Program empowers BIPOC youth to explore conservation and wildlife biology as potential careers


Calvin Keeys didn’t see many people like him working in conservation.

“Growing up I didn’t have a lot of Black naturalists to look up to,” Keeys says.

When his father brought home information about MobilizeGreen, an internship program at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum that connects young BIPOC people with careers in environmental conservation, Keeys, who lives in nearby Collingdale, signed up.

Benita Balogun and Calvin Keeys are MobilizeGreen crew members at the John Heinz Natural Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. Photography by Chris Baker Evens.
Benita Balogun and Calvin Keeys are MobilizeGreen crew members at the John Heinz Natural Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. Photography by Chris Baker Evens.

Over three sessions with MobilizeGreen (over the fall of 2020 and spring and summer of 2021) Keeys tackled projects like installing a pollinator garden, controlling invasive plant species at the refuge and planting trees and shrubs along Cobbs Creek. Now a freshman at Drexel University, Keeys plans to become a wildlife biologist.

“Growing up I didn’t have a lot of Black naturalists to look up to.”

— Calvin Keeys, MobilizeGreen crew member

MobilizeGreen youth participants work on projects developed by their host site along with challenge projects designed by the youth, known as “crew members.”

A current crew member and a senior at Central High School, Benita Balogun initially signed up for the spring 2021 session. She says she values the program’s flexibility.

“If I have a cool idea I can bring it up to the crew leaders and they’ll take it into account and weigh whether it will be beneficial to the community [and] to the program,” she says.

Keeys worked with a fellow crew member to lead a volunteer trash cleanup along Cobbs Creek, including an education portion “where we teach them how the creek itself ended up being as polluted as it is and possible solutions for that.”

Refuge Manager Lamar Gore is behind the program’s implementation at John Heinz. Gore had heard of MobilizeGreen’s work in other locations, and in early 2019 he recruited the group to Philadelphia. The career development internships offered by the nonprofit fit into what Gore calls the refuge’s “youth engagement ladder.”

“Their model is built around recruiting a diverse workforce and introducing systematically excluded groups to conservation work,” Gore explains.

Community members can become involved at the refuge from elementary school through employment as adults. The flexibility of the program also serves John Heinz’s community engagement goals. “The National Wildlife Refuge System typically just works on site. We want the community to start looking at the refuge as part of the community,” Gore says.

Crew members themselves took part in community engagement work outside the refuge boundaries. Along with other groups including Thomas Jefferson University, Audubon Mid-Atlantic and Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition, the refuge has been working with the Eastwick community to identify open spaces that can be greened and revitalized. Balogun went door to door with her crew in Eastwick to help gather community input about the proposed greening projects.

Since MobilizeGreen launched in Philadelphia, 28 youth participants have taken part. For many of them the program is their first exposure to the outdoors in a large green space.

Balogun, who lives in Northeast Philadelphia, says that in her neighborhood, “the closest thing we have to nature is a park with a playground.”

“I just wasn’t exposed to that kind of stuff,” she says.

At the refuge she found more variety.

“[There were] trails with huge trees. You could see fish swimming in the water. There were deer. You could see families going on walks, kids riding their bikes,” she explains. At John Heinz, Balogun fished for the first time and took a kayak out on Darby Creek as part of a cleanup and watershed education field trip.

Felix Agosto, one of Balogun’s crew leaders, recalls the transformation he witnessed in the members as they took to the water and learned about the issues facing the creek, like erosion. They also learned about the species living around the creek and picked up trash.

“There were plenty of kids who had never been in a kayak before,” says Agosto. “They got on the water and they just went slowly at first, but at the end some of them were racing each other.”

Balogun, who initially heard about MobilizeGreen from a friend, is continuing the word-of-mouth outreach.

“Parents these days like to say that their kids are always on their phones and cooped up in the house,” she says. “Take advantage of this opportunity and get involved with nature. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to step away from a screen and have fun out there.”

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