Nearly nine years ago at age 26, Crista Valentino founded CoalitionWILD, an organization that has been dedicated to helping young changemakers like herself tackle our planet’s greatest conservation challenges.
Have you always been passionate about the environment and climate change initiatives? Is there something specific that inspired you to start CoalitionWILD?
I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself passionate about the environment and/or climate change initiatives. Living in a way that lowers my impact on the planet, supporting and designing actions that mitigate environmental degradation, and searching for ways that others feel empowered to do the same feels more like an obligation I gladly accept than a passion. For me, this work isn’t fiery and energetic, like passion often feels. Moreover, it feels like a necessary integration into everything I do, every thought I have, every belief I live by. It forms the basis of my lifestyle, my career, and my vision for the future. That is the reason behind why CoalitionWILD isn’t focused on one specific environmental or climate change initiative or action. Rather, we are focused on investing in the evolution of youth and their growth as leaders for their own passions. I suppose what I am truly passionate about is being a conduit for youth to step into their power and realize their full potential(s) to influence change in themselves, their communities, and for the planet.
CoalitionWILD was born when a group of young people from around the world, me included, came together to share their voices and visions for the planet at the 10th World Wilderness Congress in 2013. CoalitionWILD began as a space for us to gather, to support each other, to tell our stories, and to find comradery as we navigated a space new to us all. What continues to inspire me has been listening to the young people in our network and what they need to thrive. When I say that CoalitionWILD is youth-led, I don’t just mean that our internal leadership is youth. We are truly driven by the needs of young people and are committed to providing the spaces, programming, and resources that they need to succeed.
We loved learning about the different initiatives that CoalitionWILD supports, especially for young people. As sk*p is a brand that also inspires young people to care about the environment, can you highlight some of your youth programs that our community might want to check out?
CoalitionWILD has two flagship programs: the EXCELerator and our Global Mentorship Program. The EXCELerator is an intensive 6-month leadership and capacity building training that equips emerging environmental leaders with skills, mentorship, resources, and a belief in themselves to carry out an environmental action project. We’ve graduated 108 EXLs (EXCELerator Alumni) in over 50 countries and whose work has impacted almost 35,000 people worldwide. The Global Mentorship program is a 12-month experience that pairs emerging environmental leaders with veteran conservationists for an intergenerational exchange that supports participants in gaining perspective, finding community and connection, discovering new solutions and solidarity, and bridging the generational and cultural gaps in the environmental sector. We’ve facilitated 204 mentorship relationships since 2017 and our 2022 applications are currently open through November 21, 2021.
Are there any upcoming projects that CoalitionWILD is launching this year?
Accessibility has always been a priority for CoalitionWILD, and we are committed to ensuring that our programming is always free and available to young people worldwide, regardless of location or circumstance. This commitment took a new step in 2021 when we partnered with Conservamos por Naturaleza to target Spanish-speaking Latin American youth by delivering the EXCELerator in Spanish—called Aceleradores por Naturaleza. The program was incredibly successful and validated the importance of providing trainings in local languages and with resources focused on local/regional issues. We plan to build upon this model by renewing our partnership with Conservamos por Naturaleza and expanding the Aceleradores program. We are also actively looking for country or regional partners interested in modeling the EXCELerator in their own region.
Within the next 5 years, what do you hope to accomplish with CoalitionWILD? How will it look different?
Growth doesn’t always mean bigger. Often it can simply mean better. That’s the mantra CoalitionWILD will continue to operate under as we move into the next five years. What I really hope to accomplish, however, is often difficult to track in metrics and numbers. I hope to see a noticeable shift in behavior change and decision-making processes because the youth we have worked with are stepping into more senior level management positions and gaining even greater influence over policies and practices. Through our commitment of encouraging non-traditional ‘environmental’ leadership (that is, encouraging youth to think beyond the environmental sector when it comes to how they can integrate conservation into their lives and careers), I hope we are able to bridge gaps between sectors and see a more robust collaborative effort towards ensuring planetary health. I see CoalitionWILD evolving to be more on the ground, with regional hubs and issue-focused modules that then facilitate links between them all, like the spider in the middle of a vast web.
What do you see as the biggest issues facing the climate crisis now?
I see a lack of strategic collaboration. We all feel the pressure of needing to act NOW for the planet, for our climate, and for our species. However, we cannot talk about climate resilience in developing countries without addressing poverty and education. We cannot tackle marine conservation without discussing pollution and infrastructure. We cannot envision green cities without considering the refugee crisis. It cannot be up to the environmental sector alone to lead this effort. Planetary health can no longer be tied to political parties or personal interests. I see our biggest issue as our inability to come together as a global society and find common goals and uncommon methods to support a future where people and nature thrive.
If you could pass on one piece of advice for aspiring activists like yourself, what would you share?
Find what and where you can influence change and take ownership of that space. We all have different circumstances and unique qualities that makes us wildly effective in some areas and just as poorly equipped in others. My advice would be to resist the urge to compare yourself to anyone else or to replicate their visions or methods. What the world needs right now is you, overflowing and uninhibited, in all your irreplaceable and irreplicable brilliance. What it needs is your mind, your perspective, and your ideas. It needs you to try something new and to be unafraid to fall short. What we need is more people doing—fully embracing whatever verb inspires them the most: speaking, writing, planting, cleaning, mobilizing, researching, posting, being, believing. Find your verb and live it.
At sk*p we are all about caring for the earth while also having fun. Given that you live in Wyoming, what are some of your favorite things to do for fun?
Keeping CoalitionWILD’s wheels turning means a lot of time behind the computer screen. So, when I get the opportunity to sneak away, you can find me outside and out of service. I love to be in the mountains and lost in the shadow of big peaks. I get the opportunity to travel often, and love exploring new cultures in search of the best ice cream this world has to offer. I love sleeping under the stars, seeing colors that only nature can produce, and living as simply as possible. For me, connecting back to our Earth reminds me of my ‘why.’