Emily Maxwell (MS ’04)
Director, New York Cities, The Nature Conservancy
New York, New York
What did it mean to you to be named a Doris Duke Conservation Fellow? What were some of the activities and opportunities that held the greatest impact for you?
Being named a Doris Duke Fellow at the time was validation that some leaders in the conservation field, specifically the program leaders of the fellowship, recognized that urban land and communities matter for conservation and beyond. My lived/professional experience working on land in cities going into the fellowship was very different from many of my peers in the conservation field at the time. My work to green city land, protect community gardens, uplift community-based organizations’ visions for their communities, do local environmental education in Philadelphia and New York City (my hometowns, original and adopted), cultivate the urban forest, and support environmental justice was often received as irrelevant in the larger conservation world or “cute” to my non-conservation peers. Being awarded the fellowship was an acknowledgment that protecting and restoring land in cities, with an orientation toward justice and community health, was and is a serious and meaningful endeavor. These days, this kind of work seems to be gaining in visibility and traction. But 20 years ago, that acknowledgement was huge.
The biggest influence of the fellowship was getting to know my peers through the activities that brought us together. This not only made me some lifelong friends, but also helped me connect my work to the broader conservation and environmental community and helped me build some intellectual and professional bridges that inform my thinking to this day.
Can you tell us about your SEAS experience? How did it help you advance in the conservation field?
SEAS was an incredible program for me to experience, and the fellowship was a major part of what made it possible. As the only program in the country to offer a specialization in environmental justice, it was my top choice and my honor to attend. Not only did I have the opportunity to learn from some of the leading environmental justice scholars, advocates and architects, which informs my work and life to date, I also stretched into other areas of specialization and practice including policy, negotiation and mediation. The quality of my professors was stellar, and my peers matched that and impressed me daily (and became dear friends). The opportunity for exposure to people of so many different orientations to conservation and the environment challenged me intellectually and also helped me hone my skills in communicating with and connecting to a diversity of orientations and approaches in the field. As a city kid who’d worked primarily in highly urban environments and communities, exposure to these different perspectives prepared me for what I might encounter working in the conservation field, while also introducing me to a mighty cohort of others also passionate about studying and advocating for environmental justice.
What kind of changes have you observed in land conservation in the U.S. over the course of your career?
This is a huge question! I’ll try to answer it from the perspective of my own field of praxis which relates to city land and environmental justice. First, urban land issues relative to conservation seem to be much more popular in the conservation field these days. This has upsides as cities need more and better-protected and well-managed green spaces, but also challenges, as often practitioners may or may not be steeped in some of the related dynamics like community priorities, gentrification and displacement, and environmental justice. Marrying community needs, social justice, and conservation is much more common in the vernacular today, yet having the time and capacity to get this done right remains a challenge, albeit one that increasingly we have evidence and lived experience to inform the practice. Also, the reasons we may practice conservation have broadened. The climate mitigation and adaptation imperative is real, and is and should be a driver of land-based practices, while also ensuring that these practices don’t lead to changes that displace people. Today the need for broad-based, multi-disciplinary and -identity, cross-sector coalitions to plan for conservation practice is more vital than ever in order to ensure that things are done right. All of this should also apply to conservation broadly. It’s also inspiring to see some justice-oriented land-based causes gaining traction, like the land back movement to uplift Indigenous sovereignty and land rights, and organizations and programs dedicated to providing land access and other services to Black farmers and other historically marginalized communities.
Note: Prior to 2017, the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) was known as the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE). References to “SNRE” have been updated to “SEAS” to reflect the name change.