SAPELO ISLAND, Ga. – Joshua McCloud had never put his feet in the ocean. But here he was on a hot Southern afternoon, a shy 16-year-old from Atlanta with a love of science finally experiencing the wonders of the sea.
McCloud was one of six urban teenagers visiting this remote barrier island for a few days and nights this summer, boys who had barely any experience in the wilderness, but on whose shoulders the future of environmental science might rest. The boys are among 100 students in 22 states chosen by the Nature Conservancy for an intensive summertime month of working outdoors.
In Washington state, four students from Tacoma’s Science and Math Institute (SAMI) completed paid summer internships with the program. Brandon Gutierrez, Gregory Smith, Vincent Ly and Alex Mundt spent time on both the dry and wet sides of Washington state pitching in and learning about the environment.
They cleaned up debris from last year’s Japanese tsunami that had floated ashore at Long Beach, searched for the endangered marbled murrelet at Willapa Bay Wildlife Refuge and counted bats and banded songbirds at Moses Coulee in Eastern Washington.
This is not the kind of program where a poor young adult from a city goes to a farm for a week to get a glimpse of something beyond a high-rise. Nor is it simply a way to address the condition known as nature-deficit disorder that is said to afflict children of the digital age.
This is an effort to create scientists and engineers who don’t look like most of those already in the field.
That both environmental science and the largest conservation organizations in the country are predominantly white is no secret. The number of minority students receiving undergraduate degrees in natural resources, agricultural management or related fields hovers around 10 percent of the total, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and Department of Agriculture reports.
RARE IN THESE FIELDS
Prominent nonwhite professionals in the fields are rare, too; when President Barack Obama selected Lisa Jackson as the first African-American to head the Environmental Protection Agency, it was a significant moment. Groups like the National Black Environmental Justice Network, which have argued that environmental issues disproportionately affect minorities, have long pushed for more diversity in the profession.
“There’s this misperception that African-Americans and minorities aren’t connected to environmentalism because we’re not seen in the big conservation groups or the profession overall,” said Tyson-Lord Gray, who is working toward his doctorate in environmental ethics at Vanderbilt University and was one of two adult mentors who watched over the group in Georgia.
Gray’s grandfather was a farmer in Georgia, and like many people in the conservation field, he cites an early exposure to nature for his interest as an adult.
“I don’t think there is a lack of concern among communities of color around environmental issues,” he said. “It’s just that it has always been connected to people’s livelihoods and saving neighborhoods.”
MONEY FROM TOYOTA
The idea behind the program, Leadership in Environmental Action for the Future – a name chosen in large part so the acronym spells LEAF – is to move promising minority students with a predisposition to nature into professions where conservation, the environment and natural resources are a theme. Most of the money to pay for it comes from the Toyota USA Foundation.
The students are mostly from middle-class Hispanic, black or Asian families. All live in large cities and have high GPAs at high schools like Tacoma’s SAMI, where curriculums center on the environment.
They are paid minimum wage to spend time in small groups on various projects around the country. In New Jersey, they banded osprey. The Georgia group pulled out invasive plant species, fixed trails, searched for endangered tortoises and counted oysters on an eroding shoreline.
“Basically, we’re like mini-scientists,” said Brandon Latorre, 16, who attends the High School for Environmental Studies in New York and whose family is from the Dominican Republic.
Terry Davis, 17, who attends Arabia Mountain High School near Atlanta, came by his interest in nature because his parents made him stay outside all day. While his friends played basketball, he searched out bugs.
During his four weeks in the program, he developed an appreciation for plant life. And although he wants to become a corporate lawyer, he thinks he will find a way to weave the environment into his career.
McCloud, the young man who put his feet in the ocean for the first time, is hoping to become an industrial engineer. And, perhaps, to carry the message back to his friends.
“Teenagers our age don’t really care about the environment,” he said. “But we’re learning that all the decisions you make now are going to hurt or help you in the future.”
The boys also learned about things they may not have wanted to, like how big a banana spider can seem when it accidentally lands on your chest, how yellow an animal’s eyes can look in a midnight-dark forest and how nasty a summer swarm of Georgia mosquitoes can be.
And then there were the chiggers. They chewed into Peter Chen’s legs so badly he got an infection. It was a far cry from the perils of New York, where Chen, 16, attends Stuyvesant High School.
“I didn’t even know chiggers existed before this,” he said. “And I’m not happy that I do now.”Staff writer Debbie Cafazzo contributed to this report.