Celebrating Black History-Makers: Interview with Niquole Esters

Interview by Brenda Asare, President & CEO and Thandi Cai, Marketing Associate

Black History-Makers transcend boundaries and redefine possibilities. Through resilience and innovative approaches, these trailblazers illuminate a path toward inclusivity, unity and a shared human experience, shaping a future that reflects the best of humanity. We spotlight Niquole Esters, Senior Director of Inclusive Philanthropy at Conservation International, a leader with profound contributions to advancing global conservation efforts.

Person standing in the middle of a field smiles.

About Black History-Makers

In a world where history is continually shaped, we celebrate Black History-Makers: leaders transcending boundaries, leaving an indelible mark on their fields. These visionaries redefine possibilities, not solely for the Black community but for all. Their narratives unfold a shared journey toward a future that reflects the best of who we are as humans. Through resilience, innovation, and unwavering dedication, these trailblazers illuminate a path toward inclusivity, unity, and a world that mirrors the richness of our shared human experience. Join us as we spotlight the contributions of these leaders, whose endeavors inspire and redefine history in real time.

In this interview, we shine a light on Niquole Esters, Senior Director of Inclusive Philanthropy at Conservation International, an international environmental nonprofit celebrating its 38th year this year. Her profound approach to relationship building has created ripples across the globe, advancing conservation efforts with long-lasting impact in countries grappling with pressing environmental concerns.

You’ve been a leader in ensuring diverse people and voices are central to the environmental conservation movement. How do you believe this diversity contributes to the effectiveness and sustainability of conservation efforts?

If you’re creating a product to sell to somebody, you test your thoughts and your product with lots of different people. It’s the same situation with conservation. Different people give you feedback to make an impact on the environment, sustainability and conservation efforts. You talk to people who are on the front lines of those challenges and who have millennia worth of knowledge.

The other thing that you must do is find mutual respect. If I’ve talked to you but you don’t really feel that connection when I leave, you can just go back to your normal practices. If that kind of respect for creating something that benefits everyone isn’t in place, then it weakens the whole effort.

I was in Kenya and got to visit a partner village community that was working to address drought and restoration of grasslands. Outside organizations had brought in certain technologies and tools, saying “Okay, this is what you should be doing.” Then, they happened to bring in the Maasai elders who took one look at the new plans and said, “That’s not going to work because of this…” The great thing now is that the work has been changed to combine Maasai traditional knowledge and the external approaches, because, shockingly, the Maasai have their own practices to deal with these challenges, too. You would not have been able to improve and have a better result until you had that conversation with local folks who have been there for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Still frame taken from the short film Gwala Rising in the Bwanabwana Islands by Conservation International, 2018.

What is a specific initiative or project where the inclusion of diverse perspectives has led to innovative solutions or an outcome that you didn’t expect?

My favorite story is an experience that I had in Papua New Guinea. We’ve been working in Milne Bay, the largest maritime province in the southeast portion of the country. And we’ve been working with local partners and communities around coral reef management, fisheries management and ocean and coastal marine resource management.  We had some extra funding, and we wanted to do something different.

We ended up making a short film Gwala Rising in the Bwanabwana Islands, a little under fifteen minutes long, focused on conversations between community members — importantly and critically in their local language. We went to several different communities, and we listened to their experiences. It was produced with this funding, but the key part of it was for us to say, “Here you go, do with it what you want to do.”

Since then, it’s been on regular rotation on local TV.  It’s been used in in Papua New Guinean universities. It’s been showcased in workshops in different Pacific Island nations. It’s taken on a life of its own and it’s resulted in people setting up their own management plans and their protected areas, making their own decisions.

That wouldn’t have happened if, if we hadn’t led with,  ‘Let’s hear their voices. Let’s honor their knowledge. Let’s honor their practices and traditions and elevate them to equal respect in application.’

An elderly woman weaves a basket.
Still frame taken from an interview for the short film Gwala Rising in the Bwanabwana Islands by Conservation International, 2018.

How can individuals from various backgrounds be inspired and actively participate in ensuring that environmental movement truly affects the diversity of the communities it seeks to protect?

I chose the environment when I was in kindergarten. I went to the Washington, D. C. Smithsonian National Zoo. I saw some pandas and that was it. Then I went to SeaWorld (for better or for worse), I saw orcas, and it was oceans ever since. I’m still passionate about oceans.

I always knew that this was what I wanted to do. I was also hyper-aware of being the only person who looked like me in the room. Sometimes I might be the only American or only American female in the room, but I’m usually the only Black American female in the room.

I also try to tell others that you don’t have to be one thing. My background is politics and international relations. I work with teachers, filmmakers, economists, lawyers, journalists — I work with all different kinds of people who find themselves with a passion for nature. As more people recognize the interconnectivity between nature and how you feel in your mental and physical health and your economic opportunities, doors open for people who traditionally might not have thought about themselves as a nature person or environmental person.

It’s key to note that Black and Brown people are the ones who get the short end of the stick when it comes to environmental causes. No one except us is going to advocate for us in the way that we need it and the way that’s going to make a change for us for our communities.

What advice do you want to give to future generations?

I mentor a lot of people and I’m passionate about diversifying the environmental field. What I like to tell people is that you can have multiple passions! When I was panicking about my future thinking, “I want to work with the environment and I want to do theater and I want to own a bookstore,” my mom said to me, “Well, why can’t you do all three?” I hadn’t thought about that — life is a journey.

You will change and evolve and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is so much to this world, and there are even more options for young people to do what they want to do, to see what they want to see and to achieve what they want to achieve.