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NAAEE’s 44th Conference in San Diego Was One of the Largest, Most Diverse Gatherings Ever of Environmental Educators in the United States

With more than 1,000 participants representing not only North America, but 25 other countries from around the world, including foundations, corporations, NGOs, universities, and nonprofit organizations, the 44th annual North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) conference in San Diego was one of the largest and most diverse gatherings ever of environmental educators in the United States.

Inclusivity and diversity marked every level of participation at the conference, according to Judy Braus, NAAEE Executive Director. “More than 170 people attended the conference either on a partial or full scholarship, and represented a number of underserved communities and small organizations who might otherwise not have been able to participate,” Braus said. In addition, some 100 volunteers were able to have their registration fees waived in exchange for half a day’s worth of service during the four-day gathering.

Ten to fifteen percent of the content at every level of conference programming—including workshops, symposium, presentations, poster sessions, and sessions on research—focused on achieving diversity, equity, and inclusivity in the environmental educational movement. Among these efforts was an insightful plenary session about the critical intersection between environmental education and social movements. The panelists are living examples of how bringing diverse perspectives to the table creates a more productive conversation and effective movement—from working alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., to pioneering innovation in social policy, exploring the interplay of ethnicity and nature connections, and inspiring Disney-goers to return home passionate about wildlife and the environment.

Braus said participants enthusiastically endorsed the emphasis on greater inclusivity throughout the conference. “There was such a positive response to the first plenary session for Stephen Pemberton, Walgreen’s first Chief Diversity Officer, who talked about how being connected to the outdoors and nature helped him through the darkest days of his youth,” she explained.

“And, you could hear a pin drop during the final session featuring young game-changing environmental and social justice activists from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Thrilled to hear such well-articulated inspiring messages from these young leaders, the audience gave them a standing ovation at the end,” Braus continued. Among these messages were the panelists’ powerful calls for action: “We are a generation of optimists. Don’t ask, ‘is this feasible?’ Ask, ‘when can we start?’” 14-year-old Ta’Kaiya Blaney urged with poise and passion. As for how young leaders can capture the attention of audiences outside of a room full of passionate environmental educators? Panelist Vincent Culliver’s advice is simple: “You put on a suit.”

The conference was also a chance for participants to pilot NAAEE’s eePRO—a new online hub for professional development in environmental education. The site will be launched in January, and will feature more than a dozen discussion groups and opportunities to learn through access to online courses, webinars, resources, research, and so many other activities. NAAEE members will have a chance to expand their understanding of the field and dig into the issues they care about most—from climate change to citizen science to green schools to diversity inclusion to other pressing issues. The site will also make it easy for anyone to learn more about what NAAEE offers, how to get more involved in the field, and how to learn from best practices in North America and beyond.

Themes of climate change, the threats of losing biodiversity, the green schools movement, the impact of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and the growing emphasis on e-STEM activities that highlight a systems-thinking approach attracted an interdisciplinary audience to sessions both during and prior to the conference, according to Braus. For example, more than 175 attended the 12th annual two-day research symposium before the conference–the largest number ever.

The NAAEE conference also hosted the fourth annual Blue Sky Funders Forum, an Environmental Grantmakers Association platform for organizing philanthropic partnerships that build on exceptional learning and networking experiences, a vibrant and supportive community, and essential tools that enhance the impact of funding for environmental education. Among the participants were San Diego Gas and Electric, the San Diego Foundation, The Walt Disney Company, the National Geographic Society, REI, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, Underwriters Laboratories, and The Pisces Foundation.

“The conference was unquestionably a fantastic gathering because everybody was fully energized to talk about some of the hardest and most urgent issues of our time,” Braus said, “and to see how environmental education intersects directly with community well-being.” Co-founder and Director of the Goodman Center, Andy Goodman, delivered a terrific keynote, urging the EE community to capitalize on their collective momentum and enthusiasm and initiate action on these issues through the powerful tool of storytelling. “A visionary story is no more fictional than a strategic plan,” Andy remarked, received by a room full of laughter. “Storytelling is the single most powerful tool we have, but we aren’t using it to its fullest potential…we are first in the business of changing the stories in people’s heads, not the facts that will never change their minds.”

The conference was also a chance for leaders from corporations, foundations, NGOs, universities, and government to come together to discuss how we can work together to create greater leverage. NAAEE’s key partners presented at the conference, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, UL, Agrium, CalWater, the National Environmental Education Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and so many more.

NAAEE’s more than 50 state, provincial, and regional affiliates also attended the conference to share best practice and talk about how to best work together to achieve more collective impact. The affiliates, working hand in hand with NAAEE, also focus on what it means to be an active, engaged, and informed citizen when it comes to the environment and the desire for creating a stronger democracy. NAAEE is also committed to continuing to develop an effective youth engagement strategy. “We want to provide inclusive and holistic access so that every young person will have the best educational opportunities, and so leaders in this field can help to mentor the next generation as we work to grow and diversity the field,” Braus explains.

Next year’s conference, NAAEE’s 45th annual gathering, will convene Oct. 18-22, 2016 in Madison, Wisconsin.

The North American Association for Environmental Education is a pioneering membership organization dedicated to accelerating environmental literacy and civic engagement through education. NAAEE supports a network of more than 20,000 educators, researchers, and organizational members working in environmental education in more than 30 countries through direct membership and more than 50 state, provincial, and regional affiliate organizations. Through community networks, publications, signature programs, and eeNEWS and eeJOBS, NAAEE provides programming and resources for professionals working in all areas of the field. NAAEE’s flagship annual conference, now entering its 45th year, convenes leaders from private and public sectors to advance the field of environmental education. For more information, visit

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