Flora magazine
The official magazine of the California Native Plant Society

FLORA MAGAZINE | FEATURED INTERVIEW

Hasta La Tierra (To the Earth)

Closing the Nature Gap in Latino Communities and Beyond

Summer 2022

By Siobhán Eagen

When Brenda Gallegos’ family immigrated to the United States, her parents wanted what so many immigrants across the world dream of for their children—a better life. Education was their top priority, and outdoor activities like camping or fishing weren’t part of Brenda’s experience as a child, she explains.

Not until her early teens did Gallegos have her first significant outdoor experience on a field trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

“At that time, I did not know what public lands were,” recalls Brenda, a conservation program associate with Hispanic Access Foundation. “I did not know what any of that meant. Little by little, I kind of started just investigating on my own and sparking the interest, especially because I was in love with animals.”

Her passion for animals inspired her to become a wildlife biologist, a choice that introduced her to nonprofit advocacy work.

“I got to discover that when I was a lot older, and I wish I would have done that earlier,” she says.

Brenda’s experience mirrors that of many people belonging to historically marginalized communities, where families may not have time or financial resources for vacations, and parks, trails, or beaches are often far away. Advocates and some policymakers refer to this as the “nature gap,” and Brenda is part of a movement to close it.

Today, Gallegos is focused on improving Latinos’ access to nature through her work at the foundation and as chair of the equity committee for the 30×30 Power in Nature coalition. The coalition is a diverse mix of advocates, including CNPS, who are working to advance the State of California’s commitment to protect 30% of lands and waters by 2030. California’s goals are part of an international 30×30 effort, but what’s different here is that equity and access are core values of the initiative, driven by Governor Newsom’s October 2020 Executive Order N-82-20.

Belinda Faustinos works with Brenda on the 30×30 Power in Nature campaign, serving on both the equity and government affairs committees. A strategic advisor for L.A. Waterkeeper, Belinda explains that many Latinos live in communities without natural spaces accessible by foot or bus.

“I feel like I fought this battle back in the ‘60s, and it’s still being fought,” says Faustinos. As part of her work, she has championed a specific request coming from the coalition: asking California’s leaders to set aside 50% of its 30×30 funds for investments in the communities who need it most.

Brenda’s organization, Hispanic Access Foundation, has tracked these needs for years and in 2014 created Latino Conservation Week to encourage Latinos to join together to enjoy the outdoors and participate in conservation. This year, Latino Conservation Week runs from July 16 – 24. To help commemorate the week, Gallegos and Faustinos talked to Flora about equity in outdoor spaces and conservation.

Siobhan EagenSiobhán: In your bio on the Hispanic Access Foundation website, you, you say that failing a 9th grade biology exam pushed you to pursue it and grow to love it. What you describe is a key pivot point for many students. What do you feel is most needed to support students at these moments and increase the diversity of people entering fields like ecology and plant science? 

Brenda: I think the best way to start is actually engaging kids in high school. I definitely feel like a lot of folks forget that students should still be engaged in high school. There’s a lot of early education opportunities. High school students sometimes need that extra push, because that’s when they’re trying to find themselves and figure out what they want to do.

There are a lot of ways to understand science and ecology. Do you ever feel like sometimes there’s maybe so much of an emphasis on academic process, that it closes people off who perhaps have, or would have, talent if they weren’t so worried about the grade?

Brenda: Sometimes academics aren’t as important as the passion part of it. It’s sometimes rough, because a lot of these tests are standardized. Every student learns differently.

“There are students that learn by reading, and then there’s the hands-on student that needs to physically be out in the field to learn a lot of what it is that they love to do. It’s different seeing a plant in a book compared to seeing a plant out in nature.”

One thing we love about the work both of you are doing is that it focuses on both people and conservation. Too often, we treat people as the problem, not part of the solution, when in fact people are nature too. What do you think is needed to shift our society’s perceptions toward that of belonging to rather than separation from nature?

Belinda: Field trips don’t exist anymore in a lot of educational spaces. I think we need to advocate for that. Having access to the outdoors is just so critically important, and most of our school yards are asphalt. There is a big movement nationally to convert school yards, so that students have the opportunity to experience biodiversity and nature. Even if you could do a butterfly garden, that starts cascading to other things—having the opportunity so that kids can experience nature in different ways. How can we have camping outings that are part of the school experience for those who can’t do it with their families?

Brenda: I think one of the things that should be a little bit more focused on is engaging different communities, diverse communities. I know for the most part there is focus on the green groups, but there are also other communities that are focused on conservation. Hispanic Access, for years, has been working with faith-based groups. Their purpose is to protect God’s creation. In the Latino communities, people look towards their community leader, which usually is their faith leader. Not only should government agencies and state agencies start engaging with different communities, but also look for those community leaders that they haven’t seen before.

Let’s talk some about the changing face of the conservation community. Recently, there’s been a lot of internal reckoning in the environmental community about its colonialist origins and overwhelming whiteness. Today, we’re seeing an exciting shift in greater respect for Tribal land management and Traditional Ecological Knowledge. At the same time, groups like Hispanic Access Foundation, Latino Outdoors, Outdoor Afro, and many smaller community-based organizations are emerging in the environmental space. How can those of us that care about both nature and equity better support these movements?

Brenda: I think equity has many definitions. Equity in the environment and the outdoors means having the access to clean air, clean water and having it truly accessible. We can have access to a park, but it could still not be accessible. If it’s an hour away, that doesn’t make it accessible. So, one of the huge things that we like to advocate for is having the ability to have a park 10 minutes away or having access 10 minutes away or having some kind of barrier broken down.

Belinda: If we don’t deliver on the promise of the potential for 30×30—to invest in communities that have been disinvested over the years—then we’ve really missed the mark. In urban areas, it’s tough to do that, because there are so many needs. These projects take longer and they take more money because of where they are. The same thing is true for rural communities where you may live next to 500 acres of agricultural land, but that doesn’t mean that you have access to nature. I think it’s got to be flexible, and we need to have that local community self-determination as to what they want and what they need for their own community. Maybe something is really important to one community but maybe not so much to another one. What I really want is, if the funding is there to create parks or support other projects, and there’s a need in the community, let’s try to merge the two.

Group photo with a Hispanic Access Foundation banner
Hispanic Access Foundation group hike; Image: Brenda Gallegos

Plants represent a distinct intersection between people and natural habitats. For thousands of generations, Native Californians have carefully tended and relied upon native plants. Today, all kinds of people are seeking a relationship with plants, from super bloom followers to foragers. How do we encourage each other to nurture that connection while also honoring respectful reciprocal relationships with plants and other living creatures? 

Brenda: I definitely think it has to do with education—teaching each other about respecting the land and respecting plants and respecting nature, figuring out the best communication for each generation. For Generation Z, maybe we use Tiktok; maybe Facebook for other folks, maybe the newspaper, and for some other folks, that might be radio. I think just figuring out the best communication to get that information across is definitely a good starting point. That’s also how a lot of our communities are missed, because we don’t know the communication that they use the most and what’s effective for them.

Thousands of CNPS members will be reading this interview; what’s something that you really want readers to know about equity in the outdoors and 30×30?

Brenda: Any type of engagement in 30×30 is important. If you could just do an email, a call, a comment of any kind [it] is helpful. Anything that is going to help your community, anything that’s going to help conservation is important. It can be small, but it can always stack up to help out in the larger picture.

Belinda: I would ask that they also have an open mind about the opportunities for addressing those issues in underserved communities, and how nature can be restored. We all know that our little part of the state that we’re coming from was at one time full of nature, and we as humans have altered that ecosystem. In the same way that we altered it, we can bring it back. And so making sure that there’s an appreciation for the benefits of restoration, and how that can better serve the overall goals of 30×30, is just as critical to understand. There are still some people that really feel like, ‘Yeah, you need to restore nature in those areas, but it’s not as important as protecting what already exists.’ Unless people understand what the value of nature is close to where they are they’re never going to appreciate this bigger goal. The types of policy actions that are going to be necessary to implement 30×30 have to be supported by a broad-based population, including BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color] people. If we don’t make it relevant for them, we’re going to miss the boat.

Latino Conservation Week

Three people picking up trash by a body of water.
Community clean-up event with the Hispanic Access Foundation. Image: Brenda Gallegos

Disfrutando y Conservando Nuestra Tierra is an initiative of Hispanic Access Foundation. Latino Conservation Week was created to support the Latino community getting into the outdoors and participating in activities to protect our natural resources.

During this week, community, non-profit, faith-based, and government organizations and agencies hold events throughout the country. From hiking and camping to community roundtables and film screenings, these activities promote conservation efforts and provide opportunities for Latinos to show their support for permanently protecting natural resources.

Latino Conservation Week has also resulted in broader coverage of the Latino role in conservation in both English and Spanish media. It’s led to recognition from local, state and national elected officials of the important role Latinos play as stewards. Latino Conservation Week has emphasized the Latino community’s passion for the outdoors. Get involved: LatinoConservationWeek.com

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