The Right to Go Outside: An Interview with Cris Sarabia

Cris Sarabia on access and equity.

By Liv O’Keeffe

At the time of this interview, the COVID-19 pandemic had been shaking the world for five months, and Californians had been sheltering in place for more than two. I called CNPS Board President Cris Sarabia to talk with him from his home in Long Beach. Outside his apartment, there was a commotion going on. Sirens. Lots of them. At first Sarabia was concerned.

Air pollution in Los Angeles viewed from Hollywood Hills. Photo: David Iliff. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

“My neighborhood can be kinda crazy,” he said. “Sirens blaze all day, every day. You have to be careful. There’s a lot of drug use and violence outside.”

Then he realized it was a teacher appreciation parade. Kids were out on the sidewalk yelling and laughing. “This is great,” he said. “The kids are outside!” He paused, taking in the sounds, and added, “I worry about the kids, you know. They’re usually stuck inside in a digital world because it’s not safe enough outside. We just look the other way and forget about them.”

Cris Sarabia
Cris Sarabia, President CNPS Board of Directors

Sarabia wants to change the experience of his urban neighbors, starting with whatever patch of land is in front of him. As conservation director for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, Sarabia wears many hats. In addition to being the co-founder of the Long Beach cultural community center Flora y Tierra with his partner Blanca Diaz, he’s   a longtime leader within the California Native Plant Society and an active member of groups like Seed LA and the Los Cerritos Wetland Stewards.

Sarabia is a quietly radical force, using plants and the natural world to empower his community and broaden the conservation lens. In our conversation, he focused on who gets to enjoy the outdoors and who doesn’t, a disparity that is more glaring than ever during a pandemic.

These connections keep us healthy, mentally and physically, and underserved communities of color are the most impacted by not having access to nature.

—CNPS Board President Cris Sarabia

L: Cris, it sounds like you relate to the kids in your neighborhood. What did your childhood look like?

C:I grew up in southeast LA in Bell Gardens and Commerce. It’s kind of an industrialized area. I remember having friends in the neighborhood die of cancer. It was a constant thing. We would all get nosebleeds at the same time. As a teenager, I got involved with some of the enviro groups in the community and they would say, ‘Yeah this is due to all the pollution. The diesel exhaust and the polluted soil.’ It affected me in a way like, ‘Man, I gotta do something.’ That’s where the activism side of me started. I became that punk kid with the activism background. I went vegetarian young and was trying to fight the system.

On a somewhat positive note of that environment, we were able to spend our time playing in the dirt, in these empty lots. There was this massive removal of houses in our neighborhood. I never understood why they were pushing people out and leaving empty lots. (Later I would learn that it was a process of gentrification.) I would play in these brown fields and play in the weeds and dig tunnels. I also went to the river bed (it was all concrete), the settling basin for the Rio Hondo. I’d sneak away and crawl under the barbed wire fence and find frogs and lizards. That was our wild area. This industrial nature; it’s all we had. My Dad worked the graveyard shift. My Mom was a seamstress. They worked long hours and staggered to raise us. We had a lot of freedom. That’s why I was out there, messing around, but at least we had that.

L: Was your family able to go on camping trips or spend much time outside of your neighborhood?

C: Luckily the city had a subsidized camp up in the Big Bear area. We would sign up every year. My  Mom would line up at midnight to be the first to sign up. We were able to go to camp in the summer and winter and experience the mountains, which we would have never had that opportunity otherwise, because we were low income. Rent a cabin? That was never in our mindset. My parents were just trying to make it!

They were, however, able to raise us and send us to college. That was the American Dream — the positive outcome of working really hard. They weren’t very happy though when  I chose environmental studies as my major.

L: Why was that?

C: Having a connection with the ‘wild’ didn’t equate to a better life in their eyes. They both grew up in Sinaloa in the middle of nowhere in the Rancho. You’d have to drive 10 hours in on a sketchy road. There are no resources there — the definition of ‘off the grid.’ My Grandma is still alive and still lives out there. All of our aunts and uncles grew up out there, living off the land, dealing with food shortages and dealing with drought. Anytime I ask my parents about sustainability, they know. They don’t use the same words, but they lived with the land because they had to. They had a deep connection with the seasons, the water, how to fix each other up if they got hurt. There were no doctors or hospitals. You may eat that winter and have food supplies or not. As migrants, their mentality was to get away from that. It’s a tough life.

When I told them I was going into enviro studies and wanted to work with the land, they weren’t too thrilled. It’s not that they were afraid of nature, they just thought there was a better way to live. They saw their cousins and friends go hungry when there was no food. People had to help each other out because there was no one else. They also did not think that working with the land could be a career. That was normal life for them.

L: I think your parents understand our human connection to the environment in a way most of us do not.

C: To this day, my parents are the shit. I ask them about anything sustainability, horticulture, and land management related and they know. They could teach courses on this stuff. Before my Grandpa died, I went out with him into the forest. This is when I was an adolescent and trying to get into nature and understand the patterns of nature. I asked him to take me out into what is kind of a tropical forest environment. I asked him if he was scared of snakes or other predators. He said, ‘No, this is what I grew up in. This is normal. There’s no bogeyman. We’re part of it.’ He was pointing out all the plants. He knew them all by name and what they were used for. It’s one of the last memories I have of him: He said to me, ‘You’re just like me. We’re caretakers of the land.’

Sarabia as a baby with his siblings and cousins on the Rancho in Sinaloa, Mexico, where generations of his family lived before his parents migrated to the United States.

L: That’s a beautiful legacy.

C: Whenever I go over to my parents’ house to help out, I see people using the Los Angeles river bed. It’s just a concrete channel, but it’s all that people have. I’m really glad they’re revitalizing the LA River now, because it’s something that’s going to be green and wild someday and connect us to something ancestral that’s in our blood. At the moment though it’s not really there. It’s pretty sad. A lot of groups are working together on this, but it has taken a long time.

L: Can you talk about what you mean by that ancestral connection and why it’s important for us as humans to re-establish it?

C: It’s important for us to understand our ancestry and where we come from. Our ancestors lived with the land intimately, and their blood runs through us, and they are all around us. Many of our ancestors lived near water, because water provided life — for us, for plants, and for the animals. There was a deep connection. We can forget that in the day-to-day hustle of our society, but you can feel it when you take a hike through the coastal sage scrub or through an oak woodland, when you put your bare feet on native soil. We can especially see it with kids and how they use all of their senses when they encounter nature. These connections keep us healthy, mentally and physically, and underserved communities of color are the most impacted by not having access to nature.

While understanding our ancestral connection, it is important to acknowledge the traditional stewards of the land that you reside on or visit. Giving respect to Indigenous Peoples and understanding how you came to be on those lands is an important part of connecting and understanding the history of those lands and settler colonialism.

L: California’s leaders use the word “access” to describe the changes that need to happen. State Parks has a Parks for All Initiative. The Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot has his team focused on Access for All. What’s your advice for officials working to implement these initiatives?

C: First, I want to say that these efforts are an essential and necessary component to bring equity to California’s open spaces. I’d like to see them implemented throughout the country. But they need to be done carefully and with the community advising the needs.

Rather than prescribing something a policymaker thinks is a good idea, we’ve got to listen to what people living in affected communities have to say. I think about the LA River project as a positive example of this: When

the Lower LA River project began, they formed an implementation advisory group that brought in all the communities and the groups. The activist groups had as much say as the mayor’s team or city council members. When concerns about gentrification were raised, they weren’t just dismissed. I attended those meetings, and that really stood out to me. The conversation kept going, and that allowed them to get into real solutions. That’s an example of what can happen when real community leaders are involved, addressing the tougher issues that not everyone gets exposed to. So, in one of the most diverse and densely populated cities in the nation, we got something that may work. We don’t know yet what the end results may be, but the steps were taken to do it in the best way possible so we don’t end up having to fix it in the future.

With initiatives like Access for All and Parks for All, we’re also talking about all of California, which is a collection of very diverse and different places. You really have to visit every community to understand what the solution is for each place. An older Asian community may need something very different than a first-generation Latino community like where my parents live in Bell Gardens.

We can also start small. It took us over 30 years at the Peninsula to get the permit to protect the open space [Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy], but it only took a couple of seasons for some master gardeners to turn an abandoned fire station yard into a small garden in my neighborhood. It’s only a 20 x 20-foot space, but it gives the kids in the neighborhood something to look at, touch, and experience.

The Dominguez Gap project on the Lower LA River is one example of urban green space conversion, transforming an industrial water conservation facility on the lower LA River into a thriving, multi-use green space. For projects like these to succeed, we’ve got to involve the communities they’re meant to serve, says Sarabia. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Works

L: To that point, what do you think helps small community- based projects succeed, like urban creek restorations or revitalization of abandoned lots?

C: One thing I saw was that the City of South Gate held a party in the river. They had bands play and had booths. A shitload of people came out and hung out in the concrete river, and it kind of shifted the mindset of what that river could be. We can do so much more with the abandoned spaces that we ignore. Bring people into it, and they start brainstorming ideas — rather than, ‘Well that’s where the houseless live, or that’s where you don’t go because you get robbed.’ These places that currently divide the communities that straddle it, can become the natural bridge. You clean it up, then nature comes back. Then, people stop being afraid and start hanging out in these areas, because the stigma of scary is taken away. You have to involve the community in these projects for them to succeed. The community has to take ownership or the project will fail.

L: It keeps coming down to the people, doesn’t it?

C: With CNPS, we have our Habitat Revolution, for example. We, as the people, have direct control of that and can implement it fairly quickly and efficiently and really make a difference. Our CNPS chapters have been doing that and have served as (native) grassroots activists who know the local ecology and are the boots on the ground. Together, we are able to take the steps to create habitat in our yards and parkways and spread seeds, transform our concrete jungle into something living and beautiful.

Right now, I’m looking out on the kids watching the parade, taking a small break from the Zoom classrooms and YouTube videos. We’re all trying to do the best we can virtually, but we’ve got to do better by them in the future. We need to talk about what we can do to bring green places to the community. This is traditional Tongva land. This was once all open, living space, and we still have the right soils and Mediterranean climate to bring some of that back. That’s what these kids deserve — that’s what we all deserve.

In the weeks after this conversation took place, Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country. I asked Cris to weigh in on the movement’s relationship to the topic of access to nature.

L: Cris, so much has happened since we last spoke. CNPS recently made a statement in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, because we’re an organization that stands for inclusion and equity. We recognize that even in 2020, people in our own communities are not treated equally. We’ve heard from a Black botanist who was handcuffed while doing his work, and from Black people in California who’ve been harassed on trails. Clearly, access isn’t only about creating green space, but about making sure everyone feels safe and welcome in those spaces. Cris, you are the Board President of the California Native Plant Society. Do you feel safe when you’re in nature?

C: I definitely resonate with not feeling safe. Just today, I was working for the Conservancy along a roadway with goats on weed abatement. The cops drove by. They were just staring at me, and I felt the need to wave, so they knew everything was fine — that I wasn’t a threat. Every time I have to drive into Orange County, every time I am exploring some remote area where there is a small town lost in time, I fear that I will have to deal with a racist person or cop. It’s the unfortunate reality.

L: How comfortable do you feel participating in environmental groups and organizations?

C: In a different way, there’s a similar feeling of discomfort. Those first times you attend a meeting, and everyone turns to look at you because you’re different. I don’t think it’s mal-intended, at least not consciously, but I do think it is why some people don’t return. The homogeneity of these groups is a product of our society, and it will be a hard thing to change. But I do think it can be done.

L: What are some of the ways you’d like to see CNPS start changing, as individual members and as an organization?

C: We’ve got a lot of work to do, together, and it will take time. We are talking about that now and will continue to address it in the months ahead. In the meantime, CNPS members can start by inviting their neighbors, their coworkers, their students of color out for hikes, nature walks, or conferences and workshops. Say “Hi” to Black people and other People of Color on the trails to make people feel welcome. Next time you’re in a meeting, notice who is talking the most and who gets interrupted the most. Step aside when People of Color want to speak or share and help make sure their voices are heard. Sometimes White people just don’t realize how much space they take up. We’ve got to make room for everyone.


New mom and community organizer Nailah Pope-Harden at work with baby Naeem at the Morrison Creek project site last year. Pope-Harden is a Sacramento-based consultant focused on environmental justice and community development.
Photo: Liv O’Keeffe

Restoring Natural Waterways for Our Communities

The California Department of Water Resources Urban Stream Restoration Program (USRP) offers a unique model for local groups interested in improving their neighborhood waterways. By design, each USRP project requires the involvement of a community-based organization and public participation in all project phases. Recently, community organizer Nailah Pope-Harden helped secure a $697,000 USRP grant through the Sacramento Land Trust to complete a master general plan for the Morrison Creek Revitalization Project in her South Sacramento neighborhood. The multi-benefit project aims to turn one mile of a fenced storm water channel into a natural recreation space for the community, while improving the natural riparian habitat along the creek.

According to Vern Goehring, a Morrison Creek project partner and former CNPS lobbyist, CNPS members can help this and other projects near them by:

  • Partnering with schools to plan, design and install school gardens
  • Guiding students in planting
  • Offering help with the public planning process
  • Identifying appropriate native plants for function and location
  • Providing educational materials about the plants, particularly any benefits for families in the area
  • Supporting fundraising at different stages. After a master plan is complete, projects are often divided into phases to shop for additional funding. Members can help identify and secure additional funders, while maximizing in-kind contributions by helping the community prepare and plant streamside vegetation.

Liv O’Keeffe is the Senior Director of Communications and Engagement for CNPS.

2 Comments

  1. Everyone should be able to walk safely to a garden, park or green space from home. Until this becomes possible it will be difficult to talk to a large portion of people about the importance of ecosystems or climate. It’s refreshing to see CNPS take this issue seriously and I look forward to more articles like this one.

  2. I was born in East LA, but I’m not from Mexico. Some of my ancestors were Native American. I pass for white, but I’m really not–I’m “other.” Isn’t it odd that so many people from south of the border are descendants of the First People on this continent, yet are deemed “illegal aliens” by the descendants of the European Invaders?

    I grew up in prejudiced Texas, so a lot of people presume that I’m a racist. I have Mexicans in my family too.

    Indigenous plants co-evolved with other species that make up an ecosystem. “Race” is a bogus term with respect to humans. There’s variation, but not “race.” We all came from Africa, and we were all black in the beginning.

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