Crista Valentino is the Founder and Director of CoalitionWILD, a global initiative working to connect, galvanize, and equip the world's young change makers to tackle our greatest conservation and sustainability challenges. Her professional focus is on developing ways to accelerate projects that support a better future for the planet and integrate a new generation of voices into the environmental movement. We asked Crista to share her thoughts on youth, innovation and environmental sustainability.
Once, I was invited to sit on a panel entitled “Empowering and Inspiring a New Generation of Stewards” to discuss the need to protect wild places for our future generations. Accompanying me on the panel were four experienced professionals in roles including two heads of non-profits, a Chief Strategist for a wild lands campaign, and a Chief Scientist for a well-known global entity. In each presentation, my colleagues spoke about ways to inspire the next generation to get outside and get involved in protecting wildlife and wild places, outlined the common challenges they all faced with the millennial generation, and laid out the reasons they placed importance on engaging with young people. I listened intently, curious to learn more about the young professionals they tapped into to develop their objectives and programming, having a desire to personally connect to them. Yet, that information never came.
When it was my turn to speak, I scrapped my bullet points and instead asked my panel-mates who they were working with to develop their projects. Each responded with similar answers: a Director of Programming or Outreach of some sort. I then asked the age of the team involved with working out the logistics and key elements. Again, similar answers: all over the age of 45. I kept going: How many of their organization’s Board of Directors were under the age of 35? None. How many of their Advisors were under the age of 35? None. How many youth or young professionals were brought into the discussion when developing their programming? None.
I became perplexed. We often hear about the need to engage and inspire the next generation of leaders for our planet, and many organizations have dedicated portions of their strategic plans and mission statements to attaining this goal. We already know the importance that a younger cohort of environmental stewards will play in the long-term sustainability of our world. However, how many initiatives that are designed to engage and inspire the next generation of conservation leaders are actually designed BY the audience they are intending to serve?
The answer, I continue to learn, is not many. As foresighted as we are in realizing the burden we are placing on our youth with the current state of our planet, few organizations have taken the step to meaningfully involve youth and young professionals into decision making processes – the results of which they will, inevitably, inherit. By tapping into the ingenuous, technologically savvy, and globally connected minds of millennials and younger, we can allow young people to design a future they want to be a part of. This creates ownership over actions, commitment to causes, interest in often controversial affairs, and the development of leadership skills otherwise underutilized.
The viability of our planet depends deeply on our ability as a global society to work together. That includes generationally as much as it does culturally. Encouraging youth and young professionals to develop new solutions to the problems they see day to day, and developing opportunities for those solutions to be put into action, opens a new realm of possibilities when we consider what a sustainable future looks like.
The greatest stewards, advocates, and designers for a healthier planet have already been born. They have already experienced climate change, overdevelopment, poverty, famine, pollution, drought, food insecurity, extinction, inequality, and poaching. They, too, want a better future for themselves and for those who come after them.
Let’s give them a chance to show us what that looks like.