Empowering Future Environmental Leaders – Action for Conservation
Action for Conservation (AFC) is a youth environmental education charity working to empower young people, aged 12-18, to take action on environmental issues that are important to them. AFC was founded in 2014 with a mission to bring the wonder of nature into all young peoples’ lives, inspiring a youth movement committed to conservation and to the Earth.
Earlier this year, I volunteered with AFC and took part in their WildED programme helping to deliver workshops exploring environmental issues and actions with young people, and I loved every minute. AFC is a fantastic charity and I was keen to keep in touch.
There are three programme coordinators in the AFC team, Hannah and Zunaira, based in London, and Emma, based in Manchester. Hannah and Zunaira kindly spoke with me about their different career experiences and shared advice about their work and how they got there.
Hannah (left) and Zunaira (right)
Zunaira: At AFC we have the absolute privilege of supporting young people from across the country to develop skills and lead environmental action in ways that are interesting and relevant to them. We do this though our WildED secondary school programme, residential nature camps in national parks across the country and our Ambassador Programme. We also recently launched the world’s largest youth-led nature restoration scheme on an upland estate in the Brecon Beacons National Park.
Why work in conservation education?
Hannah: I’ve been interested in conservation and wildlife from a young age and I wish that there was more emphasis on environmental education when I was younger. Growing up, I didn’t feel included in national or global conversations and decision making that would impact my future, particularly around environmental issues, and as I got older I didn’t really feel there was a place for me in the traditional conservation sector.
Working at AFC allows me to help create safe spaces for young people from different backgrounds and communities within the environmental and conservation sector. Educating the next generation is incredibly important to me and I feel honoured to be able to do it as part of my day job. Everyone deserves to understand the issues facing the world today, especially young people who will be inheriting our shared planet. They are growing up in an ecological and climate crisis and are often given no say or input in decisions that will impact the rest of their lives. Giving young people the tools and empowering them to take action on their own terms for their futures is truly inspiring.
Zunaira: The relationship between humans and the environment really fascinates me and the more I learn about all the amazing things nature provides for us the more I want to protect it for us and future generations. I’ve found that the traditional environmental education often fails to incorporate different voices and perspectives when it comes to teaching about why we should protect the natural world, which is a shame when there are so many stories and values we can learn from. Being an educator in this sector allows me to open up this narrative and approach environmental education in a different way. It’s important to me that young people understand that humans are an integral part of the environment and that young people are given the opportunity to define their relationship with the environment for themselves. AFC is a great place to work because we are constantly evolving and adapting our strategies as we learn what works best.
Hannah: I grew up in South London and was always interested in wildlife; my parents fostered a love for the outdoors in me from a young age. When I was 16, I took part in an environmental scholarship programme which changed my life and made me realise that working in conservation could be a reality for me. I went on to study Ecological Sciences (focused on ecological and conservation management) at The University of Edinburgh. After graduating, I worked in offices and hospitality and volunteered in my free time with the London Wildlife Trust (LWT). Volunteering at LWT taught me a huge amount about conservation, especially in a city context, and I was lucky enough to start helping with their bat surveys – this is where I held my first Noctule and fell in love with these cuties!. This experience helped me to secure an internship with the Bat Conservation Trust’s (BCT) National Bat Monitoring Programme and eventually a fulltime job with BCT’s National Bat Helpline. Working at BCT was an incredible learning experience; there were so many opportunities to get involved in different areas of work and to see how a UK-based conservation charity operates. There were also so many inspirational people I met during my time there and the experience taught me to make the most of learning from people from different backgrounds. In 2018 I left BCT to work for AFC on more grassroots projects directly impacting young people.
Zunaira: I worked in various environmental organisations including Sustrans, Keep Britain Tidy and the National Trust, which paved my way into this sector. My roles were always public facing which I really enjoyed as I loved discussing issues with others. Through this I learnt a lot about tailoring education approaches to match people’s understanding and background and finding common values. As someone who didn’t go to university after sixth form, my voluntary experience campaigning with Islamic Relief, which took my activism to COP21 and COP22, helped me develop experience in the sector and “bridge the gap”. As a campaigner, I learnt more about the many links between humanitarian and environmental issues in ways that university perhaps wouldn’t have taught me. I was also able to speak on various community platforms and bring the issue of climate change closer to home. One thing I’ve learned through my campaigning is that it’s not necessary to use complex language when discussing environmental issues – it’s better to frame issues in ways that people can easily relate to.
Best thing about the job
Hannah: Our Chief Executive Hendrikus once delivered a talk where he said “it’s not work if you are doing what you love and are doing it amongst friends”, and that really resonated with me. It’s amazing to work with a team that believes in our mission, ethos and each other and also with an incredible network of like-minded volunteers. But, the best thing about my job is when I get to spend time face-to-face with young people, whether that be during our WildED workshops, on camp, or through our Ambassador Programme. Watching the young people we work with blossom with growing confidence and resilience is phenomenal, especially when they take on Government, big companies and organisations. It really is the most inspirational thing in the world – they are AMAZING!
Zunaira: It’s the amount of fun we have! Genuinely, working with young people is so refreshing; often the messaging around the challenges the planet is facing is really heavy, and working with bright-eyed young people who see the world as their oyster is hugely powerful. Building strong and trusting relationships with young people where you can support them through opportunities is quite special because you truly see how much they enjoy the experience. Also, the best thing about this job will always be the journey you get to witness, where young people who originally feel “disengaged with the environment” end up feeling that environmental issues are relevant to them and their communities and are inspired to take action.
Hannah: Watching how our Youth Ambassadors have changed since camp is amazing. They grow and develop so much in the time we work with them and I’m always so honoured to be in a role where I can support and mentor them and work closely with them to help achieve their goals.
Zunaira: I’m proud that I’ve learned to be open to new opportunities and accept that the sector is quite unpredictable and changes really quickly. With a lot of things going on in the political sphere it’s sometimes unclear what the priorities are and where our work is best placed so learning to be flexible has helped me make the most of my role. Also, making connections with campaigns and networks which are not typically considered “conservation-y” is something I’m proud of, as I feel like it’s been a long time coming for environmental organisations to reach out to non-traditional community and grassroot networks.
Hannah: I think when you work for a small organisation the challenge is always that there is so much to do and you can always be doing more. So, being selective about what you take on can be tough and realising that improvements are an iterative process and take time can be challenging too. Personally, I find it can be emotionally stressful working in a sector where you are constantly confronted by climate change and biodiversity loss; sometimes those issues can be overwhelming. Having a supportive team really helps during those times and when I feel worried about the state of the world I try to focus on all the people taking positive action.
Zunaira: I think there will always be challenges I face personally as well as in my role, as often it feels like there’s a lot of work to do and not enough time to do it all. Because the environmental sector has a bit of a reputation for not being an inclusive space, it can take a lot of necessary work to earn your place with those communities. As a charity trying to do things differently, we need to constantly check our approach and make sure we are making an effort to approach challenges in the best way – this can be time-consuming but fruitful when we get it right. Like Hannah mentioned, it can also be quite overwhelming always speaking about issues that are so much bigger than you!
Hannah: I’ve learnt it’s okay to not always have the answers and that being flexible and able to change your approach is essential when you’re working with young people from different backgrounds. I’ve learnt a lot about education – what’s effective, what isn’t. I’ve also learnt to not define what conservation means for others and to be open to different interpretations of conservation, which has helped me understand how to reach out to different communities. This is essential if we are all to come together to tackle these issues collectively. Finally, young people can be a tough group to crack and there are understandable reasons for this. I’ve learnt that earning your place in their world is really important and it’s crucial to not be judgmental of their networks and the spaces they inhabit, for example, social media or gaming platforms.
Zunaira: So much! I’ve learned a lot about conservation from working with a team of people who come from marine and ecology backgrounds, which has allowed me gain more technical knowledge about ecological and climate solutions. Also, working with young people from different backgrounds and parts of the country has taught me a lot about the issues young people face but also how best to communicate with them. It’s about being less of an authority figure (because they have many of those already!) and simply supporting them with the tools to recognise their potential and achieve amazing things.
Advice to aspiring conservation educators
Hannah: I would say the sector is challenging and it can be hard to make any headway – it took me a long time to get to where I am. That being said, I knew that conservation was what I wanted to do and I care deeply about my work, so working my way up over the last 8-10 years was totally worth it. If you’re looking to work in a similar role, I would advise thinking about your strengths and playing to them, especially if you can bring something different to the table. For example, I have graphic design experience which has been a massive asset to my work and not one you would necessarily think of as being essential to conservation work. Conservation is a competitive sector, but it’s also one that is crying out for more people from different backgrounds with different skills.
Zunaira: There are many aspiring conservationists looking for roles in the environmental sector but there is also a lot of work to do, so really think about the things you want to change. Having a broad range of experience and knowledge is beneficial and you will probably need more than just academic knowledge to work with young people and communities. Make a point of volunteering/working with grassroots organisations and learning about social and systemic issues so that you are better equipped to speak about environmental issues in a more relevant and holistic way.
If you would like to find out more about Action for Conservation and their fantastic work, visit their website www.actionforconservation.org or find them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.