About the Author

James King serves on the Boards of Directors of Students Endeavoring For Enlightened Environmental Decisions, The Lets Raise A Million Project, American Mentorship Program for Sustainability, and Keeping It Wild and is a member of the Natural Leaders Core National Team. Juan D. Martinez is C&NN’s Director of Leadership Development and the Natural Leaders Network. His passion to empower individuals and youth led him to direct Sierra Club’s first environmental justice youth leadership academy in Los Angeles.

MILLENNIALS ON THE RISE: Natural Leaders’ Call to Action

“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and strength.” — Maya Angelou

In 2009 the Natural Leaders Network gathered 50 young diverse leaders from all over the country to build the network from the ground up. It is no surprise that “diversity in nature” came to be one of our three pillars. Nature play is best described by those experiencing the activities and the diversity of outdoor experiences, as well as by those participating in them.

When it comes to a connection with nature, Millennials — the demographic cohort following Generation X — have different interpretations of the outdoors and how their communities engage with nature. Millennials are “more ethnically and racially diverse than older adults… and are on track to become the most educated generation in American history,” according to a Pew research study.

Richard Louv refers to cultural capacity as “the strengths and capacities of different cultures to connect with nature, often in unexpected and underreported ways.” It is no surprise that members of C&NN’s Natural Leaders Network are sought out as leaders when it comes to cultural capacity. In Atlanta, the Natural Leaders Network has helped in leading this conversation by encouraging communities and groups to think about cultural capacity at the local and national levels.

We describe our connection with the natural world as “our birthright” and encourage every single person we encounter to exercise that right. We do this by leading trips to Cumberland Island, speaking to Millennials about the importance of finding a career path, or by hosting backyard campouts with REI in the middle of Atlanta. The pieces are coming together.

We are at the cusp of a powerful conversation that needs to happen. Any organization that seeks to be relevant to communities is now shifting focus to diversity and youth engagement. But how do we measure success when it comes to building cultural capacity? There is no easy answer; no one group can answer this question. This conversation and the answers to this challenge is found within our communities. If we are searching for an easy answer to a conversation that has been brewing for centuries, or a quick return on investment, we will be hard-pressed to move anywhere with this conversation, much less forward.

With help from our national partners including the REI Foundation, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sierra Club, and The North Face, we are beginning to place the tools in the hands of these leaders and communities.

This past year the Children & Nature Network’s Natural Leaders led by resolving barriers to getting diverse youth outdoors and providing opportunities to connect to each other and nature. In 2012 we saw this impact through 646 events in all 50 states of the United States, in addition to Canada, Australia, and Africa, that were registered as part of 2012 Let’s G.O.! (Get Outdoors), a month-long initiative to encourage partners and communities to highlight how they connect to the natural world. More than 300,000 people are estimated to have participated in the second annual Let’s G.O.!, 100,000 adults and 200,000 children and youth!

We can read off numbers all day but our success is measured by the diverse leaders who are leading these calls to action and making a difference in their communities. But who supports them? Where do young diverse leaders find mentors?

Long after the camping or ski experience is over, how does a young diverse leader rise to find their voice in this conversation? These questions are what inspire the NLN and why we’re building leaders for a lifetime through our Legacy Initiative. We believe that only by working together we can create something beyond our value as individuals.

The Natural Leaders Network was created to serve as a vehicle to empower real change in our communities. We gravitate to groups that will celebrate our diversity, allow us to live out this truth, and our birthright is found in the faces and communities of our leaders. Community leaders will be standing, empowering, and supporting their families and communities to get outside long after the spotlight stops shining.

A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt, urged Americans to get outside. And he saw a future rising. “Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief,” he said, “must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not to be stunted, if there is to be room for healthy growth.”

Learn more about C&NN’s Natural Leaders. And join us.


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  1. Great article! Thanks for the amazing work you are both doing to connect children and nature.

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