Meet WWF’s 2020 Conservation Leadership Award winner Alexa White

Alexa White stands in front of a river and city skyline smiling at the camera

WWF is thrilled to announce Alexa White as the winner of the second-annual WWF-US Conservation Leadership Award. This award aims to give the next generation of conservation leaders access to a global platform and experts. It also provides a financial prize that can be used to further recipients’ professional or educational goals related to their conservation work.

A Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, White is an agroecologist and climate advocate. Her work revolves around the relationship between international governance, food security, and food sovereignty, or the right of people to healthy, culturally appropriate food that was produced in ecologically sound ways. In particular, White’s dissertation examines the ways that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2 “Zero Hunger” impacts biodiversity on small-scale farms and how those farms are managed. In addition to her exceptional academic work, White serves as co-director of Climate Blue, a student-led organization that aims to educate and empower the University of Michigan community to make informed choices regarding climate science, policy, and the impacts of the climate crisis.

“I’m excited to receive this award because it will give me the opportunity to conduct the research needed for my dissertation,” White says. “It will also provide me with a platform, as an African-American woman, in particular, to speak about the importance of food sovereignty, and what it means for farmers to participate in international environmental governance systems.”

Alexa White smiles while surrounded by lush greenery

White on a coffee farm in Utuado, Puerto Rico, where she was studying the impact of Anolis lizards on farm pests in 2018.

The selection committee for the 2020 award had a challenging task because of the outstanding applications received. Among dozens of exceptional young leaders, White stood out for her stellar commitment to driving change on many levels. While Climate Blue members focus on informing the university community, they do so by attending international conferences like the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP) which are not usually easily accessible to young advocates. The members then bring back insights from conferences to University of Michigan students and hold informational events like a Model UN summit that emulates for students what it’s like to be part of the international governance community. When Covid-19 disrupted all gatherings like the COP, White and her colleagues redirected their efforts into creating a virtual network of COP delegate students whose universities are carbon neutral. The purpose of the network would be to share expertise around carbon neutrality and help more schools become carbon neutral.

The pandemic has impacted White’s dissertation work as well. Her plan to use the funds she received with this award to conduct her dissertation research in Jamaica and Hawaii is facing a serious delay. Nevertheless, White still plans to travel to the two island regions as soon as it is safe to do so. There she will conduct interviews with a network of small-scale farmers regarding sustainable agriculture practices, farm management, and interactions with governments on levels from local to international. Jamaica and Hawaii are both places that may bear the brunt of sea-level rise and increased storm frequency as a result of the climate crisis, so White is hoping that her Ph.D. work will help elevate climate resiliency practices from small-scale farmers there into culturally sensitive international policy.

Beyond completing her dissertation, White has ambitious plans for her future. One of her long-term goals revolves around increasing accessibility of international environmental governance and sustainable development decisions to people who are often left out of those conversations but are most affected by them. Further, White’s passion for food sovereignty informs her hope to help build more unity and sustainability around food—from its production to its availability for all.

Despite being so early in her career, White has already had a great impact in the environmental space. WWF strives to elevate and support the work of outstanding young leaders like her through initiatives like the Conservation Leadership Award. The kind of cutting-edge innovation and perseverance that White shows are crucial in helping protect our habitats and communities from environmental degradation in a timely manner.

“Alexa emerged as an exceptional leader in a pool of outstanding applicants,” says WWF’s Sara Thomas, senior director of activism. “Her dedication to making food systems more sustainable for people and nature is a necessary way forward in today's world where our broken relationship with nature is at the heart of global food insecurities. WWF is honored to recognize Alexa with the Conservation Leadership Award and looks forward to partnering with her over the next year to advance a more secure, sustainable future where people and nature thrive together."