Choose Clean Water Coalition: Empowering Young Professionals of Color through Mentorship and Professional Development

Many communities in the Mid-Atlantic region are facing conservation challenges, the impacts of climate change, and long-standing disinvestment in water infrastructure. To address the array of clean water challenges facing the Chesapeake Bay, the non-profits that comprise the Choose Clean Water Coalition can best serve these communities when their staff reflects the diversity of the region. The Coalition’s Young Professionals of Color program seeks to close the racial diversity gap through mentorship and professional development.

A Representative Coalition

A group of young leaders gathers for a mentorship session.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Young Professionals of Color participants would meet in-person for mentorship and career development programs. Credit: Choose Clean Water Coalition.

Founded in 2009 and hosted by the National Wildlife Federation’s Mid-Atlantic regional center, the Coalition harnesses the collective power of more than 250 local, state, regional, and national groups to advocate for clean rivers and streams in all communities in the Chesapeake region.

Despite intentional efforts to diversify the organizations within the Coalition, Chesapeake restoration organizations still lack representation from Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian communities in their staff—especially in leadership positions.

The State of Equity in the Coalition

While racial diversity in the United State continues to increase, levels of representation of marginalized racial groups in staffing at environmental organizations have stayed stagnant. A 2014 report from Green 2.0 found that although Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian people comprise 36 percent of the United States population, they only account for 12 percent of the staff of environmental nonprofits.

For the Coalition to achieve its water quality goals, the Chesapeake Bay restoration community needs to authentically serve the needs of all 18 million people who call the watershed home. Overcoming the institutional barriers that prevent environmental advocates from marginalized communities is a prime goal for the Coalition—and requires environmental organizations to take a reflective and critical look in the mirror to assess shortcomings.

Advancing Equity: Mentorship and Professional Development

A group gathers on zoom.
Young Professionals of Color connect virtually to continue participation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Choose Clean Water Coalition.

As one way to foster a more equitable Chesapeake Bay restoration movements, the Choose Clean Water Coalition is taking an active step to diversify its ranks. Established in 2016, the Coalition’s Young Professionals of Color program was designed to close the racial diversity gap that exists within the coalition’s membership and help Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian young people foster their career and professional development goals.

The program is among very few spaces, let alone mentorship opportunities, that builds support for diverse leaders within the Chesapeake Bay community. Last year the program hosted 34 professionals who supported each other through professional and personal challenges they face as environmental advocates from marginalized communities.

With the majority of Young Professionals of Color participants facing multiple structural challenges in their workplace, the Coalition offered customized, facilitated training on topics that ranged from Personal Sustainability and Community Care to Courageous (Difficult) Conversations, and Overcoming Imposter Syndrome. Program members utilize their increased knowledge to build their network and apply for new positions, while also boosting their morale and self-confidence.

As the Coalition welcomes its next class of Young Professionals of Color participants in 2021, the program will continue to serve as an active space in the Chesapeake community that empowers and supports young professionals of color through their leadership development.

Mariah Davis is the Choose Clean Water Coalition’s Policy and Campaigns Manager. To take a deep dive into how environmental nonprofits can incorporate diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice principles into their organization, see the Coalition’s comprehensive DEIJ Action Guide.