Beatriz Cañas

Roles at NAAEE:

30 Under 30

Program Manager Science Career Continuum
Chicago Botanic Garden

Chicago, IL, United States                                          SEE OTHER BIOS HERE 
Age: 30

Beatriz is a youth advocate encouraging and supporting underrepresented students along their journey in becoming environmental stewards.

Tell us about yourself!

My passion stems from working to change the narrative that surrounds the environmental field, which is limited to the history of traditional conservation, so that it better reflects and serves marginalized communities.

My current role at the Chicago Botanic Garden, managing the Science Career Continuum, consists of leading three summer out-of-school-time programs that focus on plant science and STEM. I work specifically with 6th-12th grade Chicago Public School students who are curious about learning more about the environment. The program focuses on college readiness and developing critical thinking skills. Students conduct scientific research while exploring the intersection of the environment and social justice.

Throughout my academic and professional career, I have worked as a youth advocate in the environmental field. For 10 years, I have worked for pathway programs that help alleviate barriers for underrepresented youth in the environmental field. Marginalized youth live through racial and class inequity in their learning and living environments, while also navigating ageism. I have particularly focused on developing leaders of color by redefining what it means to be a professional in the environmental field.

Overall, I believe there is a lot of value in teaching environmental education through cultural institutions. As a kid growing up in Chicago I didn’t have access to green space but had the opportunities to explore museums and similar cultural institutions. These experiences have been my most valued learning opportunities about nature and the environment.

What inspired you to become a champion for environmental education?

My first job outside of the customer service industry was working in a community garden in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. The experience at first was overwhelming and intimidating. I took the job having no previous experience gardening and limited knowledge of native Midwest plants.

Throughout that summer, I not only learned about plants but also about what it meant to be part of a community. I learned about what having access to green space through participatory community collaboration could look like. It was the first time I learned about environmental justice and the importance of having those directly affected by environmental issues at the decision-making table.

After this internship, I made the commitment to work at the intersection of environmental justice and EE. The path wasn’t clear, and I often found that there wasn’t EE curriculum that addressed how marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by their environments. With the help of mentors, professors, and environmental professionals with similar goals, I began to create a collaborative platform for curriculum building. Through my work, I try to highlight and bring visibility to community organizations that are committed to raising awareness of environmental injustices.

What advice would you give to the next generation of leaders that are looking to bring about positive change in their communities through EE?

To all of those who work in EE with young people: youth deserve to feel valued, respected, and safe in the spaces where they learn, including the outdoors. In order to reach the most vulnerable communities through EE, we need to have culturally relevant environmental education practices where we take into consideration students’ safety and prior outdoor/environmental experiences.

This includes having honest conversations, amongst ourselves, about how we uphold systems of oppression in our work, in order to acknowledge the work that still needs to be done around racial equity in EE.

And especially for leaders of color, celebrate every day. Celebrate existing in every space in this world.

What keeps you motivated, inspired, or hopeful for the future?

All of the students I have worked with and mentored since I started working in EE keep me hopeful for the future. They are AMAZING!

Who do you look up to as inspiration for your work?

I have the great privilege of belonging to a strong network of Latinas working in the conservation and environmental fields in Chicago. We uplift and support each other professionally and personally, and at this time in my life they are all my biggest inspiration. I am constantly inspired and amazed by their resiliency, passion, and humility. These mujeres give me the space to be myself and are a constant reminder that the Latinx community most definitely deserves to have a place in the environmental field.