February 1, 2021 |Kristie George

African Americans in Conservation: Young Black Conservationists to Know

Julius Tillery
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Julius Tillery. Photo by Visual Vic.

A native of North Carolina, Julius Tillery is a fifth-generation farmer. Julius values sustainability, efficiency, supporting his local community, and creating jobs while running his family-owned farm. In 2016, Julius founded the business BlackCotton to monetize cotton in a new way—centering and uplifting their nearby Black community by selling hand-made products created using cotton that they cultivate and care for.

He is inspired to work with organizations that provide support, services, and resources to farmers and landowners. Julius is an advocate for more diversity in farming because it benefits the entire industry to have different solutions and perspectives brought to the table. Diversity also allows for equal representation at farmers markets and marketing to encourage more Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) customers and future farmers. “Conservationists and organizations need to have goals beyond the number of acres conserved and dollars of conservation easements placed. Measurements of success are isolated to these categories currently and historically. Including measurements around number of visitors, donors, overall impact on the general population, and inclusivity is also important,” says Julius.

Julius is also the North Carolina State Coordinator for Black Family Land Trust, whose mission is dedicated to ensuring, protecting and preserving African American owned lands. Prior to the pandemic, Julius was an instructor at Roanoke-Chowan Community College for Modern Agriculture, where he taught new ways to create value-added products, promote agritourism, change industry terminology, and modernize advertising.


“I am an advocate for the agricultural community, the environment, and sustainability of land. It is important that I am serving the people of my community through my work.”

– Julius Tillery


Kelsi Eccles
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Kelsi Eccles. Photo by Stacy Funderburke.

Kelsi Eccles is the Communications Manager for The Conservation Fund’s Parks with Purpose program and Georgia Alabama office. She raises awareness for the Fund’s urban conservation projects across the Southeast, including Parks with Purpose, Finding the Flint, and the Atlanta Watershed Learning Network.

Previously, Kelsi was a Project Manager for Parks with Purpose, working with residents to transform blighted, inner city properties into vibrant new parks through equitable park development projects and a community-centered approach. Being an Atlanta native and coming from a long line of community activists has given Kelsi a special bond with the projects, communities, and local partner organizations that she works with.


“At The Conservation Fund we are doing work that underscores the importance of equity, includes local organizations, and is beneficial to Black communities.”

– Kelsi Eccles


As a Black Conservationist, Kelsi understands the importance of asking who are we protecting land for and what are we protecting land from? Diversity is currently playing a bigger role in American culture, and being able to answer these questions holistically will allow organizations to serve all communities. “The passion for my work is driven by the people I work with in the communities that we support. When I first started, they were educating me and I continue to learn from them! Their determination to not give up on their communities drives me to continue to support the community by treating them not only like partners, but as extended members of my family,” says Kelsi.

Atiya Wells, BSN, RN & Victoria Rose Brusaferro, Ph.D.
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Atiya Wells (left; photo by Bruce Weller) and Dr. Victoria Rose Brusaferro (right; photo courtesy Dr. Brusaferro).

Atiya Wells and Dr. Victoria Rose Brusaferro make up two-thirds of the Backyard Basecamp team. Backyard Basecamp introduces, educates, and connects families in Baltimore, especially those of color, to local outdoor spaces. Atiya is the Founder and Executive Director, and Dr. Brusaferro joined Backyard Basecamp as the Environmental Education Programs Specialist.

Atiya’s love of nature blossomed 10 years ago during a surprise hike planned by her husband. Hiking grew into a family affair once their daughter Kori was born. After realizing that Kori would need some more encouragement to enjoy hiking as much as her parents, Atiya sought out outdoor programs geared toward children. After leading outdoor nature meetups with Free Forest School she saw the critical need to create a safe space for Black people to connect with nature.


“I had to do a lot of relearning and unlearning about the Black community’s history with the environment and how that relationship has developed.”

– Atiya Wells


She understood the easiest way to find her audience was in public schools, so she started Backyard Basecamp to educate teachers on how to integrate nature into curriculums. Today Backyard Basecamp offers family-friendly programs in educator training, village building, habitat discovery, gardening, and wellness walks.

“The pandemic has allowed people to become more interested in self-reliance and home gardening. We have provided grow bags, seeds, seedlings to our local community to allow everyone—no matter where they live—to start growing,” says Atiya.

Backyard Basecamp will soon be launching a funding campaign for phase two development of BLISS Meadows, which is a 10-acre land reclamation project bringing educational farming and equitable access to green space in Baltimore’s Frankford neighborhood. BLISS Meadows is currently in the renovation process, and once complete will provide office space, secure storage, a kitchen for healthy-eating programming, workshops, a library, and an indoor garden.

Backyard Basecamp values reinvigorating the connection with nature within BIPOC communities, and advocates for the need to not create green gentrification while doing so. “It’s been personally very spiritually healing to tap into that part of myself and be so close to nature. My passion for connecting others to that same experience is what drives me,” says Atiya.

Dr. Brusaferro credits her Italian father for her connection to nature. Growing up on a Chesapeake Bay marina provided ample opportunities to build an up-close and personal relationship with nature. She knew early on that her passion and future career would be within the environmental space, and received a B.S. in Biology from Stevenson University. In 2015, Dr. Brusaferro earned her M.S. in Environmental Science from Towson University and in 2019 earned her Ph.D. in Sustainability Education from Prescott College. Her work and research is rooted in childhood environmental education, and she has worked with organizations such as Irvine Nature Center, Shenandoah National Park, and Wild Haven Forest Preschool.

During her academic career, Dr. Brusaferro became more involved with environmental justice and the importance of having Black faces in the environmental and conservation spaces, which are predominately white.


“Organizations need to go beyond saying that we are welcome to actively saying we belong, and asking how can they keep us here.”

– Dr. Victoria Rose Brusaferro


Now working with Backyard Basecamp, she continues her work to create sustainable communities and a culture paradigm shift, so that equitable access to nature becomes the norm. “Environmental education for both children and adults is important, because it is a hands-on experiential way of learning, which is more sustainable and effective, than traditional western education systems,” says Dr. Brusaferro.

Find Out More

African Americans in Conservation: Recognizing the Past to Inspire a Better Future
In our second post of the series African Americans in Conservation, we look to our past to inspire a better future by honoring those who have paved the way for Black conservationists.

Written by

Kristie George

At the time of publication, Kristie George was Graphic Designer for The Conservation Fund.