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Common Purpose / 21 August 2023
Conservation in action: Meet the leaders conserving your favourite green spaces
“Our number one mission is to ensure that the park is for everybody."
When you think of Central Park in New York City, the mind immediately associates it with a beautiful green sprawling space, a breath of fresh air amidst a concrete jungle. In Mexico City, Chapultepec Forest is a haven of nature and biodiversity between the hustle and bustle of busy city streets. Further afield across Mexico, rich forestland is a source of crucial natural resources benefiting the country – and the entire planet.
Within the expanse of these nature-filled spaces, conservation and safe utilisation of each is paramount. Any given individual who knows about, or is lucky enough to visit these spaces might not realise it, but behind the scenes, an immense amount of work is being carried out to do exactly this. At the forefront are leaders who are agile, resourceful and able to tackle big challenges that will ultimately impact millions of people. We spoke to four of them who generously gave us their insights about leading and working to conserve, maintain and showcase these critical spaces for all.
Central Park Conservancy: “Collaboration is key”
“Our number one mission is to ensure that the park is for everybody. We all work together to preserve our mission to keep Central Park as an open green space for New Yorkers and visitors alike.”
This is the mantra at Central Park Conservancy, as told to us by American Express Leadership Academy alumni Erica Blum who is the organization’s Senior Director of Special Events, and Jonathan Abreu, who is the Director of Park Maintenance.
Their combined efforts are no small feat: More than 42 million visitors pass through Central Park each year - on average, that’s more than 115,000 visitors per day. Combine this with the fact that the park plays host to more than 2,500 special events each year, and these not-so-insignificant numbers give you an idea of the impact their work is capable of having. So despite the fact that Erica and Jonathan work in separate entities of the Conservancy, their jobs must intersect frequently – and they’re both acutely aware of how crucial this collaboration is.
Where Erica will arrange major and smaller events with her team, Jonathan will ensure that the space for each event is maintained and accessible for attendees, and for the general public around it – whether it’s water blasting the pavement to clear up pathways, or maintaining the many restrooms across the park for safe and clean use.
“On the flip side to that, Jonathan also has certain areas and facilities within Central Park that might need funding, so we’ll keep that in mind when we’re working with donors to fundraise and solicit support,” explains Erica. “There’s a lot of collaboration between us, we’re constantly working together to execute whatever the final picture is.”
She continues: “We’re also always really trying to minimise our footprint so that we’re not impacting the public day-to-day use. So, for example if we’re setting up for an event we’ll ensure we come back to take it down that same day, or in some cases the next day to ensure that area is back open to the public.”
And while maintaining and showcasing areas of the park for the public’s enjoyment is paramount, it’s just as important to cultivate and maintain a supportive environment between their colleagues within the Conservancy, Jonathan adds.
“One of the core things the Academy allowed me to do is to be a bit more open to speaking about internal issues that may arise, and bringing those topics up to leadership,” he explains.
“It’s important to be really self-aware of your own impact over the things around you, and subsequently listening to other employees’ experiences in order to know when it’s necessary to push their agenda,” Jonathan explains.
“A team works best when they are in a safe and good place emotionally and professionally. And that is really what I want to focus on.”
Erica adds: “We both have a lot to juggle from a leadership perspective, and we both have large portfolios of work and that’s pretty vast, but at the end of the day what came out of the Academy was learning how we could work better together - collaboration is key.”
Chapultepec Forest: “Share professional growth”
An estimated 250,000 people pass through Chapultepec Forest over any given weekend. Across its 1,800 acres in the middle of Mexico City sit ten popular museums, a zoo, an amusement park, and a multitude of recreational spaces. It is also home to countless wildlife, and it was once responsible for a sixth of Mexico city’s water supply. The forest is both an urban reprieve for visitors and locals, and a crucial ecological tool for the city.
The importance of maintaining this green space for Mexico City isn’t lost on Lilia Haua Miguel who is the Director of Pro Bosque de Chapultepec, an organization dedicated to the rehabilitation and preservation of the forest. And this is precisely why she is dedicated to building and cultivating a small but committed team that has the capacity to execute this crucial and gratifying work.
“I obtain great satisfaction from sharing the professional growth that conferences, forums, and similar events can provide us while encouraging and empowering my team members to take ownership of their roles and contribute their unique skills and perspectives to achieve the organization's objectives,” she tells us.
These opportunities also allow her team to better connect with stakeholders, government agencies and other business entities that can, and do have an impact on the maintenance and conservation of the forest. It also sees them connect with community groups and volunteers who provide support from a grass-roots level.
Due to its significance to the city, Chapultepec Forest is managed under the Tripartite Management Scheme which involves the Government of Mexico City, the Pro Bosque Trust (of which Lilia has directed since 2008), and a Citizen Council representing Civil Society. Lilia and her team play a key part in collaborating with each of these entities in order to preserve this important green space.
“I do this by establishing a shared vision and goals among the members of our trust fund and operational staff, which is essential for progressing in the same direction,” she explains.
After attending the American Express Leadership Academy in New York City, Lilia deepened her understanding of leading and working within a supportive team environment, and she is dedicated to fostering this within her own organization.
“I prioritise team feedback sessions following the completion of events or projects,” she tells us.
“These sessions serve as valuable platforms for open discussions and constructive feedback. By encouraging my team members to share their perspectives, I create an atmosphere where everyone feels heard, valued, and involved in the organization's success.”
The success of laying these kinds of foundations are in plain sight. There’s no denying there is something very special about the forest – not only for our own individual benefit, but for the biodiversity that lives within, and around it. Lilia and her dedicated team have a lot to do with ensuring this sentiment is continually felt by its visitors, and hopefully for a long time to come.
Reforestamos Mexico: “Think global, act local”
“The environment is so much about the saying, ‘Think global, act local,’” says Raquel Jimenez Acosta, Global Action Director of Reforestamos Mexico, an organization dedicated to sustaining and expanding forest land in Mexico by bringing about partnerships with different sectors including business, local communities, NGOs and youth.
In her line of work, this thinking is critical in getting the support that is needed to maintain the thousands of acres of land her organization works to sustain. To put things into context, Mexico is home to about 12 per cent of the world’s biological diversity, yet it suffers from one of the highest rates of deforestation on the planet.
On a typical day, Raquel will engage with various stakeholders including other NGO’s and government agencies to fundraise and enact policy that will preserve and maintain Mexico’s forests. She also connects with external agencies across borders to influence global guidelines around biodiversity and climate change.
“I internalise the global agenda into our work, and that’s how we translate it into global action. My job is so much about talking with people, making partnerships and sharing knowledge with my colleagues so we can restore and maintain the parts of Mexico that we need to.”
It’s not a small task – an immense amount of work is required to bring about awareness for issues affecting Mexico’s forests, particularly when they’re not necessarily familiar to the general public, nor in plain sight. Where Central Park’s Erica and Jonathan and Chapaultepec’s Lilia work hard to enhance such visible, iconic green spaces, Raquel is working hard to save these other important spaces from disappearing entirely.
After attending the American Express Academy, Raquel came out with a deeper understanding of how she can implement different communication techniques effectively in order to better connect with the stakeholders who will help to repair and conserve Mexico’s forests.
“I speak to so many different types of people – so the message of thinking ‘audience before content’ was crucial. I communicate differently to the Government than I would to the private sector, or an NGO. I need to listen to their needs and understand the different ways we can support them. This is so important in solving problems for the environment. We need to adjust our messages for each entity, otherwise it’s going to be difficult to bring them to the table of discussion.”
Raquel also brings a sense of self-awareness to her work every day. Her purpose and passion is for the environment, and this passion is something that is deeply entrenched in the way she leads and connects with others.
“It’s so important to be convinced about what we are doing so that we can transmit to others our inspiration, our passion and why we are thinking that the issue or topic on which we are working is important for the society,” she explains. “We are not working for companies for lucrative purposes, we are working for the society and environment. It’s for the forest. It’s for people living in and from the forest. We as humans need the environment, and the eco-system delivers us that. We need to preserve it as best we can.”