Teens crowd Dominican for conservation conference

University partners with Brookfield and Lincoln Park zoos, Shedd Aquarium

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Anthony Landahl

On July 30-31, Dominican University in River Forest hosted the Teen Conservation Leadership Conference, which brought in teens ages 14 to 19 to listen and learn from conservation experts and discover different environmental issues.

"For them to hear that, what's happening in the field first hand, is an incredible opportunity for them," said Angela Sullivan, event organizer and vice president of education and community engagement at the Chicago Zoological Society. "There aren't many adults that get that opportunity who are professionals in the field."

The Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo, hosted the conference in 2016 and 2017, but this year was the first time the Shedd Aquarium and the Lincoln Park Zoo collaborated to put on the event. 

A third day also included over 150 kids volunteering in Montrose Park and Columbus Park for a day of conservation, before returning to the Brookfield Zoo for lunch. 

The conference was especially rewarding for those involved with CZS's King Conservation Science Scholars, a career and college readiness program. The year-round program allows members to interact with guests at the Brookfield Zoo and organize workshops. 

The scholars are also responsible for running the conference, setting up tables, moderating sessions with speakers and talking to curious teens. They even designed the event's logo, which features an hourglass with living animals on the top and extinct animals on the bottom, bearing the convention's motto of "Our Time Is Now!" 

Sullivan said that she handed most of the creative control of the convention to the kids. 

"I facilitate it and let them do their thing," Sullivan said. "Their sense of urgency is a big piece of it. They wanted to do something that said, 'Hey, this is the time. It's now or never.'"

Members of the King Scholar's Teen Advisory Council also put together the events and speakers, often communicating with the other organizations through conference calls. 

Council President Elise Carlson said a focus was to get teens to come away inspired from the convention and discover fields they never encountered before. 

"Because we have so many different people here from so many different professions, they kind of open us up to new ideas and new possibilities and how to actually reach those goals," Carlson said. She will attend Reed College in the fall and possibly major in biology. 

The event's keynote speakers featured Jo-Elle Mogerman, the director of North Campus at the St. Louis Zoo, and Adam J. Hecktman, director of technology and civic innovation at Microsoft Chicago. Other speakers were from the Chicago Zoological Society, Morton Arboretum and Dominican University.

Julie Moller, an environmental advocate and chairwoman of the River Forest Sustainability Commission, held a session about her participation in an expedition through the organization 5Gyres to clean up beaches in Bali, Indonesia. She said during her trip, the team once discovered 110 flip flops on one beach. 

Moller provided tips on how to be sustainable, reduce the number of plastics used and reduce the amount of waste in the ocean. She also proposed that one major way to reduce waste was to become a hyperlocal society – relying on the local area and environment to produce food and resources. 

She said she enjoyed talking to teens, because they would conceive the next wave of solutions. 

"I think they need to know that a lot of the solutions haven't even been thought of yet," Moller said. "And they need to be creative and they need to take what they're interested in and run with it and think of new ways to do things. That's what gives me hope. Because if we just keep doing what we're doing, it's not really working."

Carlson said becoming a better conservationist required solving problems quickly after learning them, echoing the timeliness motto of the convention. 

"The hardest part about it is educating yourself," Carlson said, "There are so many issues that you don't hear about. ... The first part is educating yourself and then doing something with your newfound knowledge."

King Scholar Katelin Ismail also stressed the importance of reflecting on the actions of one's self and the responsibility of keeping the Earth clean. 

"[It's important] realizing Mother Nature was just fine before we came along, and so, if we made that mess, then we need to clean up because there are no maids to come after us," she said.

In regular teenage fashion, Ismail compared that responsibility to a parent ordering their child to clean the dishes after dinner: it is mandatory.

"It's kind of what we need to do," she said. "We have to do our dishes this time."

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