What Next Generation Conservation Leaders Want You to Know

by Steffanie Munguía, National Audubon Society Board Member

My name is Steffanie Munguía, and Audubon has been a major part of my life since I first connected with the Center for Birds of Prey in elementary school. Since then, I’ve served on a chapter board, co-ordinated the Conservation Leadership Initiative, and now serve on the National Audubon Society Board of Directors. Over the last nearly 20 years, I have dedicated my time with Audubon to growing our flock to reach younger audiences and people that have historically been overlooked and excluded by conservation organizations.

At the Audubon Florida Assembly in Brandon in October, I moderated an insightful panel of young conservation professionals. You can learn more about the panelists in their bios here. In addition to sharing their stories of professional development, they also opened up about the challenges they encountered along the way, and how conservation organizations (like our chapters) can help young conservationists find their flock. Here are some of their responses and key takeaways from our conversation.

What was your flight path into conservation work and what skills did you find that you needed to be successful?

Across the board, all the panelists emphasized the importance of connections. “Networking” might feel uncomfortable but it’s absolutely critical to helping young people build a career in conservation. This includes pursuing different internships and jobs. Networking at Audubon, though, provided them with unique and approachable opportunities. For example, Brian and Kayla came into the flock through the Conservation Leadership Initiative, where they connected not only with their co-mentor from Orange Audubon, but also with their peers and fellow chapter volunteers/board members. Zach also participated in CLI, but credits his passion for and pursuit of field ornithology to his participation in Audubon’s JayWatch program. He leveraged that experience to land more opportunities to conduct bird research with different research stations, Fish and Wildlife, universities, and more.

An added value of these networking experiences is that it helped our panelists identify mentors who could support them as they navigated the field. For Kristen, that mentor was our very own Everglades Policy Director Kelly Cox, who encouraged her to apply for jobs even when she worried she might not meet all the expectations. The panelists also emphasized the importance of being able to communicate across disciplines and to many different audiences, underscoring the value of the “soft skills” that young conservationists may not gain in the classroombut certainly can gain with Audubon.

What does a day in your conservation life look like?

Our panelists represented a range of current occupations but one theme was clearno two days are ever the same in conservation. For Emily, about half of the year is spent in the field surveying critical bird populations, while the other half is in the office analyzing data, writing it up, and preparing for the next season. This seasonal rhythm is not uncommon, especially for early career conservation scientists, as Brian pointed out. In his current role with Audubon, he also spends a lot of time doing volunteer training and outreach. For Zach, a graduate student, there has been a lot of change as he has progressed through his degree program to now focusing on analyzing his data and writing. Kayla’s schedule is still very course heavy as an undergraduate, which is important for chapters to keep in mind when working with college students. Capacity will ebb and flow over the course of the semester, and increasingly, students are spread thinner with extracurriculars to enhance their employability and jobs to keep up with cost of living. In Kristen’s role, she’s often working on curriculum development but relishes the opportunity to get out and see that curriculum put in to practice with school groups and guests. Every day is a new learning opportunity!

What are some challenges young conservationists can face when transitioning from school to full time work?

This was by far one of the most fruitful parts of our conversation. Rather than try to summarize it, read below to hear it in their own words:

“The biggest challenge faced by young conservationists when transitioning from school to full time work in my opinion is the dearth of paying, permanent positions. Young folks get stuck in the seasonal field, which often is inherently discriminatory. Seasonal work is often unpaid or very low paying. Also, housing for short term positions can be very difficult to obtain. Unpaid/volunteer and low paying positions are discriminatory because they exclude individuals from the wildlife field who may lack a social and/or financial safety net to fall back on. This means the wildlife field is primarily catering to white, middle, and upper class individuals. Additionally, many young conservationists that do manage to find permanent positions will often find them so low paid that they feel the need to work a second job to make ends meet.” - Emily

“Depending on the path conservationist choose, the transition can be varied. Most students begin pursuing seasonal field work where the transition might be easier. You suddenly are balancing less as you are only being pulled in one direction instead of many, especially if you had to work in school. However, if you move into a full-time position that is 100% field work there are certainly difficulties with being in the field that sometimes is a shock for students. Field work can be relentless, especially in Florida, which is why you should try your best to get field experience before you graduate. This way, students know what they are getting into. Alternatively, if you pursue graduate school right after your undergraduate degree you will face a whole different number of challenges. I do not recommend students transition immediately from undergraduate to graduate school, unless they have had significant field experience prior to graduating. This is because graduate school requires students to have a high level of independence both in the field and in the lab at times, that many students have not yet experienced. Furthermore, graduate students are often required to lead others in the field. If you yourself, haven’t had that experience yet, it will prove difficult to lead others. Both transitioning to graduate school, or a full-time position will quickly expose newly transitioned students to the fact that work encompasses much more than just the 'best parts' of those jobs. Often students are exposed to the glorified portions of a position such as field work and working with wildlife, while ignoring the very vital work in the office. Not fully understanding the requirement of these positions in the form of writing, analysis, and communication can be difficult for some students. I highly recommend all students have sincere and honest conversations with those who are in a position they see themselves fulfilling.” – Zach

While it’s important to hear the challenges and sit in discomfort, we wanted to focus our conversation on solutions. So we asked our panelists, what opportunities lie ahead for young birders/conservationists?

Brian echoed the advice to get involved as much as possible. Internships, joining a lab and doing undergraduate research, seasonal summer jobs, weekend volunteering, leading local bird walksall of this is valuable experience that helps young conservationists prepare for the careers they are pursing. He also shared that there has been a lot of progress in addressing and mitigating some of these challenges. Field technicians and supervisors are having more open conversations about fair pay and benefits for seasonal/early career field biologists. That is helping to create a more equitable pathway to full time employment in conservationwhich is definitely needed! In addition, conservation is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. This is especially appealing to young people, who are increasingly advocating for intersectional solutions.

How can chapters/conservation organizations provide opportunities for young birders to become involved in activities/conservation work?

Thankfully, our panelists had lots of recommendations to help us meet the challenges of recruiting and retaining young conservationists. Kristen suggested getting creative about how you can compensate interns. Your chapter might not have a large budget to pay an intern a wage, but you can help them earn college credits for their internships, or secure outside funding like grants and fellowships (bonus: this also allows them to add “grant writing” to their experience!). Still, Emily pointed out that unpaid and underpaid internships make it very difficult for many folks to find opportunities. Chapters that do have the means can change this by taking a chance on young people who haven’t had all the opportunities and privilege to be the most competitive applicants. Also, mentorship can be life-changing in this field, and even at the chapter level.

For recruiting young people more generally, many of our panelists expressed that it was important to not dismiss the engagement potential of a phone. There are so many great apps to aid and learn wildlife identification, like Merlin, Seek, iNaturalisteven the Audubon app! Letting young people engage with conservation with the technology they feel most comfortable with actually helps to build connections. It’s also valuable to specifically host events for young birders, by young birders. Brian pointed out the how Orange Audubon’s engagement of University of Central Florida students in the North Shore Birding Festival helps reach whole new audiences, while also giving young people leadership opportunities as field trip leads, including for their young birders trips!

Similarly, Zach pointed out that the best way to recruit young people is offering opportunities that they need to be successful. They want to gain meaningful skills in the form of field work (bird surveys, bird conservation projects, native plant gardens), environmental education (young birders clubs, school education programs) or communication (blogs, newsletters, local politics)and if we’re being honest, you know your chapter could also benefit from help in these areas!

Regardless of how you choose to engage young people, the panelists emphasized that you should be mindful of intentionally engaging underrepresented communities and offering a fair and inclusive selection process, whether for internships, scholarships, or grants.

What are some myths about young people that you’d like to bust?

Our panelists had many thoughts on this, and it reflects the discrimination many of them experienced as young professionals. For Kristen, who frequently integrates technology in her curriculum and outreach work, it was important to emphasize that technology, remote/hybrid work, social media, and so on are not the enemy. They’re actually rather valuable and progressive tools that are helping us reach new audiences.

For Emily, it was the myth that millennials (and even Gen Z) are lazy and only want to work if they’re paid, for example, $18/hr working at a fast food restaurant. But as she says: “We aren’t lazy or greedy. We want to work and be functional members of society, but so many of the things that were attainable for previous generations, such as buying a house, are not for our generation without higher pay in the current economy.” She and others also emphasized how young conservation professionals are often underpaid because their passion is being exploited. Zach and Kayla also added that there is a mental health component to this myth, as many young people are frequently burned out by the surmounting pressure of terrifying news stories about climate change, biodiversity loss, and social justice issues. While improvements in technology have helped us access more information than ever before, it can be overwhelming and make young people feel trapped. When this is compounded by their own personal financial insecurity from student loan debt, underpaid positions, etc., it’s a recipe for extreme concern masquerading as apathy. So remember, when young people request higher wages and better benefits, it’s not always self-serving. They’re trying to make things better not only for their own generation, but for the generations coming after them. As Emily shared, “Every generation picks a fight with something left behind by the older generation, and this just happens to be one of those things my generation is fighting for.”

At the end of the panel, we asked them all to choose one word that they’d like Audubon members to associate with the next generation of conservation leaders. One idea kept coming up: hope.

How you can help, right now