districts and their statutory responsibilities. Conservation Districts were formed by the state government in the 1940s in response to the devastation wrought by the Dust Bowl, to protect public lands, conserve natural resources and wildlife, restore and conserve soil resources and prevent soil erosion, and protect and restore the states rivers and streams. The Districts work across the entire state, all land types (federal, state, private, etc.), and with a diverse group of organizations, agencies, and landowners to successfully see natural resource conservation efforts established across Arizona. Districts are administered by farmers, ranchers, private landowners, and others who volunteer their time to see that our limited natural resources are effectively managed for the benefit of all. Districts and their Education Centers provide environmental and conservation education to local schools and communities, agricultural professionals, and others, focusing on topics like soil health, water conservation, sustainable agriculture practices, and our criticalnatural resources.

Districts are truly unique in that they are local experts of local conservation and hubs of conservation education for all Arizonans. Districts can unite diverse and disparate groups to find common ground and foster collaboration to educate the public about the value and importance of agriculture, how to wisely use our natural resources, and how by applying best practices we can protect our environment. 

It was not too long ago that I, like many Arizonans, didn’t understand where our food comes from, thinking it just appeared in the grocery store without considering the supply chain. Most people don’t comprehend that farms and ranches not only supply the food we eat every day, but also support open space, wildlife habitat, and healthy soil and water conservation. Farmers and ranchers are not often thought of as “good land stewards” but they are. In fact, they are the original conservationists of our natural resources, taking great care in their animals, the land, and the wildlife that need open space and forage to thrive. 

What changed things for me was when I learned about the Districts. If others knew about these dedicated individuals and families that work to keep food on our tables while volunteering their time to conserve our limited natural resources and educate others, it would begin to change any preconceived notions about farmers and ranchers. These dedicated men and women are advocates not only for agriculture, but also for environmental and conservation education.

Towards Inclusive & Equitable Environmental Education

Environmental Education organizations across America are coming to terms with a history of practice that has often been, and continues to be, exclusionary of many groups. This was a central topic at our 2019 #WEareEE Conference, and we want to keep the conversation going. We’re also writing this short piece 1) to clarify some of the key terms, 2) to take a deeper look at reality of inequity in ‘green’ organizations, and 3) to share some valuable resources that we love that can help programs better serve the diverse communities here in Arizona. Down the road, we’re going to continue with blogs diving deeper into these topics and will be featuring some model inclusive EE organizations & efforts here in Arizona.

At AAEE we have been working hard on our organization’s mission,  culture, strategic planning, and practices to make sure that we center justice, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of our work. Diversity is strength, and we want our association to welcome the variety of beliefs, identities, languages, interpersonal styles, and values of all individuals in our state. Our goal is to create an association that is inclusive, respectful, and equitable, and to engage the talents of people with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives to collectively create a sustainable future for Arizona that prioritizes social & environmental well-being. We recognize that we have a long way to go, that this is work that is never done, and we are looking forward to continuing to dig deeper & commit ourselves to positive change.

Have you heard of “DEI”? Maybe your organization wants to build a “DEI” strategy, or perhaps build a “JEDI” committee — But what does that really mean? What is meant by all these acronyms being tossed around in corporate, non-profit, and institutional circles? First of all, as we engage in this work, it’s important to remember that these words are representative concepts & actions surrounding serious issues, and to casually turn them into acronyms or just ‘another committee’ or just ‘another strategy’ can not only be ineffective, but harmful.

In the various environmental sectors: the government, non-profits, research areas, businesses, science/education/outdoor programs, and more, there is a pattern of this work being predominantly facilitated by middle to upper-class, white, and older populations. This imbalance becomes more prevalent the further up in leadership one looks. Yet, in many studies, Americans of color consistently demonstrate more concern for environmental issues that white Americans. This paradox points to a phenomena many refer to as the Green Ceiling, which Green 2.0 describes briefly as, “Despite increasing racial diversity in the United States, the racial composition in environmental organizations and agencies has not broken the 12% to 16% “green ceiling” that has been in place for decades.”

Even knowing that moving towards a more sustainable and just world takes all of us, “The leadership, boards, staff, and memberships of mainstream environmental groups continue to be largely white, upper middle-class, and older. This failure to include other segments of society is a serious limitation. It reduces the reach and impact of all groups working in conservation—from non-profit organizations to foundations to government agencies. All too often, it also means that the support of nature and conservation by people from diverse backgrounds—and the toll of environmental problems on less wealthy communities—is neglected or ignored.” (Dorceta Taylor, Green 2.0)

In order for all of us to achieve our goals we need to prioritize inclusive & equitable practices that address social & environmental injustices as the interdependent systems that they are. One of the places we can start is by building personal and organizational cultural competence. For those of us in EE who aren’t familiar with the term “cultural competence”, if you check out this great chart, you may see something surprising. (Martin & Vaughn, Cultural Competence: The Nuts & Bolts of Diversity & Inclusion) The components of cultural competence, are almost identical to the components of the objectives of EE as documented in one of the EE field’s founding documents: The Tbilisi Declaration! The same familiar elements of the EE “Awareness to Action” continuum from Tbilisi can be applied to understanding and developing cultural competence. 

With this in mind, we’re excited to share a list of resources that our colleagues and various members of our organization have shared with us. We’re looking forward to building this list and making a permanent set of resources on our page. If you see we’re missing some important resources–Let us know by commenting or messaging us on our blog, Facebook page, or Instagram

Resources:

Don’t Miss These Field Trips!

Thinking about coming to the 2019 statewide Environmental Education conference? I sure am! Although I love a good presentation, as an experiential learner, I also love getting out into a community and seeing real models that WORK! I know AAEE has put a lot of time into collaborating with local educational, recreational, environmental, outdoor, institutions & business to pull together an amazing set of field trips. Since each field trip will have a limited number of spaces (for example, finding 130 kayaks turned out to be impossible!) — I wanted to make sure you had a chance to get to know the locations & options so you can be sure to sign up for the field trip you want most before it fills.

Watson Lake & the Granite Dells

Just 4 miles from Prescott, located in the heart of the Granite Dells, this beautiful lake is an oasis to escape the desert heat. This grey-blue lake is surrounded by rolling pink granite boulders, and is a vital part of the Granite Creek riparian corridor and an important migratory bird stopover. The 380 acres of park contain stunning rock formations, secret inlets with a myriad of birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects to admire, and small islands to pause upon and soak in the view. Bring sunscreen, a hat, clothing that can get wet, sturdy shoes, and your binoculars for the ultimate paddling experience at Watson Lake! NOTE: this trip costs an extra $30 to participate.

Learning Gardens

Thanks to amazing cooperation between a variety of schools, non-profits, extension offices, and dedicated community members, Prescott is a vibrant hub for learning gardens. Ranging from native gardens to outdoor classrooms to food production gardens, come see some ways in which outdoor areas have been transformed into learning spaces for all ages. See a spectrum of initiatives and learn how gardens can be used as outdoor classrooms that align with learning objectives for all subjects. Contemplate the potential for your program’s own spaces and get inspired to get your hands dirty!

Natural History Institute

The Natural History Institute provides leadership and resources for a revitalized practice of natural history that integrates art, science, and humanities to promote the health and well-being of humans and the rest of the natural world. Located in downtown Prescott in a beautifully restored historic building, the Institute provides a fascinating array of educational opportunities such as in-house explorations of their thousands of preserved plants (over 9,000 in the herbarium alone!) as well as insects and birds, visual & performance art installations, and unique community field trips around the state that provide creative and engaging environmental education to participants of all ages. The Natural History Institute is dedicated to changing the way we view our evolutionary relationship with the world around us and will inspire anyone who strives to connect others to our world’s unique and irreplaceable natural wonders.

Highlands Center for Natural History

Immersed in the beautiful Prescott National Forest near Lynx Lake, the Highlands Center for Natural History is a Prescott nature center, a hub for lifelong learning, and designed to invite discovery of the wonders of nature. This field trip is lead by interpretive specialist and nature play space designer, Nikki Julien. See how the Highlands Center has worked with their landscape to create interactive spaces such as the James Family Discovery Gardens and kept the focus on inclusive & accessible design. Their programs range from Arthropalooza, to Shakespeare in the Pines, Knee-High Naturalists, naturalist certification classes, and more. Nikki will guide you through the beautiful ponderosa forests of Prescott, and help you think about your landscapes and the ways in which you can design & interpret for better engagement with learners of all ages.

Heritage Park Zoo

Summer Zoo Camp 2016 - Wallabies 5Situated on ten acres north of Prescott and overlooking the Granite Dells & Willow Lake, the Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary has a wide variety of opportunities for visitors. HPZS is a non-profit wildlife sanctuary, dedicated to the conservation and protection of native and exotic animals. The sanctuary provides a source of recreation, education, and entertainment for all ages, especially with their large, naturally landscaped enclosures for the animals, interactive paths, daily programming, special events, and camps. With the mission of “Conservation through Education,” Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary provides a unique and up-close experience with animals that visitors may see nowhere else. Animals at Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary all have a story and a lesson to teach so come by and learn the story of a small sanctuary making a big difference in their community.

Embry-Riddle Planetarium

Located in the grasslands nearing Granite Mountain, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University does STEM right. Integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics into all their degree programs, they have recently been focused on expanding their community offerings and providing increased engagement with their STEM Center & Planetarium for all ages. Their STEM Educational Center and the Jim and Linda Lee Planetarium host field trips, community education events, and tours of the universe through year-round planetarium shows such as Tour of the Solar System and 46.5 Billion Light Years. Check out their incredible spaces and get inspired with new ways to grow the whole STEM in your environmental education program.

See you there!

For more information on the conference, including the schedule outline & registration, visit: https://www.arizonaee.org/event/2019-aaee-conference/