Queers OUTdoors

The National Wildlife Federation was built on the principle that joint effort and solid cooperation are critical to conservation. Today we continue this great American ideal: bringing together people in their appreciation for nature to support conservation. The success of the Federation depends on people from all regions and backgrounds—cities, suburbs, and rural areas, young and old—who are empowered and committed to a better future for wildlife.


Last month, colleagues of the National Wildlife Federation came together in solidarity to support the first ever LGBTQ Outdoor Summit hosted by REI in Seattle, WA. Attendees far and wide from The North Face, Patagonia, the National Park Service, the Wilderness Society, and the Sierra Club came together to celebrate our shared passion for the outdoors and wildlife conservation. The mission of the summit was to cultivate connections, build community, and inspire leaders from across the outdoor industry and beyond to create more accessible and affirming ways for the LGBTQ community to get OUTside. 

Elyse Rylander, the summit organizer and founder of OUT There Adventures, outlined the following reasons to organize and talk about LGBTQ people in the outdoors:

  1. Community: “It’s profound for folx* to connect. I have that warm fuzzy when I see it’s not just me.”
  2. Support: “I’m struck by how isolated queer folx in the [outdoor] industry are in trying to do this work. We are siloed—so how can we break down those barriers to support each other?”
  3. Growth: “I’m also hoping this will put the larger [outdoor] industry on notice. We are here, and it’s not just one or two people. It will continue to grow—the next generation will be the queerest yet. The [outdoor industry’s] customer base is changing. How can we can show them that, cultivate data and give them the numbers?”

*Folx is a gender neutral form of the word "folks"


Throughout the Summit, attendees shared heartfelt stories about their experiences in nature and working in the outdoor industry. Panelists shared their own personal struggles and examples of what it's like to not fit in neither the workplace nor in outdoor spaces. For many of us, it can be hard to navigate the world and our niche in society. The Human Rights Campaign published a recent groundbreaking study surveying over 10,000 LGBTQ-identified youth aged 13-17 and found that 4 in 10 LGBTQ youth (42%) say the community in which they live in is not accepting of LGBTQ people. The good news is that over three quarters (77%) say they know things will get better. Infinity spaces like these are needed and provide much value for Queer people to learn, heal, and connect through opportunities in the outdoors. Overall, the Summit was a chance to not only feel safe, but also feel comfortable being simply ourselves. 

The Queer Caucus Breakout Session was a great opportunity to get to know and build relationships with new queer colleagues. We acknowledged those in our lives who have inspired us to be in this type of space and those who continue to support the good work that we are doing. We formed "families" and built alliances across a different aisle of the LGBTQ spectrum. In my new family, we quickly built trusted relationships and shared upcoming opportunities for us to work together and support each other. Supporting others who have a different gender identity from your own helps to harbor an inclusive environment where everyone can feel comfortable. If everyone practiced this welcoming behavior, we provide more opportunities for members of the LGBTQ community to rise above the obstacles they face and to find success and comfort in the world around them. 

Photo courtesy of Aer Parris

Photo courtesy of Aer Parris

All in all, I am grateful to have shared this inaugural experience with those who possess subordinate identities across the Federation. Given our current political climate, it is imperative that organizations continue to come together in solidarity to support one another and uplift the voices of those who continue to face injustice. We applaud the National Wildlife Federation for sponsoring this groundbreaking event and the Pride Foundation for their activism and legacy. Legislative attacks on both the federal and state level continue to jeopardize our human rights and dignities. These threats can have significant impacts on our workplace and in environmental spaces, especially for those who represent the global majority and people of color. The outcome of the 2016 presidential election has revolutionized grassroots movements for equity and social justice movements.

Despite obstacles and challenges ahead, the uprising we have seen for equal rights and the environment is remarkable to say the least. Maybe we need to replace presidents with queens!


Mariah Davis is the field manager with the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

Young Professionals of Color Meet in Annapolis

On Friday, January 27, the Choose Clean Water Coalition held the wrap-up for the inaugural session of our Young Professionals of Color (YPC) mentorship program. The informal happy hour was a blast. The food was delicious and the wine was flowing. But more importantly, the mood was one of camaraderie and excitement. The Coalition is very proud of what we were able to accomplish with the YPC program since the kick off at our conference last May, and on a personal level, I am extremely proud of the program as well. Chante was the brains behind the operation, but she graciously let me take the lead last year. It has been educational and enlightening every step of the way.

By all measures, the program was a success. We were initially unsure of how much interest there would be when we decided to start the program. Fortunately, we received requests to join from a robust group of people for the pilot program—eight mentor/mentee pairs all told. Not bad for a first go around.

We asked each pair to have at least one monthly call and at least three in-person meetings throughout the duration of the program, and by my count, participants went above and beyond; the pairs seemed to truly connect by exchanging regular texts, meeting for the occasional coffee, helping each other plan events, etc. If the conversations at our happy hour were any indication, it seems as though the mentors and mentees became trusted friends. One participant shared, “I really enjoyed the trusted relationship I was able to build with my mentor. It was really nice to have someone to vent to and ask for advice, knowing they would provide me with honest and experienced expertise.” That’s powerful, and that’s just the kind of relationship we wanted to foster through the YPC program.

Like any program, however, we want YPC to grow and get better with every iteration. We plan on rolling out the second session at this year’s Choose Clean Water Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia (breakfast kick off on the morning of May 24th). Based on input from this year’s participants, we’re going to have more consistent check-ins between mentors and mentees, more topic-driven goals, and will aim to have more program-wide get-togethers and team building exercises. Who knows, we may even have t-shirts!

We’re hoping to grow in size, too! If you or anyone you know would like to be part of this year’s YPC program, do not hesitate to drop me a line ( Please note, all mentors from last year identified as people of color. We are opening up the mentor pool to those who do not identify as such for this coming year. We believe that this will go a long way in ensuring a rich group of experiences to share going forward. 

When Chante passed the YPC torch to me, I was admittedly a bit confused—why would a young professional of color hand the reigns of this program to someone who, while a young professional, is so obviously white? I think it’s critical for those of us who identify as white to keep learning about ongoing inequities in our environmental community and to keep doing our part to make ours the most inclusive community possible. Regardless of whether or not it was a measured move to put me in charge, I know my perspective allowed me to experience the program through a unique lens. I’ve learned about the lack of people of color in the environmental community, particularly in leadership positions, and I feel humbled to be but a small part of the solution.

Coalition Success: Festival del Río Anacostia

Anacostia Watershed Society Announces the First "Festival del Río Anacostia"

Date: October 15, 2016 Time: 11am - 4pm Location: Bladensburg Waterfront Park, 4601 Annapolis Rd, Bladensburg, MD 20710 FREE!

(Bladensburg, MD – October 10, 2016)The Anacostia Watershed Society announced the first ever Festival del Rio Anacostia, a multicultural and bilingual celebration of the restoration of the Anacostia River.

“Bring the whole family to enjoy nature and the Anacostia River,” said Jorge A. Bogantes Montero, Stewardship Program Specialist at Anacostia Watershed Society. “We will have activities and demonstrations, arts and crafts, entertainment, delicious food and much more -- there is something for everyone.”

We are pleased that this festival is made possible by the collaborative work of different organizations and community groups, including: Anacostia Watershed Society, Chispa Maryland, Chesapeake Bay Trust, Departament of Parks and Recreation of Prince Georges County, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and many others.

Learn, connect, and explore! Bring your family, friends or neighbors and enjoy a day at the river!

About the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) The mission of the Anacostia Watershed Society is to protect and restore the Anacostia River and its watershed communities by cleaning the water, recovering the shores, and honoring the heritage. The vision is to make the Anacostia River and its tributaries swimmable and fishable by 2025, in keeping with the Clean Water Act, for the health and enjoyment of everyone in the community. Community involvement is critical to achieving this vision and AWS seeks strong partnerships and coalitions with all parts of the community, government, and other stakeholders. Anacostia Watershed Society’s programs include environmental education, stewardship, recreation, and engaging the community through advocacy and volunteer opportunities. ##

The Key to Bay Restoration: It's Not What You Think

Our field is chock-full of significant challenges like cleaning up polluted waterways and curtailing air pollution.  In the case of the Choose Clean Water Coalition, for which I serve as Deputy Director, we are fighting to meet the pollution reduction goals for the Chesapeake Bay. This includes reducing polluted runoff and minimizing the impacts of natural gas fracking.  With all of these complicated problems, I never anticipated that the most significant and troubling issue is not an environmental issue at all, but a societal one: the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the Chesapeake Bay environmental community.  This is critical because our success in returning clean water to the region relies on our ability to build our diversity and effectively work with those from different backgrounds.

There are countless reasons why we must move toward a more diverse community: diversity makes us smarter; it allows us to be open to things that set us apart; and it can help reduce discrimination.  Of course, diversity is generally important, but it is also specifically critical to the success of environmental progress. 

First, we are in a field that speaks on behalf of the public interest – we promote the “public good” not private interests.  When we do not look like the communities we serve, we lose our legitimacy in speaking on behalf of them.  People will think “how can that environmental non-profit know what is best for me when they do not look like me or share my values and culture?” 

Second, this is a numbers game.  As the number of diverse individuals increase in the United States, our movement will continue to miss out on a growing segment of the population to engage and activate around our issues.  Our field relies on numbers; more people are needed to combat the extraordinary amount of corporate dollars that promote private interests over the public good. 

Third, it is our responsibility to ensure the people working in our field are accepted regardless of background and culture.  Creating a diverse and inclusive workplace will help us attract diverse individuals.  It’s always fun to feel unique and special, but it gets tiring being the only person of color at every meeting and event.  I want to see other people like me and I want to be a part of a movement that is not exclusive.

With that said, our end goal is two-fold: (1) the racial make-up of our organizations must reflect that of the communities we serve, and (2) we must engage more diverse communities in a meaningful and impactful way.  To accomplish this, our Coalition is advocating for a watershed-wide cultural shift in the way we think about institutional racism, unconscious bias, and outright discrimination.  We are not going to authentically address our lack of diversity and inclusivity without breaking down these deep-seated, systemic barriers, and gaining a comprehensive understanding of how they impact the space we all live and work in. 

Through talking to experts and learning what we can about these issues, our Coalition has made strides toward beginning this shift.  We created a tool-kit to help organizations craft governance documents, adjust hiring practices, and shape communications to attract more diversity.  The Coalition committed to increasing diversity in our 2016-2017 strategic plan.

We also decided that improving the diversity demographics of our annual conference is a priority.  At last year’s conference, we collected our diversity demographics for the first time, and let me tell you, it was not pretty.

At this year’s conference, we made a conscious effort to incorporate diversity into every aspect.  We included an environmental justice track, which featured all diverse speakers.  We even facilitated cultural competence training, which helped participants build awareness of how cultural differences impact people in an organization. 

From last year to this year, we attracted significantly more people of color to our conference.  Why?  Because we acted intentionally.  And, if we can intentionally improve diversity at our conference, can’t we do this in our larger environmental community?  The Coalition has finally experienced some quantitative success in the quest for diversity.  We believe this success can be scaled up to a watershed-wide level.

To accomplish this, the Coalition, in collaboration with the Chesapeake Bay Funders Network, intends to create a DEI plan for our community.  This is a heavy lift, so we released an RFP to find an expert to help build our capacity to address DEI and write our plan.  This expert will help us build the capacity of watershed organizations to establish mutual relationships with diverse communities and develop productive cross-sector networks to benefit diverse communities.

It is vital that our community reach a shared vision on DEI with the goal of using these principles in our work.  We want to lead the way; and we hope you will follow.

Diversity is not a characteristic of life; it is a condition necessary for life…like air and water. – Barry Lopez

Making Strides Toward Equity and Inclusion

“Diversity is about all of us, and about us having to figure out how to walk through this world together.” Jacqueline Woodson

Since starting to work on diversity, equity, and inclusion, I realize that I have many more questions than I have answers; talk about a complicated problem. Growing up in school, there was always a correct answer to the math question or the geography question, but what is the answer to the diversity question. How does our community, the environmental community, become more diverse and inclusive? Hate to break it to you, but I do not have an answer to this question. However, I do have a lot of ideas, and the best way to have a good idea, is to have a lot of ideas.

Let’s start with what we want to accomplish. Our end goal is to have an industry that is more diverse and inclusive. This is goal is two-fold: (1) the racial make-up of our organizations must reflect that of the communities we serve, and (2) we must engage more environmental justice communities in a meaningful and impactful way. There are a great deal of differing ideas about how we accomplish this, like posting jobs at historically black college campuses, changing our organization’s governance documents to reflect our commitment to diversity, or setting diversity demographic goals (i.e. our goal is to have one person of color on our Board of Directors in the next year). All of these are great ideas, but are they great ideas for right now?

Instead I have another suggestion. Hear me out. I am supportive of a complete cultural shift in the way we think about institutional racism, unconscious bias, and outright discrimination. And we are not going to break down these deep-seated and ingrained barriers until we have a deep understanding of what these obstacles are and how they impact the space we all live in.

Through talking to many experts and learning what we can about these issues, the Choose Clean Water Coalition has made strides toward beginning this cultural shift. We created a tool-kit to help organizations know how to craft job postings and know where to post jobs in order to attract more diverse candidates, we committed to diversity in our strategic plan, and we set diversity demographic goals for our annual conference. Another harsh reality, this is not nearly enough.

The Coalition keeps plugging along this path to create a change in our community, and we finally experienced some quantitative success and I believe this success can be scaled up to a community level.

Over the last year, the Coalition brainstormed how to attract more diverse people to our conference. We self-reflected on our previous conferences and asked ourselves some questions: Is the content of our conference attractive to a diverse audience? Are we giving out scholarships to the right people for the right reasons? Are we using the right channels of communication to promote our conference? Not surprisingly, the answer to these questions was no.

The end result of our reflection: From last year to this year, our conference demographics improved substantially. We attracted significantly more people of color to our conference for the first time ever. Why? Intent. As an organization, we decided that changing the demographics of our conference was a priority. Last year, at our 6th Annual Conference, we collected our diversity demographics for the first time, and let me tell you, it was not pretty. However, we did not need to see these numbers on a piece of paper to know we had a problem, and had our work cut out for us.

The theme of our 7th Annual Conference was “Clean Water: Bridging to New Partnerships.” One of our goals is to build partnerships with communities that we have not traditionally engaged…and we do not traditionally engage diverse audiences. Every decision we made in our conference planning, we made a conscious effort to incorporate diversity. We changed the content to include an environmental justice track, which featured all diverse speakers. We facilitated a cultural competency training, which helps participants build awareness of how cultural differences can impact people in an organization and motivates participants to rethink their behavior and attitude toward others. We kicked off a Young Professionals of Color Mentorship Program, pairing a diverse pool of future environmental leaders with an equally diverse pool of mentors who will help facilitate their rise to oversee the future of our green community. Our opening speaker was Reverend John Crestwell, a black reverend from the Unitarian Universalist Church. He spoke on the Black Lives Matter movement, and how our movement must be united and inclusive to succeed.

Just looking around the room at the conference, there were more faces of color. If we can intentionally improve diversity at our conference, why can’t we do this in our community? The Coalition figured out one way to walk through this world together…and even if it’s just a 275 person conference, we have to start somewhere. And small successes will keep us on a path to greatness. Remember, we all smile in the same language.

Young Professional of Color Mentorship Program Builds Foundation for a Diverse Environmental Future

The racial composition of environmental organizations has not broken the 12-15 percent margin, despite people of color making up roughly one-third of the United States’ population. This issue, what has become known as the “green insiders club” particularly in leadership roles, is a fundamental problem in environmental organizations. Despite our best intentions, our goals and initiatives will not be taken seriously if we don’t look like the communities we serve.

With this in mind, The Choose Clean Water Coalition kicked off the Young Professionals of Color (YPC) Mentorship Program during May’s annual conference in Annapolis. The program is aimed at providing guidance and camaraderie to a group of young professionals of color within the green community in order to retain them and help facilitate their rise into leadership positions.

Though we at the coalition firmly believe in the importance of this program, it was always unclear how much interest would be generated among candidates. We were more than presently surprised to have eight mentor/mentee pairs attend the kick-off event for our pilot year! This is a testament to the coalition’s overarching goal of assuring more diverse attendance at the conference (we saw a measurable increase in attendees who identified as “non-white,” 17.3% of survey-takers in 2016 over 12.4% in 2015).

Participants in the YPC program were fortunate to hear from two powerful speakers: South River Federation Executive Director, Kate Fritz, delivered an inspirational message and Kelli Holsendolph, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Audubon Naturalist Society, recounted a personal narrative on the importance of mentorship.

Most importantly, young professionals of color finally met their mentors, the leaders who will guide them over the next six months and who will offer support and answer questions. Handshakes, phone numbers, and stories were exchanged. Smiles and laughter abounded, and there was a distinct feeling that lasting relationships were forming before our very eyes. We were fortunate to see the next generation of leaders of the environmental community all in one room. It is a generation that is passionate, driven, and diverse—just the way it should be.      

Coalition Success: Taking Nature Black

More than 100 attended the inaugural Taking Nature Black: An Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) Black History Month Celebration, Saturday, February 20, 2016.

“We are thrilled you all were able to join us today for this inaugural Black History Month celebration,” said ANS Executive Director Lisa Alexander. “Our vision is to create a larger and more diverse community of people who treasure the natural world and work to preserve it; so events such as these give us an opportunity to open the doors wider and reach a greater number of nature enthusiasts.”

The day-long event was held at ANS headquarters, Woodend Nature Sanctuary, and began with a Green Jobs Fair. Twenty environmental industry employers participated including Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Department of Recreation and Parks Baltimore City, National Aquarium, National Wildlife Federation, Blue Water Baltimore and Natural Resources Defense Council. College students, retirees and professionals of color came to the Taking Nature Black event for the Green Jobs Fair, to find short-term and long-term paid and volunteer opportunities.

“The Chesapeake Bay Program’s Diversity Action Team is proud to work with the Audubon Naturalist Society in encouraging our partners to participate in Audubon’s inaugural Black History Month celebration,” said James Edward, Deputy Director, Chesapeake Bay Program. “It is important to acknowledge and celebrate the rich history of all people in the watershed. Events like Taking Nature Black help facilitate an inclusive restoration workforce with meaning.”

The Chesapeake Bay Program’s Diversity Action Team, an event partner, specifically helped to produce the Green Jobs Fair. Choose Clean Water Coalition and M-NCPPC, Montgomery Parks also partnered with ANS on Taking Nature Black. Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Seaberry Design & Communications were event sponsors.

Breakout sessions on environmental advocacy, cultural competency and stewardship practices at home or in local communities were also part of the day’s draw. Speakers for the Environmental Advocacy Panel & Listening Session included Vernice Miller-Travis, Vice Chair of the Maryland State Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities, member of the US Environmental Protection Agency National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and member of the DMV Environmental Justice Coalition; Irv Sheffey, Environmental Professionals of Color; and ANS’s Conservation Program Director Diane Cameron. The panel held a spirited discussion on the environmental issues facing African American/Black communities.

Judy Cohall, Senior Training Manager, M-NCPPC, Montgomery Parks; Whitney Tome, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA); and Nataki Kambon, Spokesperson, Black Economic Empowerment Movement delivered the session on cultural competency, Working While Black in a Green Industry. Mayor Jacqueline Goodall, Town of Forest Heights; Dennis Chestnut, Executive Director, Groundwork Anacostia; and Alan Spears, Director of Cultural Resources, Government Affairs, NPCA talked to attendees about Keeping it Green at Home. The group shared best practice stewardship tips and information on the importance of protecting nature in local, regional and national parks.

“Taking Nature Black is a unique opportunity for students, community members, and professionals to come-together and learn about environmental issues impacting our neighborhoods. This is a time for us to build relationships with one another, increase our cultural competence, and celebrate a month dedicated to fairness, equity, and inclusion. Choose Clean Water Coalition is excited to partner on Audubon Naturalist Society’s first-ever Black History Month event,” said Jill Witkowski Heaps, Director, Choose Clean Water Coalition.


The day’s keynote address, Green Stories in Black, was delivered by Bob “The Griot” Smith, Storyteller/Actor and President of the Griots’ Circle of Maryland, National Association of Black Storytellers. Bob inspired and entertained.

An onsite display, Black In Nature: Then & Now, featured African American/Black pioneers who have made and are making contributions to nature and the environment. This display featured images and biographic information for: John James Audubon, Sophia Danenberg, John Francis, Reverend Josiah Henson, Lisa Jackson, Frank and Audrey Peterman, Fred Tutman and Michael Twitty.

“The rich African American stories we are able to interpret through the historic sites in Montgomery County parks really makes Black History Month come alive,” said M-NCPPC Montgomery Parks Museum Manager Shirl Spicer. “When ANS approached us about partnering on their first-ever celebration, we were happy to expand our celebration as Josiah Henson Park is right in the neighborhood of Woodend.”

ANS provided a light breakfast, lunch and cocktail party reception to event attendees. The catering was done by Uprising Muffin Company and Woodland’s Vegan Bistro.

What a great day of celebration and new beginnings for Audubon Naturalist Society,” added Alexander. “Let’s not lose this momentum; we hope to see you all back soon for upcoming author events, member events or nature classes and programs.”

Taking Nature Black will return in February 2018! To partner, sponsor, or for more information, please contact conference chair Caroline Brewer at