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Upward ground

Young professionals lead the way for environmental justice

Donyelle K. Davis
Washington Office
May 22, 2023

Dozens of young leaders descended upon Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to collectively build roadmaps for environmental justice and climate action for their local communities. Students' backgrounds ranged everywhere from urban forestry and political science to sociology and business—all with a shared goal of mitigating current and future climate change issues.

Affectionately located on what’s known as “the Bluff,” Southern University is one of the most renowned Historical Black College and Universities that has educated thousands of the brightest young scholars in many fields, including Urban Forestry, Environment and Natural Resources, making it the ideal location for the first Upward Ground: A Nature Equity Experience. The experience is the first of a series of events hosted by the USDA Forest Service to amplify the voices of youth working to address climate change issues.

“I have worked in urban forestry for 23 years, and the room is less diverse than it deserves. We see so many young people who want to join and stay in urban forestry to help and heal these communities, so we created the Upward Ground concept to help cultivate those future leaders,” said Beattra Wilson, assistant director of the USDA Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program.

A person using virtual reality hardware, including a headset and two hand devices, in a conference room.
The Upward Ground: A Nature Equity Experience seminar, held at Southern University, featured live virtual and drone demonstration related to climate change impacts. (Photo Courtesy of Loren Sullivan/ American Forests).

The experience was made possible through collaboration with American Forests, urban forestry students and community-based advocates. Everything was planned and designed by students and young professionals, for students and young professionals. It connected scholars to professionals in their fields to help navigate and advance their careers. The seminar included panel discussions, networking sessions, local art and live drone demonstrations from climate research exhibitors.

“When I think of urban forestry in the sense of how these areas are and will be impacted by climate change, I think about the inequities in how some communities will experience these effects. But what amazes me is how bold younger generations are with their voices on this issue,” said Dr. Eboni Hall, Director of Career Exploration and Development at American Forests. “They are the voices of the unheard, those in historically excluded communities. Upward Ground, funded by the USDA Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry Program, empowers young people ─ who are mostly from the same underrepresented communities ─ to be the changemakers we need to achieve climate and environmental justice.”

Dr. Hall said she believes Upward Ground removes barriers by providing young people from these communities with access to tools, resources, opportunities and people that may not have previously been available to them.

Two people talking with a news crew.
The Upward Ground: A Nature Equity Experience seminar was created to help cultivate future leaders in climate change issues mitigation. (Photo Courtesy of Loren Sullivan/ American Forests).

Twenty-one-year-old KeShawn Hicks, a junior urban forestry major, attended the event to get more exposure to people working in his field who could help him reach his ultimate dream. He said listening to the speakers and interacting with Southern University alums from the Forest Service inspired him the most.

“I really want to be a part of environmental change and coming here allowed me to meet the people who have the blueprint for how they did it so I can create my own blueprint,” he said. “The people here knew exactly what I wanted to do to be an agent of change. Bringing the light to students who want to do this is very important.”

The next youth summit will be held in fall of 2023 in Washington, D.C for high school students.  Additional summits will aim to include students from Hispanic, tribal and other backgrounds.

Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry Program

Over 141 million acres of America’s forests are located within our cities and towns. Urban forests come in many different shapes and sizes. They include urban parks, street trees, landscaped boulevards, gardens, river and coastal promenades, greenways, river corridors, wetlands, nature preserves, shelter belts of trees and working trees at former industrial sites.

The Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program is the only dedicated urban forest program in the federal government. The program provides technical, financial and educational assistance and solutions for climate and environmental justice where more than 84% of Americans live, work and play.

Trees and green spaces in urban communities make a difference. They are critical to making communities more resilient to extreme heat and mitigating the effects of climate change. Numerous studies conducted by the Forest Service and partners show they also have benefits beyond the ecological: they improve health outcomes, are associated with reduced crime, bring other kinds of investments, and create new economic opportunities.

“When we think about the communities suffering the most and the impacts of climate change – communities of color, Indigenous, poor, and senior communities – closing the gap in those missing voices is critical,” said Wilson. “We have an opportunity to do that right now. There is a historic $1 billion in federal funding for all things related to climate and environmental justice for disadvantaged communities most in need.”

The Forest Service is making up to $1 billion available in the form of competitive grants to community-based organizations, Tribes, state and local agencies, public colleges and universities, nonprofits working to provide equitable access to trees and nature and the benefits they provide to urban communities.

A group of people sitting around a table at a seminar talking.
The Upward Ground: A Nature Equity Experience seminar was held at Southern University.  The seminar is the first of a series of events hosted by the USDA Forest Service to amplify the voices of youth working to address climate change issues.  (Photo Courtesy of Loren Sullivan/ American Forests).

For more information on funding, seminars, webinars and key work the Forest Service is leading please visit: Urban Forests | US Forest Service ( and