By Hannah E Jones
Green Youth Foundation (GYF), an Atlanta-based nonprofit environmental organization, recently welcomed a new leader at the helm, with Lesford Duncan as CEO. GYF aims to increase access to nature for underserved youth and young adults and offers programs to connect them to careers in the environmental sector in North America and West Africa.
An avid outdoorsman – with an affinity for ultramarathons, kayaking and rock climbing – and a background in community service, Duncan sought a role that would combine the two. He found that in his most recent role External sales, as associate executive director for the San Diego nonprofit that connects underrepresented youth with the great outdoors.
In this role, Duncan learned a “fundamental concept” that he brings to his new position.
“As we talked about environment and sustainability, I realized that the resilience of our environment and our public lands depends on the resilience of the people who can thrive in it and experience it,” Duncan said.
A few years ago, Duncan met the founder of GYF Angelou Ezeilo and read her bookEngage, Connect, Protect“ made him think of the Atlanta nonprofit that combines conservation and behavioral health.
“She described movement,” Duncan said. “A movement to increase the diversity of career opportunities in nature, farming and so on. Even more important is a movement that empowers youth and allows them to discover their own leadership style and identity outdoors, especially among black and brown children. What I also saw was an environmental education organization founded and run by black people and there are so few of us in the whole country. I was really inspired by the work and the mission.”
As Duncan familiarizes himself with his new home, he looks for ways to capitalize on Atlanta’s strengths while working on some of his 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 rich history. There is such a deep sense of community and interconnectedness between organizations in the public and private sectors that we are truly grateful to be an integral part of it.”
However, barriers still exist. “Our green spaces, beautiful parks and natural resources are being disproportionately used and accessed here in Atlanta,” Duncan said.
Duncan has been in the new role for less than a month but aims to help change the face of the environmental space to better reflect local residents and communities.
For example, Duncan focuses on GYFs HBCU internship Program – offered in partnership with the National Parks Service (NPS) – that helps connect minority students with career opportunities at NPS.
“It goes way beyond being a ranger for the National Park Service,” he said. “There are career opportunities for those interested in history, heritage preservation, cultural preservation, finance, human resources and more. There are so many options out there.”
The team will continue to capitalize on their role with the Outdoor Foundation Thrive outside of the community — led by the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, which aims to improve access and programming around the Chattahoochee River, as well as the restoration and preservation of other green spaces.
Ultimately, however, Duncan stays true to the organization’s core mission of inspiring younger generations to love the outdoors and helping to advance conservation careers.
“We hope to transform the environmental space,” Duncan said. “We hope to redesign these systems to be much more diverse and represent the communities we hope to engage in our beautiful parks, trails and beaches across the country.”