Legacy Land Conservation: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Land Conservation

Malia Molina, Carleton College

It was three days before my second summer with the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program and I was excited to say the least. Not only to see the friends I had made last year, but also to once again be a part of a program that so seamlessly integrated all the facets of my own varied interests in environmental and social justice issues. As I waited for my flight from Minneapolis to Detroit, I scrolled anxiously through my emails to see if I had received any internship updates from my host organization, Legacy Land Conservancy. There were none so far, other than the emails from the past few weeks informing me about my internship position and who I would be reporting to. To be honest, I was a little confused at first about what all the position title entailed: “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Intern”. Seemed pretty fancy to me, but I guess I would just have to wait and see to find out my purpose at Legacy.

Fast forward to two weeks later. My first week included many introductions to not only the staff members, but to the organization as a whole. I had literally no idea what land conservation was, and it was my mission within those first few days to try to understand how that fit in with the environmental movement. In order to do this, I scheduled multiple interviews with various staff members in addition to reading through all the communications and media material that was available to me online or in physical format.

After two weeks, I finally understood what land conservation meant, at least on a surface level, so here it goes: Legacy Land Conservancy is a small, non-profit organization that services Washtenaw and Jackson counties in southeast Michigan. Their work is focused on conserving land properties through conservation easements. Basically, a conservation easement is an agreement between the current property owner and the land conservancy, whereby the land’s development rights are donated/purchased by the land conservancy. In doing so, the land conservancy assumes multiple responsibilities for the land, including upholding the restrictions of the easement and maintaining a working relationship with the property owner(s). At this point it’s pretty self-explanatory where land conservation fits in with the environmental movement: by conserving these spaces future generations will still also be able to enjoy the resources that we have access to now.

In tandem with learning about Legacy’s missions and goals, I also conducted the other part of my internship as a DEI intern. This entailed that I not only go through the organization’s communications and media materials, but to also evaluate the organization itself in terms of how diverse, equitable, and inclusive it is currently. Now, this was an interesting position to be in: a twenty-something year old still in her undergraduate career, interning at an established non-profit organization, evaluating the diversity of its board, staff, and audience… It was a daunting role to fill, to say the least. During this time, I went to staff and board meetings and read through hundreds of pages from reports on the diversity of environmental organizations. The experience was an intense one, as I created a presentation and wrote a report on my findings and recommendations for the organization. At first, I was skeptical about the work I was doing. Was I saying the “right” things? Was I being too critical, or not critical enough? But after I presented in front of the Development Committee and staff, I felt reassured in what I had to offer. After those presentations, I wrote a report titled “Incorporating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: An Assessment of Current Efforts and Recommendations for Legacy Land Conservancy”. Rest assured, it was not as formal as it seemed but it did provide me with a lot of insight on approaching future employers’ and organizations’ efforts at making the work environment diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

Altogether, it was intriguing for me to see another side of conservation that is not necessarily focused on the preservation of these spaces through the exclusion of humans. Not only this, but I was also able to offer my own insights to an entire organization and, frankly, that was awesome experience.