Cultivating Conservation Leaders in Detroit

The distance from urban communities to the lands of traditional conservation activity seems vast. By their nature, cities often have less natural space, where wildlife tends to thrive. The National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center’s Detroit Leadership and Environmental Education Program (D-LEEP) seeks to bridge that divide through a project-based, outdoor, environmental curriculum to help high school students connect with nature, build a more sustainable community and prepare for future success in their academic and career endeavors. Through D-LEEP and other efforts in Detroit and beyond, we aim to cultivate the next generation of conservation and environmental leadership, inclusive of urban communities too often excluded in leadership. This is vital because these communities have far too often been on the front line, first-impacted by pollution, climate change and environmental racism.

Credit: Antonio Cosme / NWF

With the support of National Wildlife Federation staff, teachers, and community partners, Detroit students and their families will connect with nature, regional forests and waterways with a focus on developing their leadership skills, occupational prospects and their overall connection with nature. We cannot expect the next generation to fight to protect something they don’t have a relationship with. In addition, there are significant health and wellness benefits that come with exposure to green space. According to researchers at the University of Minnesota, “Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones.”

Credit: Antonio Cosme / NWF

D-LEEP is launching this fall at three Detroit high schools to develop student leadership through mentorship, educational workshops, summer work opportunities, collaborative student driven problem solving and reciprocal teaching/learning. Students will be learning, researching, teaching and connecting with the natural environment around Detroit. The students and their families will be establishing a relationship to nature through outdoor experiences paired with knowledge of their bioregion and watershed. We believe that in order for this program to take root, it must be embraced by the family. Lifestyles begin at home. Putting this connection to nature into practice, we’ll be partnering with community organizations to address challenges associated with climate change through student-led sustainability projects at the school or in the adjacent community. Learn about nature, learn about yourself, build a familial relationship to it, and work to sustain your own community: that’s the heart of D-LEEP.

We are also working to extend our Eco-Schools program to all Detroit Public Schools Community Districts by partnering with EcoWorks’ Youth Energy Squad (YES). YES offers year-round programming both in and beyond the classroom that engages students deeply with sustainability and leadership. Their student Green Teams meet weekly, providing hands-on experiences around sustainability and encouraging them to take ownership in their school and community. By augmenting their existing school programming with the nation’s largest comprehensive green schools program, YES can increase their onsite activities and each school can achieve national certification through the Eco-Schools USA program.

Credit: Antonio Cosme / NWF

Taken together, this body of work, collaboration with faith communities and EcoWorks’ Youth Energy Squad, and D-LEEP, the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center is working to become more inclusive on this central vision of uniting all Americans from all walks of life in building healthier habitats and communities.


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