By Doyle Irvin
“I’M A DINOSAUR,” Brenda Richardson emphatically reassures me. “I still believe in picking up a phone or going to see you.”
As Managing Director of the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC), outreach is Brenda’s bread and butter. Founded by Bob Nixon, the ECC has been transforming at-risk youth from vulnerable communities into some of Washington, D.C.’s foremost environmentalists for nearly 30 years. Their work has restored the Anacostia River (“the forgotten river of D.C.”), reintroduced bald eagles to the capital, planted trees and, most importantly, transformed the city’s youth into stewards of the environment.
Brenda speaks with a musical voice and laughs frequently. She is a calming presence in an otherwise dramatic time, politically speaking, when the spare brainwaves of everyone — regardless of their leanings left or right — seem to be captured by what’s unfolding in the White House.
“You know what my greatest fear is?” Brenda asks. “That National Park Service land will be up for sale. That’s my greatest fear.”
Brenda sees her work as answering that fear, one day and one person at a time. Each adolescent that she convinces to pick up trash, restore a riverfront or plant a tree is one more person who will advocate for public land. And, after 24 years of working with the ECC, Brenda will tell you that she’s witnessed a transition in how people think aboutthe environment.
“Absolutely… Absolutely; Now, when people talk about green, people in the community understand,” she attests.
Brenda also believes that young people are the largest factor in this transition — that the disparity between the hardships they grew up in and the selflessness with which they approach making a public contribution is incredibly motivating to witness.
“The beauty of it is, no matter how wounded or scarred they may be, they find some sort of peace in working in the environment,” Brenda says.
The truth that goes along with that, however, is that if your work is to inspire peace, you frequently encounter its opposite.
“I’m not saying it was all peaches and cream,” she laughs. “But, most of the time it was just awe-inspiring to see how they connected to the environment, what they were doing and to be able to talk about it!”There are countless stories of young people who are surprised by just how important the ECC would become to their lives. Perhaps one of the most notable of these vulnerable youth was Diamond Teague, who initially was not excited to even be involved with ECC, according to his mother, Florence Teague.
“We thought that Diamond was never going to like the work,” Florence recounts. “He even wrote in his journal that when he joined the ECC, that was going to be one of the worst days of his life.”
He quickly changed his mind. Seven months later, Diamond had become one of the most involved members of the Corps, inspiring countless others and teaching them about the importance of the environment. Bob Nixon’s own daughter attested that “when I was seven, Diamond Teague was my hero.”
With a bright future ahead of him, Diamond was headed to college on a scholarship earned entirely on the merits of his environmental work.
Diamond was shot on his doorstep not long after earning that scholarship. He inspired and influenced so many people that the city of D.C. built a 39,000-square-foot park in his memory. He is one of 26 Corps members to pass away before their time.
It is the importance of helping these young people — knowing how much they need it and how much worse it could be if they didn’t have mentors to guide them — that gives Brenda her drive and sense of mission. The stakes couldn’t be any clearer for her. She knows that by sharing stewardship of the natural world with Corps members, she isn’t just saving the environment, she’s saving lives.
And, that’s why Brenda herself got involved in conservation roughly 40 years ago. She firmly believes that getting involved in the environment is one of the best ways to anchor young people who have been beset with countless challenges faced while growing up in their environment. But, Brenda isn’t waiting for anyone to come to her.
Recounting a meeting she had with a fellow conservationist, she says, “I asked — because you know when you have these environmental meetings it’s always the same stakeholders who show up all the time — I asked him, well, when are you going to take this out to folks at the real grassroots level?” She asked this question even though she already knew the answer, and then told him “I’m going to make it my business to get to the vulnerable communities and meet them where they are.”
Everything about Brenda resonates with this declaration. The sport coat she wears befits a Managing Director, but the work boots on her feet tell you that she doesn’t mess around. Corps members will back this up, if you even need to ask. Nneka Anosike attests that “Everywhere I’ve gone so far, if I mention, ‘Do you know Brenda Richardson?’ they’ll be like ‘Yeah, I know Brenda, she did X, Y and Z.’ It just gives you an idea of how many people she’s touched.”
Her fellow Corps member Shawn Simons puts it more simply: “I’ve learned everything from her.”
Brenda is one of the few people born in her era to be connecting with today’s youth through Snapchat and Facebook.
“I’m still very old fashioned and a dinosaur,” Brenda admits again, but she thinks that social media is “a wonderful tool to educate folks on environmental issues.”
This willingness to approach and interact with people where they are at, regardless of how new, strange or uncomfortable it may be, is exactly what makes Brenda so good at what she does. She listens. Then she laughs. Then you find yourself laughing. And then you find yourself planting a tree.
Doyle Irvin contributes to American Forests’ magazine and Loose Leaf blog, and is passionate about protecting the environment and investing in the future of our planet.