Master Naturalists Advocate for Ecosystem Diversity, Program

URBANA — Diverse ecosystems are healthy ecosystems. Fauna, plants and fungi are naturally interconnected and dependent on each other. The same goes for those who defend the environment: diversity makes them stronger.

The University of Illinois Extension Master Naturalist Program makes intentional efforts to diversify its volunteer workforce and program reach. Extension provides scientific training to volunteers to help them become active environmental stewards in their community. Currently, the vast majority of program volunteers identify their race as white, and there are limited service projects that specifically engage with communities of color.

The Diversify Master Naturalist Project is taking steps to make the program more inclusive by identifying and removing barriers for participants and checking for biases in its training and programs. The two-year project is led by Joy O’Keefe, assistant professor and extension wildlife specialist in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences.

O’Keefe’s background is in bat research, but when she became an extension specialist, she recognized the new position was an opportunity to help diversify the study of natural resources. .

“As a wildlife biologist, I was acutely aware of the lack of diversity in my field,” says O’Keefe. “The Master Naturalist program is a great way to better understand how communities of color use natural resources.”

Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) have a long history of danger and systemic racism in outdoor spaces. O’Keefe says American culture has excluded these communities from nature by creating negative experiences and preventing access to resources and nature. Due to practices of systemic racism, such as exclusionary housing, BIPOC communities are more likely to be impacted by pollution and climate change. However, they cannot advocate for change if they are not included in conservation efforts.

“The beauty of nature lies in its diversity, and every individual should have the opportunity to engage with the natural environment. Our Master Naturalist program intentionally creates ways to ensure that all people have equal access to meaningful experiences with the natural world,” says Shelly Nickols-Richardson, Associate Dean and Director of Illinois Extension.

The Diversify Master Naturalist project has four initial goals: a year-long training for extension staff who facilitate county volunteer programs, engagement with communities of color to create an advisory board that tracks progress, training continues to diversity for Master Naturalists and suggested changes to the program manual.

To lead the program, O’Keefe worked with Ross Wantland, director of curriculum development and education in the University of Illinois Vice Chancellor’s Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

“With this group, we had the chance to explore in depth what structural racism is and what coordinators can do with this knowledge at the county level,” Wantland says.

In January 2021, 20 Master Naturalist Coordinators from local county extension offices engaged in the year-long Community of Practice which included monthly readings, assignments and discussions, quarterly in-depth trainings, and a two-day retreat in a state park. Their curriculum has been shared with Master Naturalist programs in other states.

The pilot group explored racism outdoors, the personal experiences of people of color, the impact of racism on relationships with nature, how to create more racially inclusive programs, and techniques for reaching diverse communities.

Extension staff who participated reported an increased level of awareness of the unique issues that communities of color face when interacting with the environment and the tools to help connect with them.

Abigail Garofalo, a natural resources, environmental and energy extension educator, leads the Master Naturalist program for Cook County, along with fellow coordinator Val Kehoe. Prompted by the project, Garofalo and Kehoe mapped where their current volunteers were and used partnerships to build deeper connections in communities they weren’t reaching.

“Nature is everywhere and we want to have master naturalists in every community in Cook County,” Garofalo says, adding that they weren’t reaching people in parts of west and south Chicago.

When it came time to recruit volunteers for the annual training, Garofalo revamped its marketing materials to make them more representative of the target communities and to help make their commitment to diversity clear. She promoted the program to new neighborhoods and made volunteer training more inclusive by offering weekend, evening and online sessions.

“We wonder if we’re designing our programs to be accessible,” she says, adding that fees and background checks can also be barriers. “If volunteer training takes six hours a weekday, is it accessible to most people? »

The Master Naturalist Volunteer Training Curriculum will also be revised to include more information on barriers to accessing nature and community. Participants recommended that the program be open to change as its current design is not suitable for all counties.

This project is funded by an Extension Collaborative Grant. First launched in 2018, the grants are part of an ongoing effort to connect campus researchers and University of Illinois Extension field personnel to complete applied research projects that will improve the quality of life of Illinois residents. The grants – which focus on solving critical food, economic, environmental, community and health issues – returned in 2020. Illinois Extension and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences have provided 17 grants in the current funding round with financial support from the University of Illinois’ Office of the Provost Investment for Growth Program.

University of Illinois Extension