Educator Spotlight: Celebrating Diversity and the Outdoors

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Karlee Jewell, this week’s Educator of the Week, is a member of the Watershed Stewards Program and has worked with the California Conservation Corps as well as National Geographic’s BioBlitz events. She believes in the importance of diversity, coexistence between humans and wildlife, and making the outdoors accessible and fun. 

Karlee Jewell (left) and Sierra Preston are members of the California Conservation Corps. Photo by John Griffith

As a participant in the California Conservation Corps, you’ve had the opportunity to work on some pretty diverse projects. Can you explain what the CCC is and what a typical day is like?
The CCC is a program for youth ages 18-25 with the main goal of bringing people together, getting them outdoors, and teaching some useful skills along the way. A cool thing about the CCC is that it’s a great representation of the demographics of California. We’re all from different cities and backgrounds, but we’re coming together for conservation and working for a better California—all while learning about each other’s cultures. A typical day might consist of salmon habitat restoration in the rivers and streams, or the removal of invasive species in the dunes so that native plants and wildlife can flourish.

More recently, we’ve been working to build an Americans with Disability Act (ADA)-certified trail in a local city center. I think this is a really important project because it provides infrastructure for differently abled people to have outdoor educational experiences with nature and wildlife. Seeing a native bee, smelling a flower, or hearing a birdcall that’s new to you may spark an interest or create a connection. We think supporting that personal connection is one of the most valuable ways to support coexistence and conservation.

Another program you’ve been involved in is National Geographic’s BioBlitz. Can you tell me about your work with BioBlitz this past summer?
Totally. We love the BioBlitz idea. A couple years back, my supervisor John Griffith created a dance to accompany the BioBlitz event with his CCC crew members. Fast forward a couple years, and the dance has taken off. It has its own song, has become the Nat Geo official dance of the BioBlitz event, and has been seen worldwide!

Some colleagues and I recently traveled to D.C. for National Geographic’s giant BioBlitz event to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service. It was great to see so many kids excited about becoming citizen scientists. Even if students don’t take away some weighty message about conservation, it’s worthwhile if they connect nature with a sense of fun and start to believe they can make a difference.

And you’re also a Watershed Stewards Program Team Leader. Can you tell me more about that program?
The Watershed Stewards Program (WSP), is a program of the CCC and AmeriCorps. WSP is a comprehensive, community-based watershed restoration and education program that places members in communities throughout California. The primary focus is to restore and enhance anadromous (salmon and steelhead trout) watersheds through community engagement and scientific practices—and WSP does a great job recognizing what a large role the community and education system can play in restoration and conservation.

For example, WSP runs a program called Wonders of Watershed in Title I schools. They make it relevant by incorporating the watersheds that are in our neighborhoods, parks, and schoolyards. Over the past 22 years, steward members have inventoried more than 37,000 miles of streams, developed over 2,000 watershed restoration projects, and taught more than 43,000 students about watersheds.

Peter Sullivan, John Griffith, and Karlee Jewell film along the coast of California. Photo by Sarah Reinmann

You mentioned before how diverse CCC members are. Why have the CCC and WSP emphasized the importance of employing people of color as stewards of the outdoors?
This is something that I really admire about CCC and WSP. There’s a huge emphasis on celebrating diversity not only in the conservation movement but in all spaces, because for so long we’ve only been telling the story of nature from a very singular perspective. Having people of different backgrounds and multiple perspectives broadens our understanding of the outdoors, which helps our conservation and restoration efforts.

In addition, the CCC and WSP provide people of multiple ethnicities and walks of life the opportunity to experience the outdoors and feel safe doing so. Not only does this help each individual grow personally, but we gain the experience necessary to become environmental stewards—and even get a job with the National Park Service.

As an outdoor educator in a diverse community, how have you been able to make outdoor education widespread and effective?
I think that it’s really important to make outdoor education accessible, relevant, fun, and not intimidating. To do this, I recommend starting with what you know and using the skills you already have. For example, my supervisor and I are working on a project that certifies wildlife habitats through the National Wildlife Federation. However, this project only came about because I used a skill I learned in school—writing. I didn’t realize how effective writing could be for getting people interested and mobilized. But this Certified Wildlife Habitat project began simply from writing an article discussing the importance of creating spaces of coexistence between wildlife and humans.

I’d also suggest collaborating with the communities around you and using the tools available through conservation organizations’ digital programs. We’ve been partnering with Latino Outdoors and we’re in the process of certifying the whole city of Arcata as a wildlife community. Through this, we’ve been hosting mini BioBlitz events and teaching people how to use apps like iNaturalist, which allows users to share observations of biodiversity across the globe.

At the end of the day, people care about what they know and what they can understand. That’s why we believe it’s so important to support all community members in developing a relationship with the outdoors. I encourage everyone to get out there, keep going, and don’t be intimated. Work with the tools you have and the communities that you’re a part of.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.


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