A group of like-minded Mercer County non-profits and organizations partnered on an ambitious program, slated for early 2020, intended to secure the future of “Conservation through Diversity and Teamwork.”

Exploring the intersection between environment and equity is not a new concept. Search anywhere in the news and you’ll find many environmental justice initiatives. What is unique about this auspicious plan is its unlikely path to its final conclusion—engaging in conservation is the key to connecting communities both locally and abroad.

Hopewell Valley and Boys and Girls Clubs students will join together on an internship curriculum available at Fohvos.org that consists of education and project work. Experts from Global Connections, FoHVOS, RomYoga, Mercer County Parks, The Sourland Conservancy, Boys & Girls Clubs, and NJCF are leading education units, while Lawrence Hopewell Trail (LHT) and Isles have also offered to employ the trained interns. Students will work and bond locally and a subset will apply their new leadership and conservation skills on an international trip planned for July 2020.

As people and organizations learned the vision, the circle of support grew. Enthusiasm has fueled this project so much that a remarkable one-month community crowdsourcing effort completed all of its funding in December 2019.

In 2004, David Angwenyi first came to Hopewell Valley from Kenya. His dark complexion and unusual accent stood out in Hopewell’s homogenous, white community. Students approached him with curiosity and Dr. Angwenyi’s giving nature was to share. He wanted to introduce people to his culture and homeland and in 2007, he took the first of many groups to Kenya. David believed that the secret to breaking down perceived barriers was simply being exposed to more, realizing gratitude for what you have, and finding common connections in uncommon places.

The Hopewell-Kenya trips were life-changing for everyone involved. Students came back transformed, and the Kenyan village of Keroka reaped its benefits. Hopewell community members were so inspired that they separately formed a nonprofit known as the Hopewell-Keroka Alliance, that continues bringing prosperity to the village.

Over time, the Hopewell high school club, known as Global Connections, followed a successful path yet something seemed missing. Current events nationwide, and escalating racial incidents locally, contributed to desires to try and improve things closer to home. After all, do Hopewell students really need to travel to Kenya to find purpose or be exposed to diversity? At the same time, an international underpinning was still a desirable consideration.

With help from friends at FoHVOS, David Angwenyi and his newly expanded Global Connections Foundation(GCF) reached out to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Mercer County(BGC) and they immediately bonded over shared purposes. David Anderson, BGC President, was thrilled about gaining connections and opportunities for BGC students, and Zoubir Yazid, BGC COO, saw tremendous potential for all students to also expand their world view.

Some important considerations emerged in their alliance. Unlike many clubs that define a cause “to help,” Global Connections was to be a “partnership of equals.” This meant that Hopewell and BGC students would need to work on projects together and contribute and bond as peers. FoHVOS offered up conservation work as the vehicle. A pilot group of Hopewell and BGC students joined together for Clean Communities service work followed by teambuilding exercises and pizza. The concept had potential.

Wanda McNeill, director, marketing and community outreach, for the Mercer County Park Commission heard about the initiative and offered to help. Mercer County Parks had a goal to attract underserved populations to its public lands. With that in mind, Ms. McNeill believed the Hopewell/BGC initiative might benefit from local opportunities offered by the parks.

The challenge would be designing a program that met the needs of all participating organizations. They looked to build ideas from other successful programs. At the time, the FOHVOS Strike Team was partnering with United Parks As One to administer a program to provide conservation training to Newark high school students. Training took place at public parks throughout Newark NJ and was funded by the Victoria Foundation.

A paid internship project aptly named “Building Conservation through Diversity & Teamwork” was formed to offer teamwork, leadership, and conservation training from the group’s experts and culminate in conservation service projects. FoHVOS applied for grants with letters of support from Global Connections, Boys & Girls Clubs, and Mercer County Parks.

New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJCF) was the first to step up and earmarked a Parker grant as seed money to partially pay internship salaries.

The national Land Trust Alliance has expressed interest in tracking program progress alongside a much larger movement afoot to diversify the outdoors. The Mercer County Park Commission began hosting an environmental equity and inclusiveness committee comprised of leaders from non-profits, youth organizations, local businesses, school officials, and elected officials whose mission is to create experiences and opportunities that attract and inspire people of all ages, ethnicities, and income levels to enjoy nature and the outdoors.

The Mercer County group stimulates interest in the skills needed to develop careers in fields related to protecting the natural environment and encourage people to enjoy nature for personal and social benefit. Their encouragement was invaluable as they fully supported our new internship concept. Several participating members offered to train and employ interns. Others expressed interest in subsequent internship offerings. The “Building Conservation through Diversity & Teamwork” project will be documented, tweaked, and shared as a model that can be replicated and used alongside the many other ambitious initiatives being researched by Mercer County and other environmental equity group.