Promoting Professional Development and Best Practice in EE
Roles at NAAEE:30 Under 30
Chicago, IL, United States
Tell us a bit about yourself!
After dropping out of high school, I turned my life around in community college. I had fallen back in love with wildlife after lack of access to nature in my teenage years. I began by tutoring evolutionary biology courses at my college, and then throughout my college career I became a published researcher from my work in Costa Rica and at Chicago's own Field Museum. In 2016, I joined Project Exploration to start their Environmental Adventures program on Chicago's West Side. This program brought in over fifteen high school students every season to learn about and work to solve environmental issues at local, regional, and global scales.
After graduating in 2017, I joined the Student Conservation Association as a Crew Leader as part of their partnership with Arne Duncan's Chicago CRED program in an effort to break the school to prison pipe line for over twenty young men by providing a green alternative to street life.
Today, I’m a graduate student at the University of California-Santa Cruz working with my advisor, Dr. Erika Zavaleta, to launch the Center to Advance Mentored, Inquiry-based Opportunities (CAMINO) in 2018. This Howard Hughes-funded program supports students of color in the ecology and evolutionary biology major by providing funding, placements, and mentorship in field courses and internships throughout their undergraduate career and beyond.
What inspired you to become a champion for the environment and environmental education?
There is an idea that everyone has a calling in their life. As a child, it was clear that my place was studying ecology and wildlife. However, because I was raised on the South Side of Chicago, and my parents themselves had not been very exposed to nature, my calling was put on hold. As a result, I became disinterested in school, dropped out, and walked life without direction. Then, in community college, a professor encouraged me to figure out what I loved first, and then figure out how to get paid for it.
Learning about the many environmental crises we face and how they threaten wildlife and plant diversity terrified me. I learned how to identify ash trees because of the emerald ash borer. As soon as I learned to appreciate bats and frogs, white nose syndrome and chytrid fungus took them in record numbers. I never want a lack of exposure to be the reason that a child does not appreciate something and, consequently, grow in to an adult who does not care about it enough to protect it. Through my work, I’m helping introduce young adults to a world that has been around them, hidden from them, and manipulated by their actions, in the same way that it was shown to me. Through this, I feel that I’m helping them understand how their choices will affect the larger world, while also acting as a mentor and encouraging them to follow their calling.
What advice would you give to the next generation of leaders that are looking to bring about positive change in their communities through EE?
The best advice I’ve gotten is to know your audience. I speak to high school students who need a job because I myself had to leave high school to work. I work with young men coming out of the criminal justice system because I easily could have been in their shoes. With CAMINO, I work with early college students trying to figure out how to make ecological research a career because I struggled with exactly that for six years. Continue to find people, and invite them to stand with you on common ground and common goals before coming as a “teacher” or “savior.” From then on, with honesty you offer yourself, your time, your knowledge, and your connections as a gift to them to help them do their best work.
If you had to live in one place for the rest of your life, where would it be?
Chicago, Illinois – no question. Chicago is a huge city next to a huge supply of fresh water in Lake Michigan. The city provides a corridor for numerous mammals, birds, and insects, constantly evolving to better allow wildlife and humanity to establish some kind of harmony. The city has been beat down and built up numerous times. In one train ride, you ride through a dozen different segregated communities of varying cultures, wealth, income, crime, and quality of education. As a problem solver and educator, Chicago gives me the perfect balance of resources and opportunity for growth. Our problems are great enough to be noticed and rallied around by everyone in the city, but every day great organizations also give their efforts to make it better for everyone.
If you could be any animal or plant, what would you be and why?
Orii's flying-fox, a bat from Southeast Asia. Bats are known for either eating insects, fruits, nectar, or blood. Orii’s flying-fox eats both nectar and fruit, so it travels across gorgeous islands sampling fine fruits and drinking sweet nectar from flowers. In the process it pollinates flowers and disperses the seeds of over 20 plants across the islands so that new life can spring forth. I would be thrilled to be an animal that lives such a great life traveling, eating, and giving back to nature.