Elizabeth Lillard is one of the founders and Program Manager with Women in Conservation Leadership through the National Wildlife Federation. Women In Conservation Leadership is a diverse, inclusive, national community and a catalyst to elevate and embolden all women in advancing conservation.
Women in Conservation Leadership (WCL) was started four years ago by myself and a group of dedicated National Wildlife Federation (NWF) staff members. WCL originally began as a small gathering at the National Wildlife Federation’s Annual meeting. I had the opportunity to attend one of these gatherings at the 2016 Annual meeting, where I realized there was a real need for spaces like this and for women in the conservation movement to connect specifically around leadership and professional growth. After doing more research, I learned that despite the large percentage of women employees in environmental and conservation organizations (more than 50 percent), very few women are in high-level positions, and even fewer are women of color.
Armed with this information, I approached two senior-level women who organized the Annual Meeting gatherings, and proposed a multi-day retreat focusing on empowerment and leadership skill building for any woman or female-identifying person at the National Wildlife Federation. While both women liked the idea, they were skeptical it could happen quickly given the logistics and cost. However, I kept pushing the issue, setting up meetings and phone calls with various staff at NWF to gain momentum. A few months later, we had a Women in Conservation Leadership Summit planning group, full support of the Board, the CEO and every office across the country.
The first WCL Summit was held in March 2017 at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, WV and we hosted 160 women representing NWF staff, board members and affiliate organizations. We brought in leadership coaches who facilitated discussions around strengthening and building women’s leadership, exploring diversity and intersectionality and understanding women’s personal and organizational realities. At the end of the Summit, attendees raved about their experience: “I am so grateful to the outstanding organizers/leaders who brought us together,” “I hope you know that this weekend has already changed me and NWF.” While we originally developed WCL for NWF staff, after the 2017 Summit women from other organizations asked to be invited after seeing social media posts describing the event. So, our team got to work organizing the 2018 Summit to include any woman interested in conservation leadership development.
For 2018, we wanted to build on the work we had accomplished in 2017, while also focusing on growing the community beyond NWF. We decided to focus content around giving attendees leadership tools to take back to their organizations, including coaching, active listening, and network mapping. We were a little unsure how many participants to plan for because we were opening up beyond just NWF. We ended up with over 330 participants representing 120 organizations which was double from the year before!
From the beginning, WCL has been a volunteer initiative with our whole planning group working on this in addition to our full-time jobs. After the 2018 Summit, we realized we needed a strategic vision, an implementation plan and some full-time staff to continue this work. So, we spent 2019 doing just that and as of September 2019 I officially became the Women in Conservation Leadership Program Manager!
Since officially starting in this role, I have been working hard to prepare for the 2020 WCL Summit. This year’s theme is “Weaving Change: Connecting Women for Action”. We see the WCL network like a tapestry – made of individual threads. Each thread is unique and intrinsically important. When woven together the threads create a larger tapestry, providing durability, utility and beauty. Through the Summit, we continue to connect women and weave a larger network for change and impact.
The 2020 WCL Summit was originally scheduled for March 16-19, 2020 but due to COVID-19 we have postponed to October 13-16, 2020. For the 2020 Summit, we have almost 600 registrants from over 10 different countries, which is our first time with any international representation!
It has been really exciting and empowering to see this idea grow from a small, side meeting to a huge event with a global reach in just 4 years. I am very proud of our planning group and of the National Wildlife Federation for recognizing the needs of women in the environmental movement and making space for us to gather, heal and learn. We believe that stronger conservation is possible through women leaders of all ethnicities, races and cultures.
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