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WWF works to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, collaborating with partners from local to global levels in nearly 100 countries.
WWF is thrilled to announce Alexia Leclercq as the winner of the 2022 Conservation Leadership Award. This prestigious award seeks to celebrate the accomplishments of outstanding young leaders who are pushing the needle for environmental conservation. It provides a monetary award as well as access to a global platform and experts.
Leclercq (she/they pronouns) is a grassroots organizer, educator, scholar, and artist whose primary focus is the realm of environmental justice. They are the co-founder of the Colorado River Conservancy and the environmental justice education non-profit Start:Empowerment. At 22 years old, Leclercq is currently a graduate student at Harvard University and has been instrumental in fighting against pollution and injustice in their community of East Austin, TX.
"I'm honored to be receiving this award in recognition of my work protecting the Colorado River and addressing environmental injustices impacting the nearby communities,” Leclercq said. “I hope to continue seeing this shift away from racist conservation models and towards centering Indigenous and local communities."
A key concept underpins all of Alexia’s efforts: interconnectedness. “We’re all connected,” they said. “We’re connected to the land and to each other. And so, we need to practice taking care of each other and the land.”
They credit Buddhist teachings and their cultural background as a Taiwanese person with Hakka and Indigenous ancestry for their philosophy, as well as the way their mother raised them to feel a deep connection to the Earth.
“As a child, I would always step outside my door to feel the forest breathe,” they said about growing up in Taiwan. Gradually, they noticed the environment around their home changing, with pollution marring the once healthy landscape. They wondered if there was anything they could do to fight back against the destruction of nature, and their desire to act only became stronger when they moved to Texas in middle school. Now, there was another factor to the equation: environmental injustice. East Austin, where a majority of the residents are Black, and Brown, was experiencing severe pollution and green spaces were sparse, but West Austin, which is a higher-income predominantly white community, had significantly stronger environmental protections in place.
Leclercq describes East Austin as a vibrant community, speaking with a smile about its mix of diverse cultures and great cuisine. Being introduced at such a young age to the injustices that the area faces, Leclercq sought to understand the problem on a deeper scale. They trace the disparities to a 1928 master zoning plan which forcibly relocated all Black and Mexican American residents to the East side of town alongside industrial facilities. Over time, that meant that the air, water, and soil pollution from these facilities was leading to disproportionate rates of health issues like cancer among the area’s residents. And yet, Leclercq posits, as a result of decades of systemic discrimination, authorities were slow to act—if they acted at all—to protect East Austin’s communities.
In the face of this threat to their community, Leclercq sought ways to speak up and take action. And if the opportunities weren’t there, Leclercq created them. In 2020, they founded the Colorado River Conservancy alongside community organizers with the goal to “protect, preserve, and restore one of Austin’s most precious natural resources: the wild green stretch of the Lower Colorado River.” Since then, Leclercq has facilitated a number of conservation efforts, including organizing community members to conduct water quality testing, working with scientists and city planners to develop a vision for a healthier and more sustainable future of the river corridor, and catalyzing the passing of a city-wide resolution on the protection of streams and creeks in the area from pollution. Additionally, they are leading a community movement to pressure Tesla—whose headquarters is in Austin—to commit to a project that would protect and restore key local wetland and grassland ecosystems.
"Environmental justice is creating a sustainable future where everyone has access to a clean and healthy environment," Leclercq said.
Leclercq’s extraordinary leadership doesn’t stop there. They see their role as “the glue” that brings together community voices and stakeholders and grows the movement. That’s exactly what they’re accomplishing through their education non-profit, Start:Empowerment, whose founding was prompted by a noticeable lack of educational materials on environmental justice. Start:Empowerment’s curricula centers Indigenous Knowledge and cultural teachings from communities of color, focusing on themes such as food justice, water rights, land defenders, and more. A key goal of the materials is to highlight the connections between environmental issues and social and political systems. To date, Leclercq and their colleagues have reached over 120,000 students across the US. Leclercq speaks warmly about how exciting it has been to see the outpour of interest in the organization’s materials, as well as the ways in which teachers and students get to relate to the topics and bring in their own life experiences to the learning process.
Hearing about their numerous accomplishments, one may wonder where Leclercq finds the time and energy for all of it. The distinguished scholar shares that reconnecting with nature is a crucial method of recharging.
“I basically enforce rest on myself by blocking off time on my calendar,” Leclercq said. They speak fondly of the mountains of Taiwan as a place they’d like to return to, and they also confess that they’re obsessed with capybaras.
From advocating for national environmental justice legislation to pursuing multiple research projects to examine the effects that pollution has on people and the planet, Leclercq always points to their connection to nature as a driving force. “It’s an extension of ourselves,” they say. “It’s not us protecting the environment. It’s nature defending itself. When you see [nature] as part of you, you have no choice but to take care of each other.”
“Alexia is an exceptional environmental leader,” said Rebecca Shaw, WWF’s chief scientist, who served on this year’s award selection committee. “While organizing community conservation efforts to address climate change, water pollution, and environmental justice, they have also worked actively to contribute to intellectual foundations of policy to combat environmental racism on the local, state, and national levels. Their commitment to delivering a healthy environment for all is critical to delivering an equitable, just, and sustainable future.”