EcoCareers Conference 2020 Provides Insight and Inspiration During Uncertain Times

As global temperatures rise, habitats are lost to development, more species become threatened—and now, as our global community confronts a mass pandemic—the need for more leaders in environmental science and conservation fields has grown. In order to help students prepare for green careers, the National Wildlife Federation hosted its fourth virtual EcoCareers Conference on April 1-2. More than 1,000 high school and college students, representing over 500 different higher education institutions and school districts, registered for this year’s conference to learn about a variety of wildlife and sustainability careers. Panelists discussed topics ranging from green economy trends to overviews of career enhancing experiences and credentials. 

Green Panelists from All Walks of Life

The speakers and panelists came from various economic sectors and represented major companies, organizations, governmental agencies, and universities. The line-up included:

  • Mustafa Santiago Ali (Vice President of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization, National Wildlife Federation)
  • Jennifer Allen Aroz (Senior Vice President for Community and Civic Engagement, League of Conservation Voters)
  • Amy Bachman (Director of Procurement and Sustainability, DC Central Kitchen)
  • Charles Glass (Deputy Secretary, Maryland Department of Natural Resources)
  • Mark Orlowski (Executive Director and Founder, Sustainable Endowments Institute)
  • Jenn Evans (Board Member, Austin Creative Reuse); and many more. 
National Wildlife Federation’s map of green career sectors 

A New Generation of Environmental Justice 

The conference kicked off with a keynote address from Mustafa Santiago Ali, in which he spoke with students about the history of the environmental justice movement, the challenges faced today, and the role that young people play in promoting change in both the conservation field and our society. 

Ali commented on the importance of bringing people together. “Collaborations need to happen if we are actually going to win on environmental issues, on conservation issues, and on making sure that we are addressing the climate emergency that we find ourselves in,” he said. 

Mustafa Santiago Ali, Vice President of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation.

“We have to think critically about how we actually make change happen [and] how do we address some of these issues that are systemic,” Ali said. “They come from the past, but they are also impacting us here today. … That is another reason why you are so critical because it’s going to take new technologies; it’s going to take innovation; it’s going to take activism; it’s going to take those folks who are willing to get engaged on the state level and on the federal level, pushing to make sure the right types of legislation are in place.”

To set the tone for the EcoCareers Conference, Ali expressed the need for younger generations to take the lead in the green movement across all sectors, calling out the importance of scientific and technology careers and also uplifting the powerful role that the arts and entertainment industries play in influencing society.

“Sometimes we don’t realize that we actually have power … and we assume somebody else will take care of something, when it’s really our responsibility to frame out what we want the future to look like,” he said. “There is a cultural shift that is most definitely happening. I think a lot of that is a result of all of the energy that young leaders have been bringing and pushing over the last few years.”

The Power of Music and Art

Creativity and innovation were powerful themes during this year’s conference. Beyond manufacturing, finance, and climate change, the conference also included sessions about careers in music, visual arts, and other creative industries.

Presenters Arasia “Alkemia” Earth and Ietef “DJ Cavem” Vita brought a unique and engaging perspective on entrepreneurialism to the conference. The married duo discussed building an environmentally conscious business from a holistic approach, as well as the growth of the eco hip-hop movement.

Ietef “DJ Cavem” Vita

“I came to talk to you about culinary climate action [and] art for social change,” Vita, an environmental hip-hop artist, said. “I think it’s really important to talk about sustainability through music.”

Vita discussed the innovative way that he uses hip-hop and music videos to inspire youth and promote conservation and environmentally friendly practices, such as regenerative agriculture, juicing, and growing your own food. 

“[Environmental hip-hop] is not just talking about the problems,” Vita said. “I think there’s not enough glorification of the solutions and the ideas.” Using music and art to promote environmentalism is not about being sad all the time, but rather about starting conservations around really cool solutions, he explained.

Earth advised students to use learning as a way to bolster their careers, emphasizing that the education game is changing and students now have so many ways to go online and learn for free. “There’s always going to be webinars, workshops, and just stay immersed in what it is you’re trying to do in your vision,” Earth said. “Always keep learning. Study those that are successful or that you look up to and what you are trying to accomplish.” 

Earth also emphasized the importance of being brave and contacting professionals to show them how interested you are in their work and to learn more about how they became successful. 

“Expose yourself to things that are different, and try ideas that will be enhancing your mind,” she added. 

Arasia “Alkemia” Earth

Decreasing Linearity in the Economy and in Career Paths

The conference also hosted more technical-oriented sessions, such as panels on climate change and the circular economy—a system that is aimed at designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. Students heard from a diverse group of panelists in this field, including speakers working in urban and city planning and e-commerce. 

These days, career trajectories are less and less likely to be linear throughout a young person’s working life, and panelist Emily Yates, Smart City Director for the City of Philadelphia, described her nonlinear career path as an illustration of following your passion and intuition and being open to new experiences and opportunities. 

Emily Yates, Smart City Director for the City of Philadelphia.

“My career path has been very nonlinear,” Yates said. “I waited until my senior year of civil engineering to realize that I did not want to pursue that career.”

Yates then transferred to landscape architecture and had to take some urban planning courses. “That was one of those key moments in my life that was catalytic … ,” she said. “I engaged with some brilliant people that really sparked my interest and my passion for urban spaces.”

After realizing her passion, Yates then worked in the private sector, pivoted to a public position in D.C., conducted research in Europe, and eventually ended up at a think tank exploring urban and regional policy in sustainable and livable cities—highlighting the expansive, unforeseen journey she took to finding her current career. 

Panelist Sophie Liu echoed Yates’ description of a nonlinear career path and emphasized the importance of following your passion. Liu works on the Business Development team at Loop, an innovative e-commerce platform offering products in reusable, durable packaging rather than single-use. 

Sophie Liu, Business Development at Loop

Liu explained that she first ended up working in event planning, which was not where she expected to find herself. But, she unexpectedly enjoyed it, and through her work, she noticed that it was very obvious how much waste comes out of every event.

“That really struck me during a time that I was trying to make more sustainable changes in my personal habits,” Liu said. “So, I was looking for recycling options in my personal life and had come across Terracycle, and that was where I began to look a few months later when I was applying for my next job.”

Building Networks During Disconnected Times

After five career sector-specific panels—including sessions about climate change mitigation and adaptation and green finance and sustainable investing jobs—interactive workshops, presentations, and keynote lectures, students were given an opportunity to network with panelists for the final hour of the conference. 

Five of the panelists—Adam Roberti (Director, Cortada Projects); Justine Burt (Author of “The Great Pivot: Creating Meaningful Work to Build a Sustainable Future”); April Taylor (Sustainability Scientist, South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center); Beth Offenbacker (Consultant, Waterford Inc.); and Jay Wilson (Senior Policy Advisor, Government of the District of Columbia)—set up separate sessions and fielded questions directly from students interested in pursuing similar career paths.

“I hope that this year, in the stressful and difficult time we find ourselves, students leave this conference with a renewed sense of passion and that they create lasting connections in their network and identify concrete ideas for next steps in their academic and professional careers,”  David Corsar, National Wildlife Federation’s Manager of Career Development Programs, said. 

MARK YOUR CALENDAR FOR THE 2021 EVENT

NWF’s EcoCareers Conference will be back next April – mark your calendars today!

Dates: April 7-8, 2021

Location: Online!

Website: www.nwfecoleaders.org/conference 

Thank you also to all the speakers and attendees for making this event an interactive, exciting, and dynamic experience for all.

See you next year!

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