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The graying of the greens

Something's happened to Connecticut's venerable environmental groups. They're aging, often dominated by members and leaders well into their 50s and beyond. Greens gone gray.

It has them worried.

"The environmental community must make room for younger, more creative and less bureaucratic individuals who will stick their neck out on important issues and who will have the energy and expertise to galvanize the public into action," said Allan Williams of West Hartford, a longtime environmental activist and member of the Sierra Club.

Fearful of a loss of relevance, concerned they might lose influence in shaping state policy, long-established groups like the Connecticut Audubon, the Connecticut chapter of the Sierra Club and the Connecticut Forest & Park Association are now reaching out to attract younger members, employees and board members.

"We certainly do want to attract younger people," said Adam R. Moore, executive director of the forest and park group. "We've been working on that, just like every environmental group has been."

John D. Calandrelli, state program director for Sierra's Connecticut chapter, worries that young people will get the idea that established environmental groups are stodgy and lose that age group permanently. "We don't want to get to that point. That is why we are changing focus," he said.

Sierra, for example, initiated its Sierra Student Coalition, a campus-based offshoot of the organization that is run by and for students at five Connecticut universities and seven high schools and prep schools in the state. And, besides sponsoring outdoor activities such as hikes and kayak outings, Sierra now also sets up tables with educational materials geared toward youth at events such as country fairs.

Twentysomethings, meanwhile, seem to be gravitating to some of the newer, often smaller environmental groups and social networking groups. Established environmental groups may have been slow to tap that age group where it can be reached — on the Internet.

On college campuses, local global warming groups are proliferating. Among the young professional set, a green social network has emerged. Meanwhile, some of the young, it seems, are too busy surfing the Internet to get involved in anything green at all.

"There definitely is a lot of student environmental activism going on in Connecticut, but often it is with these local, campus organizations," said Colin Bennett, a graduate student at Southern Connecticut State University who is coordinating director of the Connecticut Youth Activist Network, a new organization intended to help the many campus groups around the state to share information and techniques.

Ann O'Leary, development director at Connecticut Audubon, says the organization, with a strong educational emphasis, already has a significant percentage of younger members through its family memberships, which constitute more than 35 percent of its 5,600 memberships. The number of family memberships is up slightly in the past several years, she said, suggesting a modest uptick in younger members.

Still, she said the organization is "actively trying to get the younger generation in to take over the reins." Connecticut Audubon is searching its membership lists, for example, to identify younger candidates for its board of directors, which, O'Leary said, is indeed dominated by older people, often retired.

Little Racial Diversity

Finding younger board members has not been easy, she said, because younger adults are working or raising children, or both. "The time constraints on them are more limiting," she said.

Another Audubon program trains mothers so that they can bring Audubon workshops into grade school classrooms, where presumably the students will become familiar with Audubon and one day join.

At Connecticut Forest & Park, Moore said the group launched a program of guided family hikes that the organization hopes will attract younger people. It also is beginning a major new program intended to encourage people throughout the state to walk on trails or in neighborhoods that it also hopes will appeal to everyone from children to seniors.

Moreover, recognizing the impact of the Internet, Moore said the organization is considering podcasts with videos that highlight the 700-mile hiking trail network the group maintains for the public at no charge.

Moore's group is more than a century old, but he rejects the idea, as the other groups do, that it is stodgy. "I think being an established organization has an appeal. It has history and meaning and influence and respect. That is what attracted me to the organization when I joined in my 20s. I think young people will see those values."

Indeed, student activist Bennett suspects many of the campus greens of today will one day become involved with the established groups like Connecticut Forest & Park or Connecticut Audubon when they are settled into careers.

Not only are the green groups aging, they continue to attract a comparatively small number of African American and Latino members. "It is something we would very much like to change," O'Leary said. The organization is actively seeking to appeal to students of color, notably in larger urban school districts, she said.

Calandrelli said the typical Sierra Club member nationally is a 56-year-old white male. "This has to change," he said. In Connecticut, Sierra several years ago helped financially to launch an environmental justice group in New Haven, working on environmental issues in urban neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, some green groups have been emerging outside the conventional environmental framework, taking on not only bread and butter green issues like water and air pollution, but expanding to explore sustainable farming and eating local foods.

Heather Burns-DeMelo, editorial director for AllGreen Magazine, founded Fairfield County Green Drinks, an environmental social networking group that has a considerable membership of people in their 30s and 40s.

She sometimes sees the older activists from established groups, the graying greens, mentoring younger people. "There is growing interest among the younger generation to hear from and sort of carry on the torch of the movement from the baby boomers," she said. "I see this happening a lot at Green Drinks. I see older people talking to younger people. In many cases, those have developed into mentoring relationships."

Green drinks networks are rapidly expanding around the country. A Green Drinks also exists in the Hartford area. Burns-DeMelo said the social nature of these network groups is a big part of the appeal.

Because, young or old, people want to have a good time, she said.

Steve Grant can be reached at sgrant@courant.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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