My Story – Bringing Cultural Diversity and Biodiversity Together
By Stacie Gilmore, Executive Director, ELK
There was a time when seeing a person of color enjoying the great outdoors was a rare thing. And to a large extent it still is. That’s why my husband Scott and I founded Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK) in 1996. It was odd to be the only Latina in my college biology class. Now we inspire all kids — regardless of race — to get connected to Colorado’s Great Outdoors. Our aim was and continues to be making science, nature and civic engagement fun and accessible to all.
Since our beginnings, ELK has been involved in a new frontier of conservation: engaging youth of color. Combining environmental education with eye-opening trips to the great outdoors, we inspire young people from across Colorado to connect with and advocate for an outdoor world that was previously unknown to them. Today 82% of our alumni are kids of color. And 60% are studying or have graduated in a science, technology or engineering or math field. For us, that’s a great source of joy, since the national average for youth of color entering these fields is in the single digits.
To make these lasting outdoor connections, we take ELK kids to incredible parks, monuments and public lands across the state. But we start close-to-home.
ELK recently acquired 5.5 acres of land 1 mile south of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Denver, which is a former Superfund site. Our kids are learning and working to restore 4.5 acres of the land to a short grass prairie for local wildlife and outdoor learning; the final acre will house an environmental education center for the entire community.
Recently we introduced kids to Colorado’s Browns Canyon, a stunning setting with amazing wildlife and a thrilling whitewater stretch of the Arkansas River. We partnered with the Hispanic Access Foundation to take about 60 youth from Denver for a first-time weekend of whitewater rafting and camping.
Importantly, we ensure ELK kids are also empowered to speak with our nation’s leaders about what they’ve experienced and why they think it’s important to protect the outdoors. That one trip to Browns Canyon made such an impact that the kids have become vocal about protecting it for others – including going to D.C. to meet with their congressional delegation.
ELK kids have also met First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Associate Director at the White House Office of Public Engagement, in charge of Latino Youth Outreach and the granddaughter of celebrated civil rights leader Cesar Chavez. They have stood side-by-side with former Interior Secretary and U.S. Senator Ken Salazar as he first opened the aforementioned, restored Rocky Mountain Arsenal. ELK kids celebrated the new Chimney Rock National Monument in D.C. with U.S. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, who with Rep. Scott Tipton, had worked with the community and ELK kids to see it protected.
Our trips have also inspired kids to speak up for the little-known Land and Water Conservation Fund, one of the key public-private partnership programs for protecting special places like the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Thanks in part to their advocacy, President Obama proposed this year that the program be fully funded at $900 million — something that has only been done once in its 50 year history.
Among all of our activities over the years, the best part of working with the kids remains the same: seeing their faces light up in the magical moment when they realize their voice makes a difference. For Scott and me, this is what it’s all about. That joy is why we have happily dedicated our lives to opening the door for kids who would not have otherwise sought experiences or opportunities in the outdoors – including careers.
You might say that ELK connects cultural diversity with biodiversity. I was so honored to be named a Champion of Change by The White House but what we do at ELK we do because it is in our hearts. We want to make a big difference for the next generation. This acknowledgment from The White House only confirms that we are on the right track — and spurs us on to does even more for the next generation, and our outdoor heritage.
View ELK’s press release about this amazing honor for more information about The White House Champions of Change Award!