The Conservation and Diversity Program
The Conservation Trust for North Carolina (CTNC) and North Carolina’s 23 local land trusts have been making purposeful strides toward the long-term viability of land conservation in their state. Back in 2005, reflecting on the racial and ethnic make-up of the population of North Carolina in contrast to the members of the conservation community, they realized a disparity between the people protecting land and the people who live, work and play on it. Realizing too that 2042 is the year, statistically speaking, when minorities in the U.S. will become the majority, CTNC and the land trusts decided to take action: they launched a highly successful Conservation and Diversity Program to ensure that the people engaged in conservation are truly representative of the people in the communities they serve.
Goals, Grants and Results
Funding for innovative diversity initiatives came from several local foundations, including the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. Building on this encouragement, CTNC realized early on that an effective strategy would include not only diversification of their board of directors, but also the creation of a more inclusive set of programmatic activities and partnerships.
An early project involved collaboration between the North Carolina Community Development Initiative, the Black Family Land Trust, the Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities Program, CTNC and many local land trusts. These organizations teamed up to implement a statewide conservation-based affordable housing pilot project. The hands-on effort fostered trust and understanding among two groups that have not historically worked together: conservation groups and community development corporations. Deepening relationships in this arena also opened up avenues for other partnerships. As a result of the housing project cooperation, CTNC was able to reach out strategically to potential new board members from diverse backgrounds. After several years of hard work, CTNC had achieved its goal and the board of directors accurately reflected the state’s demographics.
Today, CTNC plays a supporting role by facilitating the Conservation and Diversity Program, providing local land trusts with opportunities to make land preservation meaningful to traditionally underserved groups. Since the inception of the program, CTNC has passed more than $200,000 in small grants to local land trusts for diversity projects. Generally, up to $10,000 is granted for initiatives that help to diversify the staff, constituency or the land trust board itself, and up to $15,000 is given to projects conducted by land trusts in collaboration with non-traditional partners.
Many new relationships have been formed through this system. On the western side of the state, the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy reached out to the Cherokee community to promote cultural competency and discuss resource management strategies. Other land trusts have received funds to host board or staff retreats during which they develop strategic plans for inclusive conservation.
Here’s a look at the four main facets of the Conservation and Diversity project:
- Partnership Building seeks to expand the coalition of conservation-oriented individuals and organizations. Central to this facet is re-imagining the fundamentals of conservation to include both cultural and natural resource protection. Melanie Allen, the conservation and diversity coordinator at CTNC, suggests that a broader conception of the work done by land trusts gives people multiple portals through which to engage in conservation. Working under this facet of the program, the Rosenwald School project preserves the sites on which Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, the former president of Sears Roebuck, built schools to serve disenfranchised African American children in rural areas during the early 1900s. Also helping to expand long-term support for land preservation, the Max Mukelabai Diversity Internship Program introduces students from historically black colleges and universities throughout the state to careers in conservation. A total of 24 interns have successfully completed the program and nine are currently working with local land trusts.
- Conservation-Based Affordable Housing works with new and existing development projects to ensure that environmentally friendly communities are created at reasonable cost. In a recent partnership, a parcel of land that had been purchased for development was identified as the site of an important wetland. Working with the developers, CTNC and its partners were able to preserve the wetland and a surrounding area as a site for a future greenway and educational trail, while still allowing the low-income housing project to be completed.
- Outreach and Education encompasses workshops and other resources to teach leaders about diversity and inclusion in conservation. This involves board and staff training for individual land trusts, as well as outreach to new communities throughout the state.
- Policy Development focuses mainly on Heirs’ Property Retention. When landowners pass away without having created a will, their land is given to all direct heirs in collective ownership rather than parceled into equal shares. Following a long history in which African American legal rights were ignored, this is a particularly salient issue in the black community where wills have been irrelevant and thus unused. Joint ownership of this nature requires unanimous consent for any action pertaining to the land, and after only a few generations the group frequently includes family members who are unaware of their partial ownership. Often developers will capitalize on this situation and force a sale of the land. CTNC worked with a coalition of organizations to support laws passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2009 that make it more difficult to force the sale of jointly owned property. In addition, CTNC works directly with socially disadvantaged and minority landowners as a member of the North Carolina Farm Turnaround Team. Through this effort, CTNC has connected 57 farm families with attorneys to begin discussions about succession planning.
Big Picture Reflections
Chief among the program’s successes is the number of North Carolina land trusts that have directly participated in the work. Over 75% of the land trusts have hosted interns, benefited from staff or board training, created a community garden or pocket park or been involved in some other way. And support for the philosophy is growing. Three of the four innovations that the North Carolina land trusts identified in 2011 as ways to help them succeed in a changed conservation landscape encourage diversity in conservation:
- Opening our assets to the public
- Connecting kids and nature
- Broadening the base of support through new partnerships
In the future, Melanie Allen expects that the best opportunities will involve helping communities to understand and appreciate how many of their needs, from clean water to healthy local foods, can be met through land conservation. One of the key messages of the future must be that preservation is a holistic effort that yields holistic benefits.
Melanie Allen’s key suggestions:
- Concentrate on what you do well and let partners who bring other resources and expertise do the same.
- Be patient. This work is not easy or quick and may require staff training and skillset building, but a relationship-based, trust-building approach is critical.
- Listen to new perspectives. The diverse leadership of CTNC’s board of directors has been vital to the continued success of the program.
Visit the Conservation Trust for North Carolina website.
Writer: Joan Campau
Editors: Sheila McGrory-Klyza and Christina Soto
Photo by Margaret Lillard; courtesy of Conservation Trust for North Carolina