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Power of Diversity
What do you get when you take innovative approaches to fostering conservation leadership and share them with energetic, science-minded teenagers? A dynamic force for conservation that extends beyond all geographic boundaries.

The power of this combination was evident at Brookfield Zoo last month as the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS) hosted a two-day Global Youth Leadership Conference. The new international program is based on elements of the Chicago Zoological Society’s popular Conservation Leadership Program for Youth, which includes Zoo Adventure Passport (ZAP), Kids Club, and the Youth Volunteer Corps (YVC). "The Conference was an amazing opportunity to see the kinds of conservation leadership programs that are being initiated in Chicago," says Aisha Fraites of Iwokrama Centre in Guyana. "More importantly, observing some of the daily activities of programs such as ZAP and YVC, we saw conservation leadership at work!

The global program launched in early 2009 when Chicago area teens and youth from Guyana, South America began piloting a conservation leadership exchange program. The culmination of this year-long partnership was the teen summit held at Brookfield Zoo over two days in August.

Stuart Strahl, President and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society, says that the exchange, and conference, was timely, with the population of the United States becoming increasingly urbanized and diverse. “Chicago has become a global city and the composition of our youth programs reflects that diversity,” says Strahl. “Diverse perspectives make a society stronger and more vibrant, and will provide innovative solutions to environmental problems. Despite geographical and cultural differences with our international partners, our program efforts share the ultimate goal of developing the capacity of the next generation of conservation leaders."

International Partners
On Friday (August 14, 2009), Chicago teens and international partners showcased their work, learned about each others’ programs, and talked about issues that are important to teens in their communities. “The conference was a unique experience,” says Alejandra Watanabe with the Center for Environmental Sustainability in Lima, Peru. “It was fun, overwhelming, and emotional at the same time. Being in front of these teens made me feel a special kind of admiration and eagerness. It was inspiring to have them share their enthusiasm, their plans, their dreams and ideas for a better future. My dream is to have s similar program to YVC in Punta San Juan.”

As the conference continued on Saturday, August 15th, CZS staff members shared ideas on how to use this exchange to enhance programs, overcome challenges, and explore possible future partnerships. Zoo staff also discussed how community organizations can collaborate to tackle important local issues and achieve outcomes that might have been unattainable for a single organization.

Anna Kordek, a School, Group, and Teacher Program intern at Brookfield Zoo, says she was inspired to be around other like-minded--and conservation-minded teens. "I was in awe to find that there are so many dedicated young people all working towards one goal,” says Kordek. “It's important to see these global interactions because it simply can't be done by one person, one community, or one nation. It has to take one whole world. I was thrilled to see it happening!"

Expanding Teen Alliance
The conference was attended by over 100 participants, 75 of them teens, including representatives from the Adler Planetarium, American Indian Center, Chicago Botanic Gardens, Chicago Conservation Corps, Chicago Cultural Alliance, Chicago Zoological Society, Field Museum, Friends of the Chicago River, Lincoln Park Zoo, Notabaert Nature Museum, and Riverside-Brookfield School of Environmental Education. Special guests to the conference include Guyanese colleagues Samantha James and Aisha Fraites with Iwokrama International Centre, and Alejandra Watanabe with the Center for Environmental Sustainability (CES) at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Lima, Peru.

"A primary goal of the youth leadership program is to provide opportunities for Chicago teens to greatly expand their world view, to become global citizens," says Ricardo Stanoss, CZS Director of Education and International Training. "The other main objective is to assist staff in the development of locally appropriate youth development projects enhanced by the creativity of varied approaches."

Community-based Forest Conservation
In its first year, the Global Conservation Leadership Program for Youth has developed an alliance with the Iwokrama International Centre to support the  of the North Rupununi District in Guyana. These clubs are a successful community-based model that promotes the understanding of multiple approaches to forest conservation and management among 300 schoolchildren from the 16 villages in the North Rupununi District in south-central Guyana, while developing skills for successful job placement in the process.

“The Global Conservation Leadership Program for Youth is designed to provide invaluable lessons on how to benefit from diversity by integrating multiple perspectives to develop local conservation solutions,” adds Stanoss. “This conference is only the beginning of a truly global network, since we hope to interact with other teen projects around the world.”