As a community organizer in Kansas City during the 2008 presidential campaign, Melanie Allen walked precincts and made countless get-out-thevote phone calls on behalf of the young Illinois senator who would become the nation’s first African-American president. After the election, she continued to build connections — between the environment, the economy and the community — in her work with a Missouri environmental education organization. In 2011 she returned to her home state of North Carolina to work as the conservation and diversity coordinator at the accredited Conservation Trust for North Carolina (CTNC).
Besides protecting lands adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway, CTNC also provides financial support, training and consultation to the closeknit community of 24 land trusts in the state. That gives it a unique ability to spread a message of diversity. But until a few years ago, says Melanie, “The organization didn’t look like our state, which is ethnically, racially and economically diverse.” Funders were starting to notice.
The board began setting organizational goals for racial diversity, economic diversity and connections to youth, along with strategies to integrate them with the rest of the organization’s work. One of their initiatives is the Max Mukelabai Diversity Internship Program, which targets college students and recent graduates from underrepresented demographic groups. The full-time, 10-week paid placements remove socio-economic barriers to entering the conservation field and offer a wide range of significant opportunities throughout North Carolina.
“We want the students to have meaningful experiences for their résumés,” Melanie explains. “An internship gets them deeply involved in land trust work.” By the end of 2014 more than 50 students will have participated. Each year since the program began, at least one intern has been hired by a sponsoring conservation organization.
Peter Barr is trails and outreach coordinator for the accredited Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, which hosted a Max Mukelabai Diversity intern in 2012. “If we get everyone out to see these places of natural beauty, the land will speak for itself,” he says. “A deep, deep connection is made." The Land Trust for Central North Carolina hosted diversity interns in 2009 and 2013, and will host two more this year. “Summer internship programs are a very important tool for small land trusts,” says Associate Director Crystal Cockman. “These young adults are the next generation of conservationists.” Melanie agrees. “We need to reach out to the whole community. We don’t get the full story if everyone isn’t around the table.”