Diversifying the Master Naturalists

"Map of Illinois counties with blue counties showing participation in the program
Extension staff who work with the Master Naturalist program in these counties are participating in the Diversity Master Naturalist program.

The Diversify Master Naturalist program is an initiative designed to make the Master Naturalist volunteer program more inclusive for all residents of Illinois by: 

  • Developing a community of practice around diversity issues and barriers to inclusion for program leaders.
  • Engaging with leaders in communities of color in the areas served by the program to understand how the program can better serve those communities and invite some of those leaders to serve as members of an advisory board to the program. Building these relationships should allow us to develop more culturally responsive and intentional recruitment strategies for the program.
  • Develop a continuing education module to provide trained Master Naturalists with a foundational knowledge of diversity issues in natural resource conservation, tools for working with diverse communities, and resources for growth.
  • Modify the Master Naturalist Manual, a central piece of the training program, so it is more accessible and relevant to diverse communities.

These objectives support the Extension mission, helping make the Master Naturalist program more accessible to a wider array of people, while also attracting more diverse participants to solve natural resource conservation problems.

The project is a collaboration between the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences Department, Illinois Extension, and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. It is funded by an Extension Collaboration Grant.

The Diversify Master Naturalist project began with one of Dr. Joy O'Keefe's career goals of diversifying her field of wildlife biology. After talking with Illinois Extension staff from around the state and learning of their excitement, she wrote a proposal for the Illinois Extension Collaboration Grant Program with Ross Wantland (Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion), Chris Evans (Interim State Master Naturalist Coordinator), Peggy Doty, and Abigail Garofalo (Extension Educators). The proposed project was funded for two years.

The first year of the Diversify Master Naturalist project, 2021, focused on developing a Community of Practice curriculum for Master Naturalist coordinators. We asked each of the Extension Unit Directors to nominate one Master Naturalist coordinator from their unit to participate in the Community of Practice. With these participants, we learned and discussed systemic racism, barriers to participation in environmental conservation by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and to understand how diverse groups interact with natural resources and conservation practices. At the end of this Community of Practice, we identified structural and curriculum suggestions for the Master Naturalist program to implement in the upcoming years.  

In 2022 and beyond, the goals are to develop a continuing education module for Certified Master Naturalists; this module will build on work done in the Community of Practice and will aim to give Master Naturalists the tools to provide educational programs and naturalist services in communities of color. With input from the advisory board and suggestions from the Community of Practice, we plan to modify the Master Naturalist training materials and modes of delivery to be more inclusive and relevant. While these suggestions may take some time to implement, at the end of the grant's timeline there will be suggestions laid out for Extension staff to act on with future program changes.