New Greening Youth Foundation CEO reflects on Atlanta’s greenspaces, diversifying careers in conservation
By Hannah E. Jones
Greening Youth Foundation (GYF), an Atlanta-based environmental nonprofit, recently welcomed a new leader to the helm, with Lesford Duncan joining as CEO. GYF aims to improve outdoor access for underserved youth and young adults and offers programming to connect them to careers in the environmental sector in North America and West Africa.
As an avid nature lover — with an affinity for ultramarathon running, kayaking and climbing — and a background in social service, Duncan sought a role that combined the two. He found that in his most recent role with Outdoor Outreach, serving as associate executive director for the San Diego nonprofit that connects underrepresented youth to the outdoors.
In that role, Duncan learned a “fundamental concept,” which he carries into his new position.
“As we talked about the environment and sustainability, I came to realize that the resilience of our environment and public lands depend on the resilience of the people that get to thrive in and experience it,” Duncan said.
Several years ago, Duncan met GYF Founder Angelou Ezeilo and read her book “Engage, Connect, Protect,” leaving him thinking about the Atlanta nonprofit that combines conservation and behavioral health.
“She was describing a movement,” Duncan said. “A movement to increase diversity in career opportunities in the outdoors, land management and so forth. More importantly, a movement to empower youth and allow them to explore their own leadership styles and identity in the outdoors, especially Black and brown kids. What I also saw was an environmental education organization that was Black-founded, Black-led and there are so few of us across the country. I was really inspired by the work and mission.”
While getting acquainted with his new home, Duncan is looking at ways to leverage Atlanta’s strengths while working on some of its weaknesses.
“Atlanta is one of the greenest urban centers in America. It’s also one of America’s most vibrant and diverse cities with deep roots and a rich history. There’s such a deep sense of community and interconnectedness amongst organizations in the public and private sector that we’re really grateful to be an integral part of.”
Barriers still exist, however. “There’s a disproportionate use and access to our green spaces, beautiful parks and natural resources here in Atlanta,” Duncan said.
Duncan has been in the new role for less than a month but has his sights set on helping change the face of the environmental field to better reflect local residents and communities.
For example, Duncan is focused on GYF’s HBCU Internship program — offered in partnership with the National Parks Service (NPS) — which helps connect minority students to career opportunities with NPS.
“It goes well beyond being a ranger for the National Park Service,” he said. “There are career opportunities for those interested in history, historical preservation, cultural preservation, finance, HR and more. There are so many opportunities out there.”
The team will also continue to leverage its role with the Outdoor Foundation’s Thrive Outside Community — led by the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance — which aims to increase access and programming around the Chattahoochee River, along with other greenspace restoration and preservation.
Ultimately, though, Duncan is staying true to the organization’s core mission by engaging younger generations with the outdoors and helping encourage careers in conservation.
“We’re hoping to transform the environmental space,” Duncan said. “We hope to transform these systems so they are much more diverse and represent the communities we’re hoping to engage in our beautiful parks, trails and beaches all across the country.”