Earth Tomorrow Houston Leadership Campout Builds on EJ Principles

Last year, Earth Tomorrow relaunched in Houston with its Summer Institute, a week-long summer intensive program for students to expand their knowledge on local environmental issues, build personal skills, and connect with the outdoors. The after-school program creates opportunities for high school students to deepen their understanding of environmental justice and develop leadership skills to address those issues.

Through educational programs focused on conservation and environmental knowledge, the National Wildlife Federation provides ways to create a lasting base of environmental literacy, stewardship, and problem-solving skills for today’s youth. Earth Tomorrow is the organization’s longest standing environmental education program, and seeks partnership with communities long affected by environmental injustice.  

Six schools continued their partnership with Earth Tomorrow into the school year by incorporating the program into existing school clubs. In the autumn, students from those schools gathered again for a weekend campout full of outdoor recreation, teambuilding, and environmental justice.

Credit: Michael Valdez

Connecting with Nature & Building Outdoor Skills

Research shows the best way to connect young people to a lifelong concern for nature, wildlife, and the outdoors is through regular positive experiences. Earth Tomorrow partnered with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department at a state park outside of Houston to provide opportunities for the campers to gain a deeper connection with the land during the leadership weekend. The “Leave No Trace” lessons provided a framework to promote conservation as the students immersed themselves in nature.

Credit: Michael Valdez

Among the many outdoor activities, campers were able to enjoy the scenery as they kayaked (some for the first time) while learning to communicate and navigate their boats with a partner.

Credit: Michael Valdez

The alumni from the previous summer program used their new skills to coach the first-time participants through campsite selection, pitching a tent, and camp cooking practices.

Credit: Michael Valdez

After s’mores and a warm campfire, they also set the pace and instruction for a student-led night hike that brought us to an opening in the forest with a picturesque view of a clear night sky.

Creating Action Plans for a Better Tomorrow

Earth Tomorrow is more than an outdoor experience program, though. At the heart of the school program is the goal to inspire and empower the next generation of conservation leaders and environmentalists by helping them develop perspective, voice, and courses for action.

During the environmental justice workshop, the campers utilized the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice as a lens through which to begin building an understanding. In their working groups the high schoolers pulled from their lived experience and community to compare and contrast models for a healthy society, envisioning communities aligned with inclusive access, rights, and respect for people and nature.

Credit: Michael Valdez

Building off these models, participants juxtaposed these inclusive societies against their own lived experience and communities to identify areas for growth and advocacy. Together, with a framework and reflection of their lived experiences, the small working groups began to develop student action plans and ask themselves, “what am I witness to, and what can I do about it?” The alumni used their expanding leadership skills to help guide novice participants through the activity by sharing their experiences of similar efforts in their school clubs.

Credit: Michael Valdez

After the campout was over, participants shared information they gained at the camp with their school clubs to identify additional support for their action plans. Each school club developed next steps to apply for student action plan grants offered by National Wildlife Federation to set their plans in motion. As of this spring 2024, National Wildlife has awarded seven action grants to schools within the Greater Houston area, addressing:

  • food insecurity to build curiosity and knowledge on food sourcing;
  • independent living skills to incorporate healthy lifestyles and skills education;
  • community habitat and resilience to maintain the integrity of past efforts;
  • service learning leadership to develop meaningful and consistent opportunity for stewardship;
  • and outdoor education leadership development to provide meaningful experiential opportunities.

Hands-On Learning Makes a Difference

Earth Tomorrow students are provided evaluation forms to let us know what we are doing well and how we can improve the experience for them:

  • There was overwhelming support from campers that Earth Tomorrow Houston provided a safe and inclusive space for students to step out of their comfort zones and practice new skills connected to the outdoors and leadership.
  • Students indicated that they found value in a sustained connection to the land, education through experiential learning, and introductions to community advocates and professionals in the environmental justice space.
  • Students unanimously reflected that they desired more time to connect with nature, peers, and activities that support the pillars of Earth Tomorrow.

Our first year of Earth Tomorrow Houston has been a success, and will soon be hosting our next summer institute. We are proud of the leadership that these students have demonstrated so far and their fire to tackle the environmental injustices in their community. We are confident that these brilliant students will become the next generation of environmental and community leaders in the Greater Houston area.