As we recognize Cook County Racial Equity Week, I want to share how the Forest Preserve Foundation works to ensure a more equitable experience for all.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are baked into the Foundation’s approach to grantmaking, a major distinction within the larger community of organizations that do conservation-related work.

Throughout its history, the mainstream conservation movement in the United States has attracted a narrow segment of the population—white, wealthier Americans. This demographic imbalance prevails today.

The Foundation works to bring more people of color and low-income young adults into the conservation arena. We do this by funding internships that will benefit those who are least likely to be involved in conservation work.  So far, more than 400 young people from Chicago and the Cook County suburbs have benefited from these internships. They are, for the most part, African American, Latinx from low-income households.

conservation corps graduation
2019 Conservation Corps crew members pose with Foundation development manager and board president.

We support opportunities for them because the Forest Preserves is in constant need of people who can restore the county’s public lands to full ecological health.  More importantly, we are helping to provide exposure, inspiration and experience for these young people—opportunities that can lead them to consider careers in the environmental or STEM fields.  We also are seeding the next generation of conservation activists, something we consider critically important as we confront a changing climate.

Climate change is a global phenomenon that impacts everyone, especially low-income and communities of color. Worldwide, people of color shoulder a heavier burden from toxic water, contaminated air, and dwindling natural resources. The same is no less true in Chicago and Cook County.

Ecological restoration is a scientifically proven counterweight to climate change. Restoration helps sequester carbon, reduces flooding, improves water quality, provides natural habitats for wildlife and curbs pollution flowing into waterways.  And, it’s a vital priority that fits well with our efforts to elevate diversity, equity and inclusion.

Cranberry Slough restorationOne example of the restoration work the Foundation supports is at Cranberry Slough Nature Preserve and the adjacent Country Lane Woods, both top ecological priorities for the Forest Preserves. The 1,000-acre complex contains an unbroken expanse of rolling upland woods and savanna, wetlands, lowland sedge meadows and a bog.

Restoration work at Cranberry Slough improves the natural quality of the preserve and makes it more inviting and accessible to the public. After initial work, Forest Preserve ecologists reported that native plants species had re-emerged, including native orchids, giving a strong indication of the site’s potential to recover.

At the Foundation, we strive for equity and diversity in the ways we invest in our community every day. We are proud to support the next—and more diverse—generation of conservationists, while we address the challenges of climate change.  We also invite more allies and supporters to join us, as this work is essential for the future of Cook County.

Shelley Davis is president of the Forest Preserve Foundation.


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