Secrets of success: Youth organizing (Part 1)

December 2, 2013

65, white, liberal and well-educated. Writes monthly or yearly checks. Belongs to multiple progressive advocacy organizations… Ring any bells? For most environmental nonprofits in the US, that just about describes the demographics of their dues-paying members. And that has many conservation leaders worried. With no young people to take over, what’s the future of the environmental movement? That used to keep the folks at the Montana Wilderness Association up a night—but not anymore. Today, MWA’s NexGen Wilderness Leaders Program involves hundreds of young people throughout Montana. I sat down with NexGen program director Zack Porter to get the skinny on the program’s success.

NexGen organizing model

According to Porter, the first step was to make NexGen organizing a top priority for the organization and build a program around it. And the second was to take the long view with youth engagement. As Porter explained,

The model that we follow is that you don’t lend your weight to a cause until you identify with it. When it comes to work on wilderness issues, the first step is connecting people to these amazing wild landscapes and the locals who rely on them for work, recreation, and sustenance. In the process they build incredible bonds and relationships that can only form in the backcountry. We’re taking everyone from elementary school-aged kids to college students to young professionals with families on hikes, horseback rides, canoe trips and ski trips.  These special places sell themselves. 


Zach Porter (far right) with combat veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq celebrate reaching the Continental Divide in the proposed West Big Hole National Recreation Area, a component of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. Photo credit: MWA

Youth organizing

Through a partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Missoula, Bozeman and Helena, the National Forest Service and the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center, MWA has exposed hundreds of kids and their mentorsto the joys of fly-fishing, hiking, riding horses and other outdoor pursuits. “In many cases these are kids who’ve never visited public lands within a mile of where they grew up, they’ve never participated in what we would think of as ‘traditional’ Montana activities,” explained Porter. “We give these kids a chance to get out and hike, cross-country ski, raft the river, go horseback riding or go fishing. We introduce them to the places and past times that we love so much.”

College activists

Another major focus of the NexGen program is college students. With programs in Missoula, Bozeman and Helena, MWA’s efforts have resulted in thriving and mostly self-led student groups dedicated to Wilderness pursuits, conservation and the outdoors.

The UM [University of Montana] group is the oldest and most established. Just this year for the first time they have really come into their own by acquiring a university dorm called the WILD House. It has become a hub of all things Wilderness. Every Monday evening upwards of 40 students come to the house to socialize, plan trips, hang out with like-minded people and talk about campaigns that are going on…It’s incredibly inspiring to see this number of students showing up of their own volition to drive wilderness efforts forward.

According to Porter, the NexGen recruits are some of the most active volunteers at MWA. From phone banking to conducting lobby visits, to writing op edsand signing up new voters, they have incredible political muscle to exercise when they put their minds to it.

Ingredients of success

Porter points to two key principles that guide the NexGen program:

  1. Make it fun. Whether it’s introducing kids to the outdoors through rafting trips and fly-fishing, or engaging college kids through pot lucks and hikes, MWA focuses on creating a fun environment to both fall in love with the outdoors and build lasting friendships to support that passion. Porter noted that there have been many failed attempts to form student groups at UM: “There wouldn’t be a student group if we approached things without looking at bringing people in through what’s fun right off of the bat. It would be impossible.”
  2. Make it about community. For MWA, getting young people to engage with Wilderness advocacy comes second to creating a community of people who love to spend time outdoors and with each other. With the campus events, Porter notes that “the socializing part is always number one on the agenda…What matters most is that these folks are looking forward to the Monday night meetings every week as a chance to step back from the daily grind, hang out with great people and eat good food.”

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the role of social media in MWA’s NexGen program…what we have to say might just surprise you!

Amy Frykman

Top photo: Izzy catches her first fish on a Helena Outdoor Explorers Mentoring Program trip to the Blackfoot River. Credit: MWA