New Mexico, like many other states, is facing an exhausting set of environmental challenges. From excessive wildfires to habitat loss, the state needs educated conservationists and elected officials who are ready to tackle the issues at hand. Perhaps more importantly, the state needs to plant seeds of conservation in all of its diverse communities in order to create a populace devoted to a sustainable state in the future.

Two New Mexico organizations are taking the lead in helping to train the conservation leaders of the future with a project called the Green Schools Collaborative. With the help of their 2011 TogetherGreen Innovation Grant, Earth Works Institute and Audubon New Mexico will work with students from the Institute of American Indian Arts, Rio Gallinas School in Las Vegas, and Santa Fe High School to reduce each school’s ecological footprint and build conservation leadership among students.

The students—from largely Hispanic, Native American, and/or low-income backgrounds— ranging from elementary through college-aged, will learn how to conduct ecological footprint assessments, develop action plans to reduce their footprints, and implement demonstration projects that build student leadership capacity while reducing greenhouse gasses. This grant will help advance each school’s commitment to site-based food production, recycling, composting, and generate awareness in the community about energy efficiency measures.

The TogetherGreen Innovation Grants are provided through an alliance between the National Audubon Society and Toyota. This program provides financial support for projects that use innovative approaches and technologies to engage new and diverse audiences in conservation. Since 2008, the TogetherGreen Innovation Grants program has awarded over $4.7 million to more than 160 environmental projects across the United States. This year alone, TogetherGreen grantees’ projects involve more than 150 partner organizations nationwide. Many of these projects focus on engaging audiences that have traditionally been underserved by the conservation movement, from urban youth to rural ranchers.

Promoting conservation and environmental awareness through education initiatives is nothing new to these two grantees. For nearly 18 years, Earth Works Institute (EWI) has been working in northern New Mexico schools and communities, bringing thousands of students from inside the classroom into the outdoors. In the last few years, EWI built outdoor classrooms in schoolyards, and engaged students, teachers, and school administrators in Green Teams for school-based climate change response. These programs included education on tracking energy consumption in schools, relationships between water, energy and food, and hands-on guided practice in building edible schoolyards.

“Our education program has been innovative and rewarding because it brings together people across New Mexico’s population diversity in a range of age groups,” says Jan-Willem Jansens, executive director of Earth Works Institute. “The Together Green project of Audubon New Mexico and EWI builds on the idea of connecting people across geographic and demographic boundaries to join in collaborative learning and initiating appropriate local action in schools and communities. By forming learning communities we build leadership capacity in a way that is both inspiring and fun.”

Similar to EWI, education is a primary goal of Audubon New Mexico and the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary. Audubon’s environmental educators strive to promote awareness of the interrelationship between people, land and wildlife through environmental education at their 135-acre wildlife sanctuary nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and also statewide. Their outdoor environmental education programs offer hands-on, nature-based activities designed to complement New Mexico’s science curriculum.

“Audubon New Mexico is looking forward to a busy year working with youth to promote conservation initiatives throughout diverse communities in our state,” said Karyn Stockdale, executive director of Audubon New Mexico. “With the help of the TogetherGreen grants we hope to plant seeds of conservation in tomorrow’s leaders to help create a sustainable future.”

Over the next several months of the school year, EWI and Audubon will work with students to kick-start demonstration projects in their schools. Along the way, they hope to share their hard work, creativity, and innovative ideas with local elected officials in an effort to demonstrate what it means for the next generation to lead by example.

For complete details about the 2011 TogetherGreen Innovation Grants projects, visit: www.togethergreen.org/grants.

For more on the organizations and schools involved in the Green Schools Collaborative:

Earth Works Institute / http://earthworksinstitute.org/

Audubon New Mexico / http://nm.audubon.org/

Institute of American Indian Arts / http://www.iaia.edu/

Rio Gallinas School / http://riogallinasschool.org/

Santa Fe High School / http://www.sbac.edu/~sfhs/