I8 YEARS IN ATLANTA WITH ANGELOU EZEILO
What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you think of the environmental sector? Probably old men and women sitting at round tables and discussing the impending effects of climate change. Boring right? Ever heard of Youth Leaders in Conservation? I’ll take a pause here to introduce our guest for today.
18 years ago, one woman changed the narrative and made not just young people interested in advocating and working for the environment but also proved that people of color can be successful in the environmental sector. Today, we have the privilege of sitting down with a remarkable individual whose unwavering dedication to environmental justice has inspired countless individuals around the world. Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Angelou Ezeilo, the visionary founder of the Greening Youth Foundation, she’s also the author of Engage, Connect, Protect: Empowering Diverse Youth as Environmental Leaders.
In this exclusive interview with Angelou, we delve into the mind and experiences of Angelou Ezeilo, to understand her motivations, challenges, and the impact of her work.
Victory - Can you tell us about Greening Youth Foundation's origin story and what inspired you to choose this path?
Angelou - GYF is my personal story because as a little girl growing up in Jersey City, New Jersey, USA, I was very close to my grandmother who is now late. I was her deputy gardener. Everything she did in that garden in front of our house, I was there to help her. So, my hands were always in the soil, helping her prune plants, weeds, and other gardening duties. Also, my parents had 54 acres of land in upstate New York. It was so vast and bigthat’s where I felt so free. This magical place helped me connect to nature and the outdoors. Growing up I didn't know about the environmental field; I wasn’t encouraged by my family to pursue environmentalism as a career. I later realized the discouragement was because of how we looked- the color of our skin. You see, the environmental field was very homogeneous. Back then, it was primarily a career for white people so my family wasn’t comfortable recommending me to go into that field because they didn’t believe it was safe or would be successful for people of color. Let’s move on to when I became a mother based in Georgia. I celebrated Earth Day with my youngest son’s kindergarten class. I brought in these little seeds that they were going to be planting and I talked to them about the significance of Earth Day. I made the learning process so interesting that both the kids and the teacher loved it. That was how we started our first project, which is the environmental education program in schools, later called the Forever Green Kids. We created environmental clubs in schools - Eco-force, name given by my late sweet daddy. This was also the birth of Greening Youth Foundation.
Victory - It’s beautiful that you speak of it as your child and It's good this interview is happening now because at 18 years it is just about time you celebrate the child you have nurtured to an adult stage. [Both laughs]
Angelou - Yes, but I love that you call it my child because that’s what I call GYF. When I was starting It and working on it, it was my third child and it's interesting because both of my sons have flown the coup. My oldest has graduated college, he’s preparing for grad school and the young one that I talked about earlier on how GYF started he’s now 21 years old. So Greening Youth Foundation grew up with my sons. It's quite appropriate that it's now starting a new chapter and it’s still doing amazing work- changing lives!
Victory - This is exciting to hear, and I am happy to see how far GYF has come from its inception. So, can you describe the various environmental initiatives and projects that the Greening Youth Foundation has been involved in over the past 18 years?
Angelou - Honestly, GYF has had a very organic growth process. As stated earlier, we started with the Environmental Education program. From that, we responded successfully to a contract for a proposal that the Department of Interior issued particularly working with the National Park Service. Specifically, the opportunity was to provide diverse talent to work within the National Park Service. We were successful in receiving that contract and it launched this whole new workforce within Greening Youth Foundation. So, our focus moved from solely teaching kids about nature to connecting older kids or young adults to opportunities in the environmental sector, still with the same vision of nurturing youth in conservation.
Our Flagship program is the HBCUI program. This is where we connect historically black colleges and universities to the National Park Service, and the different paths and internships that exist within the park service. This blossomed into working with other federal land management agencies like the USDA Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and so many others as well as environmental organisations. We have also expanded our partnerships to include outdoor retail companies.
I’m particularly excited about our Bridge Program because we realize that while young people were getting these internship opportunities, they also needed jobs. We wanted to close that loop and we were still having so many employers say to us that “We need talent, can you help us find diverse talent?” That’s one of the things this Bridge program is all about. Connecting young entry-level talent to opportunities in the environmental space. So, we connected employers to the underrepresented talent they needed hence the term “Bridge”. We are that bridge connecting diverse talent to employers. So, we are very proud of this project.
Victory - A creative name for such an amazing project. Can you tell us about a particular challenging moment in the history of GYF, and how you overcame it?
Angelou - [Laughs] Money. Finances are always a challenging chapter that is kind of ongoing in any social entrepreneur’s journey, and I was no different. When we were just really getting started, we went for so long without cashing our own pay cheques, so essentially, James and I used all our savings to start the company. Thank God we had smart kids that got scholarships because we used all their college funds for Greening Youth Foundation! Our interns' pay cheques were a priority. I am proud to say there was never a moment when payroll came, and our interns weren’t paid. However, there were many times we (leadership)didn’t get paid. so funding is always a challenge. Another huge challenge was the inability to get a line of credit from the bank. Even though we had this major contract from the federal government, banks would not extend us any credit. This is still a challenge, particularly with Black-owned companies, and companies of color.
Victory - In line with the previous question, what impact has the Greening Youth
Foundation had on the local Atlanta community and the environment as a whole
and what partnerships and collaborations have, they established with other
organizations or entities to enhance its impact and reach?
Angelou - I would say GYF's impact on the Atlanta community has been strong. We had more of a national impact first because of our relationships with the federal land management agencies. Then we realized we didn’t have as much presence in Atlanta (Our home base). That was when we kick-started our Urban Youth Corp which was initially “The Atlanta Youth Corp”. We also had the Environmental Education program in public schools and recreation centers throughout the metro Atlanta area, the UCTI program and a few others. We started a tree care training program in Atlanta, so we were working with a lot of partners in the tree care industry. A lot of tree care companies at the time were in desperate need of employees and were going overseas to find them. This was when I stepped in to share the vast number of marginalized young adults that were in need of jobs and access to opportunity. This solution spearheaded one of the focal programs for the urban youth corps. We started building our brand by being able to provide partners in the environmental sector with diverse talent and for that we started getting acknowledged more by the local government, community foundation and other organizations that were in the community, for the work that we were doing. There are many local partnerships we have worked with over the years, like West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA). WAWA has been a great friend and colleague to GYF. As you can imagine since it goes back quite several years, there are so many partners that have been a part of GYF’s story that I’m so thankful for because as I’m a firm believer in working with others, there’s no way you can do this work alone because its just so massive.
Victory - How has the Greening Youth Foundation adapted to address emerging environmental challenges and trends over the years?
Angelou - Thank you very much for that question, and it's a very important question. It is safe to say that communities of colour are impacted the most by environmental crises. For instance, using the Hurricane Katrina experience, black communities do not always have the resources to just flee and go somewhere else even when there’s a warning. So, one of the ways Greening Youth Foundation adjusted and really helped in that area was by introducing the UCTI program. The Urban Conservation Training Institute was one way of reaching out to these communities through farming. We encouraged community and built gardens. In other words, teaching people how they can grow their own food so that in the case of an emergency, they can go out to their backyard and harvest from their garden. We trained young people through the Youth Corp initiative on fire management. This was around the time we had several wildfire cases in many states. We trained these young people to work in fire management and how to do prescribed burning. So, I think that GYF could adapt because we did not just move with the trends, we were ahead of it. I always wanted to stay aware of changes and trends in the environment, so I joined a lot of think tanks, councils and communities that were discussing climate change. I knew that this crisis was not just real but was also going to be more and more dangerous to communities of colour.
Victory - What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs and what recommendations would you give to other organizations or individuals interested in promoting environmental education and conservation efforts?
Angelou - There are so many environmental and social challenges that we are facing today. We really need social entrepreneurs that are constantly working on solutions to all these problems. My first advice or recommendation to aspiring social entrepreneurs is to look introspectively and find out if the issue you are trying to solve is just personal or something many people are experiencing. If it is personal, it might not really help the masses. So from an empathetic lens, you can ask yourself, “What is this problem and then what's the solution to it” Once you have determined that this is not just a problem for me but this is a community challenge like in my case it was environmentalism and making sure people of colour understood that they were needed in the environmental sector dealing with environmental challenges of today. In addition to making sure you have a sound initiative, be intentional about who is on your team. We need to build strong teams to establish successful initiatives. Finally, collaboration. Collaboration is important, particularly for social entrepreneurs, because we cannot do this alone. The interconnectedness of many issues is why we need to work with our fellow entrepreneurs that are working toward a similar or the same goal. I’ll give you an example with GYF. We wanted to ensure young women were also involved in this workforce we were building. However, one of the challenges they had was childcare. Most of them were moms. So, I suggested we create an on-site daycare centre. My board had issues with this because it wasn’t in line with our vision. In other words, we were an environmental organization and our mission had nothing to do with early childcare development. But there were colleagues that had childcare centres so instead of doing it ourselves and risking diverging from the original cause we collaborated with them and ended up in a win-win situation.
Finally, Get Money! [Both laugh] You need capital for social ventures. There are so many grants and venture capitalists out there. So be passionate and get in front of the people that can make your dream a reality.
Victory - So for my final question, how did you do it all? How did you manage as a
wife, mother, founder, and employee?
Angelou - [laughs]. If I can be very honest, it has been such a learning journey. A journey that is not perfect. I got very sick. As a young entrepreneur with two little boys, a husband, and parents living behind us I had a stroke. Because of the stress of trying to do all these things perfectly. But I think of that stroke as a blessing and not a curse because I was blessed with a
pause and not a stop. When I had that pause, I realized that I needed to slow down. I didn’t need to be this superwoman. I needed to live in the moment, and I wasn’t going to be perfect at all things. I wanted to be at all the soccer games that my sons had because they were serious athletes. My husband and I wanted to make sure we did date nights and then my parents… It was just too much, and it came crashing down on me. So, what I learned (with the help of a therapist) is that you just can’t do it all and you have to practice radical self-care. So, I slowed down. I started doing meditation, and yoga. I started being more in the moment. When I slowed down I realized things were coming to me. I started understanding divine alignment, and that I was put on this earth and in this place for a reason. I didn't need to force things to happen I just needed to let God be in control and direct my steps.
Victory - BE IN THE MOMENT. Wow... I think that should be placed somewhere everyone can see so that people can be a little kinder to themselves and learn to be in the present sometimes not always in the past with our memories or in the future with our aspirations.
Thank you for honouring this invitation. Thank you for all you’ve done for the environmental space. Would you like to say anything else?
Angelou - Greening Youth Foundation will always be my baby. Although it's under new leadership that I’m super excited about, in North America and in Africa, it will always have a close place in my heart because it's the future. We are talking about youth in the environmental space in North America and In Africa, which must be a priority. So GYF is still as relevant today as when I started it 18 years ago.