Conservation Leadership Initiative Alum Reflects on Future Career in Environmental Movement

An essay from a CLI alum.

by Herby Zephir

John Muir, famously known as “Father of the National Parks” once said: “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”

I wonder how much the underrepresented youth — spread across the low-income communities of our nation — would receive if they could walk and seek out the thrills of the outdoors? My name is Herby Zephir, a firstgeneration college student and a senior at the University of Florida; majoring in Natural Resource Conservation and minoring in Sustainability Studies.

After 23 years, I finally saw a national forest for the first time as an intern with the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program (DDCSP); it was the magnificent Ocala National Forest (ONF). Before my summer internship at ONF in 2019, my definition of what the natural environment looked like consisted mainly of royal palm trees; oddly placed around Homestead, FL (my hometown & urban city). After my first visit and experience at ONF, I learned a valuable lesson: that the area I lived in does matter, and that it directly influenced my ability to be cognizant of the things that surrounded me. Most importantly, it affirmed to me the notion that one could only respect the natural environment to the degree which they were exposed to it. 

I falsely defined the natural environment as the patches of green spaces around my hometown, but the truth is that my misunderstanding reflects an even greater social issue: the lack of exposure to the outdoors for people of color living in disadvantaged communities. I consider it a privilege to have been selected as a recipient of Audubon Florida's Conservation Leadership Initiative (CLI) and having worked so closely with the Marion Audubon Society (MAS). My experience with CLI & MAS completely reshaped my view of the world; as it relates to the outdoors. I no longer viewed wood as the inanimate base for telephone poles — projecting upright, from concrete slabs around my neighborhood. Instead, I view wood as a natural resource full of ecosystem services — rewarding to all life.

My Audubon experience was lifechanging and I would be remiss if I failed to mention my mentor and the person responsible for transforming me into the outdoor embracing, Black birder that I am today, Barbara Schwartz (Conservation Chair, MAS). She approached me after reading an article published about me by Dr. Jack Payne (former University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Science Senior Vice President). He wrote about the social change that is following scientific progress as more people of color, such as myself, enter and contribute to the conservation field while using the platform to share our views.

I entered the conservation field harboring optimism for the type of impact I would make. Instead, I ended up bearing the load of imposter syndrome. I felt like I did not belong in conservation because no one looked like me — Barbara initially didn’t know this. However, she warmly welcomed me into the field as her mentee and created a safe atmosphere for me to get out of my comfort zone, share what I knew about wildlife science, and feel like I too can contribute to conservation.

Barbara’s encouragement directly led me to CLI, which in turn exposed me to areas and activities in conservation. Through CLI, I was able to build a network with students with similar career interests as well as conservation leaders. The activities I engaged in during my internship with CLI gave me firsthand experience bird watching. More importantly, those activities gave me an outlet to pursue the outdoors and use what I had learned to serve my community.

Together with my mentor Barbara Schwartz, we guided Environmental Science students on bird walks at the College of Central Florida (CCF), identifying birds and teaching them how to use binoculars. We assisted students of Vanguard High School’s EcoKnight Ecology Club identify birds while kayaking at Silver Springs State Park. My most memorable experience with MAS? 

Sharing my background with students at CCF, and how pursuing the outdoors broadened my horizons to see the transcendental beauties of the natural environment.

Empowering underrepresented youth through the use of environmental education is my dream. Seeing how captured and fascinated young people are after learning something new about the natural environment continues to drive me to spread environmental awareness. Environmental outreach has thus become my civic duty because, for the profession of conservation to grow, people of all backgrounds (with even the slightest bit of interest in the outdoors) must have an opportunity to engage in it; to at least see what difference it makes.

My experience with MAS and CLI can be defined by this short poem by Aadhira called “Freedom” — it is inspired by the poet’s recollection of an unknown bird they once spotted. It reads:

The hole, my nest was safe...

The food around kept me alive...

But being holed curbed my wings...

And taught me, surviving isn’t living...

I flew out, stretching my wings...

Now, I’ve the sky to soar and a life to live!

Thanks to Barbara, MAS, and CLI, I stretched my wings and now confidently pursue a career in conservation. 

Living within the urban city “curbed my wings,” distorting my perception of the environment. It put me in a survival mode, whereby constantly seeing the disparities that surrounded me, I couldn’t see the beauty in life found in natural world. Going bird watching through Loblolly Woods Nature Park and by kayak through Silver Springs State Park with MAS refreshed my morale. Finally, I felt a sense of normalcy in life. I understand how nature-dependent all life is and believe more people of color can gain this same understanding if given the opportunity because that’s where change begins.

Now when I return to my hometown and spend time outdoors with family, I can share with them this beautiful perspective of the natural world that I gained — this is thanks to the efforts of Barbara, MAS, and CLI.

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