The 2020 Women in Conservation Leadership Summit: An Intentional Shift to Racial Equity & Justice

By Rita Yelda, Outreach & Communications Manager, Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed

Despite COVID-19 preventing an in-person Women in Conservation Leadership Summit this year, the National Wildlife Federation’s team worked to find innovative ways to learn, connect, and make the event a rich and powerful experience. The shift to a virtual platform also created an opportunity to reopen registration and welcome even more participants. Instead of gathering in Colorado, participants came together for a productive and informative three days online this past October.

The content of the Women in Conservation Leadership Summit centered around racial equity and justice. The vision for Women in Conservation Leadership is stronger conservation through women leaders of all ethnicities, races, and cultures. Summit organizers realized that to be successful, they must boldly stand up to the racism that has pervaded the conservation sector, and the world. Content aimed to center, support, and provide resources to BIPOC women, while providing allyship education to white women.

With this intentional shift, the Summit sought to build upon several competencies: an understanding of structural racism and its centrality in conservation, proven awareness of multiple group identities and power dynamics, direct communication that matches intent and impact, and authentic relationship building across group identities. Racial equity and justice competencies are inexorably intertwined with effective leadership. Women in Conservation Leadership will achieve stronger conservation through equity, justice, and leadership for and from all women.

The Summit opened with a land acknowledgement from Amelia Marchand, an Indigenous leader in North Central Washington state who lives along the Columbia River. Poetry from Jane Hirschfield spoke to the need for doing acts of good for the world and the value of resiliency in the face of political opposition. The Summit was attended by women spanning the globe, from Nepal, to Canada, to Bhutan, who all got to chat in the online Zoom platform during sessions.

The Summit’s keynote speaker was Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant, who is a conservation scientist, large carnivore ecologist, nature storyteller, and advocate. Dr. Wynn-Grant explained that trips to national parks, hiking, and camping should not be viewed as requirements to caring about environmental conservation. She spoke about her discovery of nature through a study abroad program in Kenya at age twenty, which was the first time she saw a wild animal or a camping tent. Dr. Wynn-Grant also spoke of the disenfranchised indigenous communities she encounters during her research on large carnivores, and how she now incorporates the erasure and struggle of these peoples in her teaching.

Other Summit sessions included “The Silenced Female Leader: Finding a Powerful Voice,” “Inclusion is a Journey: Healing, Learning From, and Addressing Microaggressions,” and “Racism and the Environmental Movement: Where are We Now? And Where are We Headed?”

“All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis” Summit session.

“All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis” Summit session.

On the last day of the Summit, the First Lady of Palau, Debbie Remengesau, spoke about the environmental challenges of her island nation in the western Pacific Ocean. To combat these crises, including climate change, Palau has taken monumental steps to protect its natural resources. For example, Palau was the first country to ban nuclear testing, prohibit bottom trolling, and create a shark sanctuary the size of Texas. Additionally, the country created the Palau Pledge of sustainability to protect the island, which each visitor is obligated to watch a video on and sign upon entry.

Some of the editors and contributors to the book “All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis” hosted a Summit session. This included Sherri Mitchell, an Indigenous woman who authored “Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change.” The point was made that indigenous knowledge, which is thousands of years old, is connected to an entire spectrum of life that informs one how to engage with the world. For example, the natural world can inform us when the world is unsettled by human activity and action is needed. This lesson and all the skills gained from the Women in Conservation Leadership Summit will be taken back to inspire and guide my work in the Delaware River Watershed.