Garden for Wildlife™ STEM Education Partnership for Black and Other Minority Youth

Jackson County (MO) Chapter of The Links, Incorporated’s members socially distance in front of their newly installed Garden for Wildlife, which was planted on a vacant lot formerly used for dumping.

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and The Links, Incorporated (The Links) partnered to connect black communities with nature through gardening and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) educational programs. 

The Links, Incorporated is an international, not-for-profit corporation, established in 1946. The membership consists of more than 16,000 professional women of color in 288 chapters located in 41 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, and the United Kingdom. It is one of the nation’s oldest and largest volunteer service organizations of extraordinary women who are committed to enriching, sustaining and ensuring the culture and economic survival of African Americans and other persons of African ancestry. Members of The Links volunteer more than one million documented hours of community service annually, and the organization has contributed more than $25 million to charitable organizations, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the United Negro College Fund. 

The two organizations are working together to:

  • Engage members of The Links, youth, and community members to serve through their transformational programs in restoring and enhancing wildlife habitat where they live, serve, learn, play, and/or worship.
  • Showcase African American pioneers and role models in conservation, environmental justice, and STEM careers.
  • Increase STEM skills through nature and Garden for Wildlife™  (G4W) activities.
  • Pursue resources to sustain the long-term partnership impact.
  • Advocate for conservation, environmental justice and climate change policies beneficial to wildlife and people.

On October 21, 2019, The Links hosted a webinar to announce this new partnership to its membership. The two organizations came together again on March 10, 2020 to provide chapters with resources to create Schoolyard Gardens for Wildlife.  On June 4, 2020, over one thousand members of The Links signed up for another virtual webinar themed, “Links Go WildSTEM Green!,” during which NWF’s CEO Collin O’Mara, and The Links’ National President, Dr. Kimberly Jeffries Leonard, brought greetings on behalf of their respective organizations celebrating the partnership. During the webinar, NWF Chief Naturalist, David Mizejewski, provided tips on how to build a garden and attract pollinators and other wildlife to one’s backyard, front lawn, patio, porch or window box.  Mary Phillips, Senior Director, Garden for Wildlife™, provided information to help participants certify their own backyards as Certified Wildlife Habitats®.

National Wildlife Federation is proud to announce that The Links, Incorporated’s National Headquarters garden is the 250,000th Certified Wildlife Habitat®.

Gardens for Wildlife Established by Chapters and Members of The Links, Incorporated

The Links-NWF partnership is crucial in bridging the divide between STEM education and wildlife conservation. More importantly, this partnership will elevate the messaging around the urgency and importance of reconnecting all people to nature while inspiring a new generation of environmental stewards. Even before the partnership began, members of The Links played instrumental roles in this important area.

Diane Welburn, a member of Reston (VA) Chapter of The Links, in front of her certified Garden for Wildlife habitat home garden.

In 2018, The Links participated with NWF in the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge as a lead participating service organization.  Ivy Taylor, former Mayor of San Antonio, Texas and a member of The San Antonio (TX) Chapter of The Links, led her city to become the first NWF Mayors Monarch Pledge Champion level city.  Several years ago, Diane Welburn, a member of the Reston (VA) Chapter of The Links, pioneered some of this important work by creating a Certified Wildlife Habitat® at her home in Martha’s Vineyard.  Also, as a McDonald’s franchise owner in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, Ms. Welburn has installed a memorial garden and planted a Garden for Wildlife to emphasize the value of pollinators to her customers, employees and youth in the community. Beverly McMillan, a member of the Albuquerque (NM) Chapter of The Links, organized students to plant vegetable gardens that tied food resiliency to pollinator gardens through its “100 Garden Challenge.”

Last summer, The Links expanded their National STEM Education and Career Readiness Initiative. This effort included STEM education and career readiness for youth and adults through gardening for wildlife and specialized curriculum that will support their hands-on learning by using the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife™ program model and educational resources.  Link members will support youth primarily in disadvantaged communities as they create wildlife habitat at their schools, community centers, places of worship, and shelters, among other locations.

The Links’ first NWF certified G4W habitat planted by the LINKS-NSBE Jr. Chapter at St. Mary’s Preparatory School in Jamaica.

Four Link Chapters also established certified G4W at two elementary schools outside Montego Bay, Jamaica.  The Oakland County (MI) and the Essex County (NJ) Chapters of The Links supported the fourth-grade students at St. Mary’s Preparatory School in planting The Links’ first certified garden. These 60 students comprise the LINKS-NSBE Jr. Chapter (a type of junior engineering club), which the Oakland County (MI) Chapter of The Links established as part of The Links’ national partnership with the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).  Similarly, the Reston (VA) and Montgomery County (PA) Chapters of The Links supported the third-grade students at Mt. Zion Primary and Infant School in planting a garden subsequently certified by NWF.

The Links’ second NWF certified G4W habitat at the Mt. Zion Primary and Infant School in Jamaica.

Local and state regulations regarding the COVID-19 pandemic delayed most chapters from working with youth groups at schools, and community centers as planned. Therefore, individual chapter members responded enthusiastically to an Earth Day call to action from Dr. Jeffries Leonard, by pledging to create wildlife-friendly gardens at home while sheltering in place. This effort resulted in over 1,800 members pledging to become National Wildlife Federation Butterfly Heroes.  Each received garden starter seed packs that, when planted, will create food gardens, attract butterflies, and restore and enhance wildlife habitat in their communities.

In addition, despite disruptions due to COVID-several Link chapters were able to install their wildlife habitats at vacant lots, schools, and homeless shelters while practicing social distancing.  The Albuquerque (NM) Chapter of The Links hosted garden coaching with video conferencing, delivered garden kits for youth to create Rites of Passage Gardens, and supported a contactless seed library with open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. The seed library allowed for shelter-in-place swap and trade by residents and Link members in the community. The Rochester (NY) Chapter of The Links created a Certified Wildlife Habitat® garden at the Rochester Interfaith Hospitality Network Homeless Shelter.

In February 2020, senior leaders of The Links, Incorporated dressed up to teach third-grade students at Mt. Zion Primary and Infant School in Jamaica about NWF’s Munchie the Butterfly. Pictured L-R are: Ethelyn Bowers, National Treasurer; Dr. Mamie Parker, The Links’ G4W Lead and NWF Board Member; Monica Boone Allen, Central Area Director; Dr. Kimberly Jeffries Leonard, National President; Leslye Miller Fraser, National STEM Chair; and Crystal Kendrick, then-National Secretary

 “WildSTEM” Educational Programing

Once schools resume nationwide in person, the first 50 Links chapters to create and certify Schoolyard Habitat gardens will receive specialized WildSTEM resources that include the National Wildlife Federation’s STEM-based Monarch Mission Curriculum for outdoor classroom learning, Garden for Wildlife tip sheets, plant lists,  hands-on activities, and a Certified Wildlife Habitat® sign. Links chapters will provide the grassroots programming that will educate, and inspire communities of black youth by giving them tools to pursue WildSTEM careers such as wildlife sciences, biology, environmental studies, conservation, and climate science. 

These and other Links chapters will also support mentoring programs targeting youth and adults and will get guidance from The Links National STEMREADY Committee on how to partner with historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) and minority-serving institutions to increase the number of African American students pursuing these non-traditional WildSTEM majors. NWF will connect these students to its annual Ecoleader’s Careers Conference.

Advancing Environmental Justice

During the June partnership webinar, The Links and NWF leadership referenced decades of environmental racism that have resulted in unjust health disparities in places like Flint, Michigan, and “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana.

Many black communities in America, due to a history of redlining, housing discrimination, and environmental racism, haven’t lived in communities where they can access public parks, nature preserves, or even hiking trails. This disconnect, and the fact that many more black Americans can’t even be outdoors without being seen as a threat, showcases that environmental justice is the core of the future of the environmental movement.

Equity and justice are necessary if we are to remedy these issues. The National Wildlife Federation and The Links have committed to supporting environmental stewardship within black and brown communities.

Dr. Jeffries Leonard stated, “by being champions of justice and equity in the conservation space, we can heal others, and heal our communities. These challenges require equitable and just solutions, and we must ensure that children and adults are given the tools needed to find solutions for their communities.” 

The National Wildlife Federation’s President and CEO, Collin O’Mara, affirmed the importance of this new partnership to address disparities and committed to work with Links leaders both through program and policy outreach, saying, “this incredible partnership with The Links has near limitless potential to catalyze transformative change in communities and with youth all across the country.”

The Links’ WildSTEM initiative will ensure that young children can learn about the environment and become active agents for positive change in their communities. 

This partnership was made possible only because of the strong leadership and guidance from members of both organizations. The Links’ National STEM Chair, Leslye Miller Fraser, and The Links’ Garden for Wildlife Lead and National Wildlife Federation Board Member, Dr. Mamie Parker, have been leading the effort to implement The Links’ WildSTEM initiative. They have been collaborating with integral National Wildlife Federation leadership, such as Mary Phillips; Board Member Emeritus, Diane Dillon Ridgley; and Vice President of Education and Engagement, Kim Martinez.

As a respected leadership organization, The Links will implement these practices within their organization and be a hub of knowledge to support a network of communities working together to create healthy habitats and communities. By coming together in this way to uplift a new, diverse generation of African American conservationists and environmentalists, we can diversify the environmental field. Joint educational programming and policy advocacy will inevitably manifest in unique and transformative outcomes that provide long-term solutions for conservation and will help address the history of environmental racism in this country.