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Conservation With a Local Touch

Photo Credit: National Young Farmers

Pioneering conservationist and Open Space Institute founder Dick Pough placed a high premium on community-based conservation. Pough knew that grassroots organizations were crucial to protecting land, air, and water in the communities where people lived.

Through its Citizen Action program, OSI’s oldest and longest-running program, the organization remains true to Pough’s original sentiment: community conservation matters.

Citizen Action allows OSI to reach diverse audiences who are passionate about conservation. The program addresses a range of issues that are central to OSI’s mission, and leaves a positive and lasting mark at the community level.

“At its core, community conservation is the touchstone of the environmental movement,” says Jessica Watson, director for OSI’s Citizen Action program. “By reaching out and connecting to people where they are – in cities, suburbs, rural areas – Citizen Action is cementing the future of the conservation movement. Community conservation remains a top priority for us today. The  Open Space Institute may be best known for conserving huge swaths of land for future generations, but our commitment to grassroots activism gives these practices  longevity  by  engaging  the  next  wave of environmental stewards.”

Now in its fourth decade, Citizen Action has mentored, trained, and launched more than 150 grassroots startups in New York City, the Hudson Valley, and beyond. The program offers members nonprofit status, legal tools, financial stability, fundraising ability, and a new mentorship component. In recent years the program has evolved to meet the changing needs of its member groups.
 
“OSI realized that the work we were doing with these community organizations was important, but that many of them needed more than fiscal sponsorship. They needed broader guidance on how to operate independently and be successful,” says Watson.

Amateur boat builders gather at HarborLab's "City of Water Day" at Governors Island, NY
Amateur boat builders gather at HarborLab's "City of Water Day" at Governors Island, NY
Photo Credit: HarborLab

Considering that 70 percent of new nonprofits fail within their first two years, OSI wanted  to work more closely with their Citizen Action groups on capacity building. By helping the groups become independently operational, OSI  is having a lasting impact on community conservation. Today, the program supports 26 active groups that organize community-based programs. These include groups that host kayaking and canoeing programs oriented toward teaching youngsters ecosystem science; train new farmers on sustainable agricultural practices; seek to create pop-up forests; and host competitions calling for the most innovative uses of trash and other recyclables.

Of the 150 programs that have graduated from Citizen Action, 32 have obtained 501(c)(3) status, and those organizations reported more than $20 million in revenue in 2016. If financial stability and operational independence are any barometers of success, then surely the National Young Farmers Coalition is a Citizen Action success story.

“When the National Young Farmers Coalition was starting out, OSI helped us get off the ground and learn everything about managing a not-for- profit,” says Lindsey Lusher-Shute, the coalition’s executive director and co-founder. “Our organization works to tackle the many challenges that young, independent, and sustainable farmers face in the first few years of operating a farm business. After working with OSI for four years, we graduated from the program equipped with the tools we needed to expand and grow further.” Today, the National Young Farmers Coalition employs a staff of more than 20 and has  40 chapters in at least 28 states, and they have a $2.5-million operating budget. The work OSI is doing on the ground in these communities helps  to equip   people   who are enthusiastic about local conservation with the tools they need to achieve their critical goals. Forging strong partner- ships and fostering grassroots organizations has been and continues to be among OSI’s core principles, and Citizen Action is the program by which we apply those principles in achieving our conservation goals.

“A part of OSI has always been about empowering people to protect the environmental well- being of their communities,” says Susan Barbarisi, who managed OSI’s Citizen Action program for 20 years before retiring. “The work OSI is doing with conservation groups is ensuring that these local organizations will have the power to effect positive change in their communities today, tomorrow, and in the future.”

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