Bilal Key; Certified EcoLeader; After School Counselor at YMCA

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The National Wildlife Federation EcoLeaders Career Center is celebrating the motivating stories and career accomplishments of young professionals making their names (and a difference) in the sustainability movement. We’re calling this group of change-makers and rising stars “The EcoLeaders Top 50 Inspirations.”

Interviewee: Bilal Key
Certified EcoLeader
After School Counselor at YMCA

Interviewer: David Corsar, NWF

Bilal is a Certified EcoLeader and an after-school counselor at YMCA in Queens, NY. The project for which Bilal received certification was a 2013-2014 Toyota Green Ambassadorship at Lincoln University promoting the program through contests, social media, and collecting 1,350 green pledges

David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as a Certified NWF EcoLeader with your Toyota Green Ambassador project and HBCU Leadership Training Participant help shape your career path?
Bilal Key:
I think it’s given me a well-rounded experience on which to build a career path. Working on the HBCU Leadership training gave me a lot of firsthand experience in the field. Also, I was acting as a consultant for my university while serving as a Toyota Green Ambassador and Sustainability board student representative at the university level – this has all given me a plethora of firsthand experience to see how differences can be made for sustainability on campuses.

While I was there, I got lot of experience seeing the politics involved in moving the university forward and being greener and sustainable. A lot of people didn’t understand what it means to be sustainable and how to become greener. It’s all about making it relatable, and that experience helped me shape how I see myself in the sustainability field.

DC: Looking back at those experiences, what would you say was the top thing that you learned in your professional development at NWF?
I would say being patient with people is number one. When working with different people, you’ve really got to meet them where they are.

The second thing will be time management. I was doing the work of a Toyota Green Ambassador by myself. I had some support from faculty, but I didn’t get a lot of it, so it became a balancing act with my academics. As a junior and senior in college, it can be rough, but I would say that I improved my time management skills due to the professional opportunity that I received. Knowing not to take too much on is important, but also knowing how to balance projects and studies is too.

DC: What are you up to these days?
Right now, I work for the YMCA here in Queens, NY - in Flushing. I am an after school counselor. I do lesson plans for third graders in STEM, art, literacy, values, team building, and more, and I am able to plug my environmental expertise into my lessons. Throughout this whole week - since it is national environmental education week - we will be focusing on Earth Day coming up on April 22, so I catered my lessons for this week towards that.

DC: What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability?
My career goal is to become a sustainability director at an HBCU. In addition, I want to be a sustainability consultant for the African American and Latino communities. When I got into this field, I saw that there were not a lot of minorities represented at the time. As of recent a lot of existing organizations have started to diversify their employees and have made some steps to address environmental justice issues. Also, initially, a lot of the problems within the field of environmental justice interested me and ignited my passion and motivation.

I would say my goal is to go back to the community and help out in terms of addressing the environmental justice issues needed to move towards sustainability, things like addressing food deserts, energy efficiency, etc.

DC: What motivated you to begin this path towards those goals?
The lack of representation from the African-American and Latino communities that I saw when I looked into this field in the beginning. I saw that my university, at that point, was not up to par in being sustainable, and I realized that was an opportunity to go and make my mark. And use that as a springboard for my career. I wanted to jump into the field and make some things happen and be a difference.

DC: Who are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainability movement?
First, definitely, Dr. Robert Bullard is one of my inspirations.

Ms. Felicia Davis out of Atlanta with the Building Green Institute; she’s the one that plugged me into the Toyota Green program.

Another person would be Nana Firman; she does a lot with the interfaith communities and engaging that movement in addressing environmentalism and sustainability.

DC: Did you have any mentors or career coaches assist you in developing your career path?
Yes, I’ve had mentors throughout my high school and college careers who have inspired me to reach the goals that I set.

On a collegiate level, the environmental science program wasn’t as big, so I got a lot of support from other places. When I did my internship in communications, Eric Christopher Webb, who was the Director of Public Relations and Communications, helped me to focus my track on environmentalism. We had a lot of talks about career advancement, etc.; I was in his office like every day.

On a high school level, I would say my principal, Shirley Dye. She had been there for me since I was in middle school and high school, and has given me the needed support, not only from a career standpoint but also from a moral and spiritual support throughout my tenure from high school to college.

DC: What would you say makes those types of relationships work?
BK: I think a major key is that mentors need to be real with their mentees and vice versa to understand where they’re at. Being down to earth, honest, and upfront are major keys to developing a healthy mentor to mentee relationship. Share the experiences that you had when you were in college or from your professional field – from your life. Because it can be hard for mentees, especially nowadays with how college and the professional world is. The youth are hungry for a relatable story, an example of someone who didn’t give up, a person who stuck in the fight and fought for his or her career. Being a mentor is more than just helping someone find a job it’s about being there to be a figure of moral, spiritual, and mental support.

DC: Do you plan to seek out opportunities to act as a mentor yourself and/or to be mentee again?
I consider myself a mentee and mentor. I look forward to learning from more people and professionals throughout my life. From a mentor’s perspective, I like to give back my experiences to other professionals, up-and-coming EcoLeaders, or just people in general about my experiences so far.

DC: Along those lines, what would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability?
BK: First, do your research on the path that you want to go into. Sustainability is a broad field - there’s a broad spectrum of what you can do, don’t limit yourself. I would also say to make sure you keep your grades high. Seek out any types of internships while in undergrad, or even while in high school, if you can do internships or volunteer work in the field of sustainability, DO IT. That would be a plus because employers are looking for people who have more first-hand experience and skills. Lastly, if you can, find a good mentor or mentors that can show you the ropes on how to navigate your field.

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Date Added: May 15, 2017
Date Last Modified: May 15, 2017