Conrad Benedicto & Catherine Salvin
Founders and Teachers of the
Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative (WALC)
Balboa & Downtown Continuation High Schools, San Francisco
My relationship with WALC at Downtown Continuation High School started when I was working at LEJ. I was impressed by LEJ's education staff of color, but what impressed me more and excited me even more once I got hired, was the opportunity to collaborate with the WALC program. It felt like home and where I wanted to be as an Environmental Educator; working with folks that I felt in my heart “get it” when it comes to the “people of color (POC) experience” in environmental work. The partnership immediately clicked and integrating WALC’s curriculum with LEJ’s was a natural fit and organic process. After LEJ I worked briefly with WALC at Downtown HS and to this day still maintain a great relationship with Catherine and the program.
Catherine and Conrad have been educating mostly at-rick youth of color out in nature for over 15 years! How is this program NOT a household name in the world of environmental education? And to know that there was a partnership between Catherine & Conrad that preceded the creation of WALC, I was all the more curious to know their story.
So when I sat down with them in their beautiful home in the Excelsior District of San Francisco, Catherine and Conrad taught me this...It’s fairly simple, this thing called Love. You fight for it, do the work, and find that place where you relate.
*We’ve also heard a previous speech from Conrad from a post back in September 2013 called, A Race Critical Environment
RR: Start with background of WALC. You are the partnership that created WALC. How did this thing start for you guys? How did you meet? How did the concept meet?
CB: The concept was shot down initially…
CS: We met at UC Santa Cruz in 1989…
RR: I’ll want a picture!
CS: When we were skinny! [laughter] I was really involved in the Asian and Pacific Islander Student Alliance (APISA) when I started UCSC. Conrad [also a UCSC student] came to APISA because he had gone to Woodrow Wilson High School (WWHS) in San Francisco. They were closing down Wilson, a comprehensive high school (HS) in favor of an academic HS, so it was not a just thing. He came to an APISA meeting to get us to help him save WWHS, which was an inner city HS serving people of color (POC), Asian immigrant students, Filipino immigrant students, Pacific Islanders, Samoans especially. He made a case to us to help him save his [former] school. We did. We came to San Francisco (SF), went to school board meetings, called school board members, etc... So that’s how we got to know each other.
CB: It ended up being a “stay of execution” because it closed down two years later anyway.
CS: That was our first year in college. We both ran for the educational rights committee (ERC) co-chairs at end of that school year. So the next year we continued working on education issues at UCSC and statewide, especially recruitment, retention and representation of students of color (SOC). The year we were co-chairs was the year we got together. The year after that, I was the chair of APISA and we were at UCSC from ’89 to ’93.
The dominant culture at UCSC is white hippie culture, where people are vegetarians and they hang out in the woods and there’s this place called “Elfland” in the trees where all the hippies go. We were doing race-based work…nowadays people call it social justice work. Very lefty, racial equality-liberation-anti-colonial-type of work. I had gone into Santa Cruz (SC) as a vegetarian, but doing the work I was doing I thought, "POC eat meat, so in fighting for racial equality you are rejecting the dominant culture, which was white hippie culture—not just white culture, but white hippie culture. So I started eating meat again. Even though I had grown up going outdoors and doing outdoorsy things, in SC the environment was the realm of white hippie culture. When I was Core Chair of APISA was when the officers were planning a core retreat and Conrad suggested going camping and I actually uttered the words, “No, only white people go camping!” I put my foot down, and we didn't go camping! It was totally undemocratic. I was the chair, and I put my foot down and spent those two years saying “no” to camping.
RR: Catherine, you’re from the Bay Area?
CS: Sort of. I grew up in five different states—CO, MD, MI, back to CO, NM—then moved to San Jose (SJ), CA in 8th grade, so spent 8th grade through Senior year in HS in SJ, then never went been back to SJ, ever. I went from SJ to SC, then from SC to SF.
RR: OK, Conrad, you were born and raised in the City?
CB: I was born and raised in the Philippines, immigrated when I was 13, went to WWHS, then ended up in SC. I chose UCSC because I imagined myself studying there because of the trees. I grew up in the Philippines so being out in nature was just what it was—it’s always been a part of me. Santa Cruz was a really interesting time; it reflects the fact that we were kids trying to define what we were. The most important thing during that time in terms of finding ourselves was this identity, the social justice, racial, and ethnic identity. It’s a little sad that in developing a strong sense of that we had to let go of some things that had been part of our lives since the beginning. Saying, “I’m from the inner city, and it’s urban youth of color". I did go through that, but what happened to the little boy with mosquito bites running around with slippers on the islands? A large part was that the dominant culture that was pro-environment was still so alienating. If culture in SC had not been alienating but more diverse and inclusive and understood our experiences we would have embraced it, but we found ourselves in opposition.
CS: There was no dialog about the linkages between social justice and environment. All environmental dialog at UCSC was tree hugging and saving Elfland (which they were cutting down to build new college buildings). Today we can talk to inner city kids about what the interest of POC is in the environment, the importance of involving POC, the impacts of environmental degradation on POC and indigenous people…but at that time, there was absolutely no discussion.
CB: The environment that was defined was very euro-centric; did not speak to needs of POC. It was about land rights. That what was “environment.”
CS: Nobody made that bridge. We took classes on colonialism and imperialism. That discourse is about land rights and the importance of protecting it, but there was no bridge between the environment and how protecting land rights of indigenous people is related to environmentalism.
CB: “Environment” was meant at that time as “leaving it alone,” humans don’t belong…you had to be an elf to be part of the environment. Most environmentalists now hopefully don’t think like that. But you went to Humboldt.
RR: I understood that redwoods needed to be saved, we shouldn’t cut old growth, the concepts of preserving for sake of preserving…but I was not necessarily in that stage of understanding myself enough to connect my identity to what was going on at Humboldt and those kinds of values. I did feel disconnected, like “me and my friends are not going to sit in a tree“. I was gung-ho on being a biologist and I took pride in being unique from my peers. I took pride in going to Humboldt because it was unique. But I did not really understand racial dynamics and racial differences at that time. Where I grew up it was ethnically diverse, where I hardly saw white people. I grew up around a lot of immigrant families and being around Asian and Latino people was what I was used to seeing.
CS: My primary identity in SC was as a woman of color (WOC) and an activist. Everyone was really focused on brown power, black power, yellow power, red power…an exciting time to be an activist because it’s not like that anymore. At that time, it was much further left than it is now, and there was a sense of excitement and urgency around the different campaigns that we took on and statewide networking that was happening. Because we were involved in the statewide networks we were also connected to “adult” activists outside of the university involved in coalition building. We went to Watsonville to hear about farm worker unions, went to the Bay Area to listen to Jesse Jackson speak about Rainbow Coalition work.
CB: Getting professors of color hired at UCSC.
CS: Yeah, lobbying for ethnic studies. I was not thinking of the environment. I was thinking of how to get an ethnic studies department at UCSC or how do we retain SOC at UCSC, which at that time was the least diverse of all UC’s. Most SOC felt alienated, because it lacked diversity to such a huge degree. SOC easily connected with one another. There were no tensions between Asians and African-Americans, or Latinos and Native Americans, or whatever. If you and an African-American person were the only two POC in the class, you were going to connect and you were going to be friends and you were going to study together. It was a formative time because it helped us position ourselves in coalition with other POC’s. Coming to SF to teach, it’s important you know how to work with all POC.
CB: So all that activism, together with some of the classes, gave us a good foundation in race/class/gender analysis…I think things are different now in SC and around the country because of the kind of activism that was all about self-determination and coalitions back then. A lot of cultural shifts and political and economic gains that might have been made, we’re sitting on it now. That’s why people are talking about cultural competency now, and hiring consultants to make their organizations more diverse. Why is that the culture now? It’s because of that activism that was happening back then that was really focused on racial solidarity and racial equality.
CS: Racial solidarity brings us to the roots of WALC [the Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative].
CB: Also, all that stuff we talked about is stuff we needed and our students still need now. You can’t really be a well-adjusted person in this country, a POC, if you don’t have a solid understanding of race and all of that.
POC, whether immigrant or not, that’s part of problem: You don’t feel like you fully belong to this country, that this country is yours. You have to make that step if you really care about those trees, or open spaces, the environment in general beyond what you experience in your neighborhood. Racial analysis is important for me in becoming an environmentalist again. Having that identity again was when I learned the history of Filipinos/Filipino-Americans in this country; it allowed me to feel like, to state that this is my country too—and by country I don’t mean the flag, I mean the place, the land. When you think about your students and [the question of] “how am I going to nurture that sense of stewardship and responsibility for land,” it’s gotta go hand-in-hand with a good historical analysis of racial dynamics, gender, and class. Our students wouldn’t feel half as invested in the beautiful places we take them to, and all the parks and various areas we ask them to be stewards of…if they did not get other information/knowledge which is the thing we bring to our classrooms from our background.
I say, “Look at the historical evidence: It’s quite clear that every one of you comes from a community that is connected somehow to the history of this country, has contributed and struggled. “This is your land.” When they get that, and those experiences out in nature, and get science and art, then they get a complete experience that speaks to them and allows them to say "environmentalism can be part of who I am"—in a way we could not say in UCSC. That’s what WALC is, in a nutshell. WALC is a program built by teachers of color (TOC) for diverse student populations because that’s what we can bring…analysis that allows students to embrace the environment.
CS: Even though WALC is an environmental organization, its roots are in our work around race. You should start with the Unity Club, Conrad. Tell the story!
CB: WALC was first the Unity Club. It was me wanting that camping experience that she had shut down in college, a club we started at Balboa HS. And the whole purpose was to build friendships across different ethnicities because there were a lot of racial tensions and fights along racial and ethnic lines at that school. The idea of the Unity Club was to promote the unity and coalition mindset [CS: the solidarity] we had in SC. The idea was to take kids out of their environment (school), and take them places where they can develop friendships and relationships that they can then take back to school. Then maybe we can begin to change things a little bit, like the climate at school. That was the “proto-WALC”, the basic idea of "let’s take kids out in nature".
RR: When did that start? What year?
CB: Probably, 1995 or 1996.
RR: It was just a club, an extracurricular thing?
CB: Yes, we met during lunch, we had bowl-a-thons and food sales up on the 3rd floor to raise money for our trips. The teachers used their own cars, borrowed gear, etc. We raised money for one camping trip at the end of the year.
RR: Were you [Catherine] at Balboa too at that time?
CS: No, I’ve always been at Downtown; we’ve both only worked/taught at one school. Conrad’s been at Balboa since 1994 and I’ve been at Downtown since 1994. So, before I say how WALC started at Downtown, you [Conrad] should say how Unity Club became WALC.
CB: It has always been about social justice and critical race analysis and academic success. Then thinking about what the vehicle is through which we could more effectively teach, WALC grew organically from the Unity Club. When you take people out to nature, they ask questions. All of the analytical frameworks and WALC themes grew out of those experiences. The environmental education component was way we discovered to do what we wanted to do, better. For the Unity Club to become better we needed to deepen their understanding and connection to the places we were taking them to. It so happens that all those environmental education concepts—diversity, interconnections, sense of place—go hand-in-hand with the social justice and critical race analysis we were trying to teach and that we saw as critical to our students’ success. So that’s how Unity Club turned into WALC. We changed the name to WALC, “Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative.” That’s when we started applying for grants to fund the club, and it became an after-school program that offered credit for participation. If members attended all the trips and after-school meetings, they could get credit. That was the beginnings of the academic nature/angle. Then Catherine decides…
CS: Conrad always says what I do is I take his ideas and make them better! At the time Conrad started WALC with other teachers at Balboa HS, I was working on trying to restructure Downtown HS. When I first started Downtown in 1994, it was a small version of a comprehensive HS, with a six-period day. At a continuation school, you have kids who have been unsuccessful at a comprehensive HS. To think they will suddenly become successful just because they’re in a different, smaller version of what they were not successful in is not sensible. Downtown HS at that time was very much like that bad Hollywood movie about an inner city high school…
RR: Dangerous Minds?
CS: Well, but without the transformative teacher part, more like fights in the hallway, melees, and horrible attendance. A small group of teachers wanted to try something different, but met a lot of resistance.
For Conrad, the roots of WALC were about coalition and solidarity-building, but for me it was all about educational reform. This continuation school was not meeting the students’ needs or offering a true educational alternative. They were failing and dropping out and we had graduating classes of 20 or 30 kids. It was just not right. I went into education to try to “do something” for SOC, inner-city students, and at-risk students. I submitted a proposal on how to restructure the school, which was to move to a project-based model where we work in teams and offer interdisciplinary project-based curriculum. When trying to figure out what my project would be, WALC made sense to turn into a project. So WALC’s second year as a club at Balboa was its first year as project at Downtown. The next year Balboa restructured into “pathways” where Juniors and Seniors choose a pathway in which three periods out of their six-period day are integrated. After a year of WALC as a project at Downtown, it became a “pathway” at Balboa.
CB: Yeah, while they were going through a reform process at Downtown, Balboa was going through something similar, a restructuring of our 11th and 12th grades. We had some key grants that first year from EPA that helped as seed money for all of our equipment. A lot of the grant-writing that we had to do helped to develop a lot of our philosophies. The roots of this has always been about ethnic studies.
CS: It has always been about the kids, first and foremost, not the environment first and foremost. We were all TOC creating a program for SOC to try to make their education more effective. WALC just finished its 14th year and has had the same goals and pedagogical principles since the start of our grant-writing. Our first goal is to increase the academic success of our students. And being able to take them outside and expose them to nature is a vehicle for that, but it has always been about the kids first and foremost. “What do we want for them, what do we want to teach them, how can we teach them best, what can we offer, what can we give?” It’s always been about that. WALC never came from “the environment is important so therefore we should make our kids learn about it” perspective.
RR: Environmental organizations are talking about this big buzzword of “cultural relevancy” or the “relevancy” of their programs or even "any environmental work has to have relevancy with their target audiences”. When it’s youth, it’s the terms of the environment and who usually has that access rather than on the youth of color that they want to serve. Working on the terms of the students is really what teachers do! It almost seems laughable that there are environmental education programs now scratching their heads wondering how to implement relevancy.
The dominant cultures are making it so it’s not on our (students & POC) terms so we work towards being included. How does that play out when you are teaching students? You are doing things on their terms, but other groups giving the same kind of knowledge and exposure and experience are usually not. How do you strike that balance?
CB: Well, we’ve been asked a lot by other organizations to share our philosophy and pedagogy because they want cultural relevancy. And we do share and we’ve done whole-day workshops where they get everything we give our kids so they see how we do it. Our answer is always the same: Cultural relevancy can’t be achieved with a workshop. The kind of analysis we bring comes from a degree. We read tons and tons of books on history, politics, economics. We’re activists, so we always ask these teachers that want us to share, for that kind of commitment. We tell them this is about scholarship. You have to learn, have to read those books, take a class. You can’t just manufacture relevancy from a workshop. It’s not a magic bullet.
Think of what we ask of our kids, our immigrant kids that we want to succeed in this country. What did I have to do to be able to navigate mainstream culture effectively? I read all the damn books! I know Shakespeare, I know US History, that’s what our kids have to do. To make something relevant to them, you have to go the opposite way as much as they have to. You have to put your nose to the grindstone and learn. We did that as environmental educators and we did not come in with that expertise. We took classes and read books, spent summers in the mountains learning geology, fluvial geomorphology, put in time because we knew it was crucial to making the program solid and legitimate as a scientific academic program. Catherine is a national board-certified science teacher. She had to do that in order to make this program work and be effective and she wanted to!
The whole “cultural relevancy of environmental programs and environmental education” is a deep kind of problem that I think workshops are not going to solve. There has to be a sea of change in terms of how to even get your certification as an environmental educator. There has to be some sort of ethnic studies component, you know?
CS: There was not an ethnic studies major at UCSC, so all the activists majored in American Studies with an ethnic studies pathway. We were all essentially ethnic studies majors. None of us came into WALC as science teachers, but because we believed in WALC and wanted to do right by our kids, we did our homework, took summer and weekend classes, and…
CB: We scouted.
CS: We never took kids to places we hadn’t been to and studied first. Especially in the beginning years of WALC I would spend hours and hours out and still to this day! If you want to do a geology unit, take the summer class in the mountains. It goes back to the foundations of WALC. You have people who are ethnic studies majors who get into education because they want to serve SOC and create an environmental program that has roots in ethnic studies, but also because of our background we understand this is an academic program and it is our job to teach the kids and we need to teach a rigorous scientific curriculum.
We call our trips field studies, not field trips. Students have to do assignments and field journals and study the places we go. The primary goal is to increase academic achievement of at-risk kids. How do you capture their attention and engage them in academia? Being out in the field can do that for kids. It’s about how the environment serves them, not how they save a tree or plant a plant. We use the environment as a way to engage the kids in their education—because of that, we’ve learned and we’ve studied.
CS: The kids need a sense of place and attachment to somewhere bigger than they are and that will serve them and help them get their bearings and navigate as they go into the world. It’s not dragging kids out and saying “Hey, plant some plants.” Through our curriculum and field studies we are fostering a sense of ownership and stewardship. This land is theirs, belongs to them. It always has.
Because we have that bigger picture, we can engage our kids. The larger context of “what it means to plant or compost, what it means to communities, to your people historically, to do this work and forge these connections with the land”, it’s a different context. For other organizations trying to be relevant, I’m not sure…because their framework is so different, their starting point is so different. I’m honestly not sure how successful they will be, especially if they’re not willing to read the books and study and be scholars of the connections of POC and the land and the environment, it will be very, very challenging to engage POC. I even think the term cultural relevancy is inappropriate; it’s not about culture, it’s about what are your people’s historic connections to land, your rights, the effects on your communities of environmental degradation? All of these issues are historical and political. Not just “Hey, in my culture, we make tea out of a plant”. Even if that’s important, that’s an issue of being connected to the land and your people’s history in a place, not just about the tea being cool, it’s about a bigger context. I think that the concept of making it cultural is not taking it far enough.
CB: I think if you want to replicate this strategy, I would not necessarily recruit from the “environmental education department”, I’d go recruit in the ethnic studies department. Honestly, we were at an advantage because all the stuff we talked about that we had to learn, that stuff was fun! Because we were out in nature we were learning, and that was an advantageous situation for us because yes, it was a sacrifice but we were willing and it was fun. Whereas if you’re an environmentalist now and you grew up learning all that stuff and, I guess, having to take a course in African American history, Asian American history…
CS: It would potentially be mind-blowing though! I agree learning science is fun, but there is also an element of steely determination to become a legitimate science teacher. There were the fun classes, but there was also the studying, the research, the book learning, it still was hard work.
CB: I’m just saying, they’re at a disadvantage because they’re not camping and hiking…but race analysis is always tricky…especially for white people. What’s harder, a white person learning race analysis or a POC learning environmental education? The white person has a harder task because of all that baggage and stuff they have to get over in order to finally get to spot where it can work.
RR: Not only are you talking about all the scholarship and work to be effective, but you guys have lived it. You live an identity that you take with you in the work that you do. So that also speaks to the success of the programming and how passionate you are…students feed off that as well. The dedication they see in their teachers will reflect on them as learning individuals in the classroom. From being in the classroom or in field with WALC, it does take empathy to recognize what needs to be done as far as teaching on their terms and being a person who has lived the experience of being a POC in society.
I want to move more into more of the diversity topic and approaching the students first, then broader into the bigger profession of environmental work. As working with the students, broadly, has the issue of diversity ever come up in the many years you have implemented the program? The content you’re teaching, or out in a field study trip? Like, the issue of a not-so-diverse environmental movement?
CS: Diversity is something that is explicitly part of curriculum. The Downtown and Balboa WALC’s have different curriculums, because of the different structures, but both address lack of diversity historically among environmentalists or the environmental movement.
I have four semesters of curriculum, each with an environmental theme. One of them is my Activism unit, Struggling for Sustainability: Preservation, Restoration, and Environmental Justice, that you [Raynelle] did with us. In that unit we make it a point to explicitly study how we perceive environmental movements or environmentalists. We surface all the perceptions of environmentalists as being white hippie tree huggers and then we proceed to study movements and activism all over the world in different countries. In third world countries, the US, the environmental movements among Native Americans fighting for land rights and we explicitly have curriculum about who accesses nature and wilderness and why. There’s been more and more scholarship in recent years about the issue of access of POC to the environment like Mexican Americans and the Environment, Brown and Black Faces in America’s Wild Places.
I actually study with kids, things like the buffalo soldiers as early protectors of wilderness, and how that counters perceptions of the relationship between African-Americans and the environment. We study what environment and wilderness means to different people. It’s not just that it comes up again, it’s about scholarship. Not about sitting around the campfire talking about how we feel being the only POC in the park, it’s about studying why we’re the only POC in the park and not the only POC that care about the environment. It’s an explicit, very purposeful study. Conrad teaches a US History class that is essentially an ethnic studies survey.
CS: This is all assuming they’ve learned the lessons [laughter]…much more ideal at Balboa than at Downtown, but not for lack of trying…
CB: This is the ideal version; in the middle of February I’m still just some guy trying to teach them about some damn court case but by the time they graduate , it’s starting to come together.
CS: I think they understand that disconnecting POC from land has been a tool of oppression, colonization, and imperialism. So when we take them to connect with the land, they will reclaim what is rightfully theirs and everybody’s. What we do has that context: Land was taken from all of our peoples, so how do we reclaim the connection, the rights, honor the people this land was taken from? We do that by forging relationships with the land again.
CB: At the very least they can ask, “why are you wanting to kick me out of here, this land is un-ceded” At the very least, we can have them imagine Yosemite National Park as being part of Mexico once.
RR: So when you talk about prepping them for what they’re going to experience at the park in the context of the history of land, what happens when they actually come across some incident of discrimination being a large group of urban kids in a national park? (1) Can you describe an incident where that has happened? (2) How were your students prepared for that incident given they had been prepped with history of racism or other historical events?
CB: Yeah, that’s a great question.
CS: There’s a lot of incidents. The most popular incidents are people accusing us of doing things we didn’t actually do. If we camped next to a loud boisterous group that was violating quiet hours, or beer cans strewn about, the Park Ranger comes to us. Or the bathroom is TP’d and they assume it’s our kids.
CB: Yeah, that totally has happened. In terms of how they handle it, we always tell them, “look, you have to hold yourselves to our standards. It doesn’t matter if people are going crazy at the campsite next to you, we have our own standards. We have to hold to our own standards because you already know people are going to have expectations of you. You always have to defy those expectations.” That’s always part of camp orientation at the beginning of a trip. More often than not, they [the kids] are good. All the time it’s not us! It’s some crazy frat boys that we have to ask to be quiet but rangers come to us first, so teachers have to go to the next campground and show them where the whiskey bottles were.
We’ve had docents say to us when we arrive to a site, “a ranger is going to meet you at the gate and he has a gun.” So things like that…
CS: There’s also the “Are you supposed to be here?” type of reaction. We’re doing habitat restoration and they want to make sure we’re not plant vandals. “Who told you you could do this?” Even at McLaren Park in San Francisco, surrounded by neighborhoods of color, a Recreation and Park Department person has to vouch for us.
CB: Adults have to be adamant and stern to people harassing our kids. It is really frustrating and still messed up to have to have a higher standard. It’s wrong to be blamed, just wrong. There was a cultural competency workshop with national park rangers, talking about this issue, and there was movement on the part of some of these rangers so some good came of it. Some partner programs at Yosemite and Sequoia…there’s been an effort.
CS: But it still sucks to go through that…
CB: Yeah, it still sucks to go through it, but it’s just something you deal with before, and not just sit around and talk about because that is completely an inadequate response. It’s just a reminder to our kids and to us that this critical race analysis is vital to be able to help them feel like these places are theirs as well, as they’re obviously made to feel exactly the opposite.
RR: Have you experienced those interactions actually have a negative impacts on students’ engagement with the environment? Have they felt…and then been like “I don’t see a place for me in this work”?
CS: I’ve had kids gone through the whole curriculum and still think nature, environment, wilderness are for white people. Even though we’re academically teaching them otherwise, they still really feel that the environment is the realm of white people. And probably not just from incidents, park rangers, but from a whole lifetime of collected experiences. We are competing with their whole lives, not just what we teach them in a semester or two years. But we also have kids that believe us by the end and want to go into environmental work and see a place for themselves there.
CB: They end up taking their kids out.
CS: Programmatically what’s happened is we’ve learned to be self-sufficient. When we first started WALC, we thought, Oh, there are ranger programs and docent programs. But because of earlier experiences of them not liking our kids or not being interested or even afraid, we have to do our own education pieces. We’ve created an organization and program where we do and facilitate our own programs because we cannot be sure others will have a rapport with our students. It’s very rare we get someone ready to meet our kids with an open mind and an appropriate curriculum. The plus of it is self-determination in an academic environmental education program. We will create and deliver our own lessons ourselves for our students, rather than entrusting a stranger who may or may not be able to work with SOC, to teach and treat them appropriately. That is the biggest programmatic effect of various forms of discrimination. We’re bound and determined to be self-sufficient.
RR: Given that, it’s empowering to realize self-determination in the work, but is there potential or hope that one day, you can rely on other organizations or trust there’s competent staff and curriculum to work in partnership with more agencies as WALC develops in years to come?
CB: That’s a good question…
CS: I think they have to start hiring our kids. There would be more potential for collaboration and trust if they had more diverse staffs. I always ask if they have a POC they can send to us if nothing else. People understand the language of role models. Our kids need role models. The best way to start serving POC is to have staff represent the populations of people you are trying to serve and have them empowered to develop programs, curriculum, and relationships with groups, programs, teachers, and classes.
If environmental organizations are really serious about involving POC or SOC then their staff needs to reflect that. It’s not hard to find them. Go to cities and schools, or farm country. Go to where POC are and create internships and summer jobs and pipelines to positions that will eventually serve those kids. It’s an investment, I think. For me personally, that’s a way I would feel more comfortable with outside providers, if they had staff of color.
CB: Although there is some hope organizations that already exist can change and hire POC, the eventual solution will not come from those organizations "changing". The eventual solution will come from more people like us creating organizations, then we work with each other. That’s really where it’s going to come from. Otherwise I just can’t see the sea change happening in the mainstream environmental organizations that exist. A lot of them are only doing it because of funding pressure [CS: That’s true; RR: “mandates”]; a lot of funders say, “Where’s your cultural relevancy, where’s your cultural competency in these environmental education offerings?”
CS: “Who are you serving? Why aren’t you serving a population that reflects the state of California?”, etc…
CB: Yeah, it’s all grant-driven, and they’re going in directions they’d really rather not go, really…because…
CS: They’d be perfectly happy to just do what they’ve been doing the past 50 years, and just keep doing it. [CB: yeah] Their whole premise is opposite of our whole premise. We’re starting with the students and they’re starting with the place. We’re trying to figure out how to serve the students, and they want the students to serve them. The whole premise is wrong.
CB: Not to say organizations like that are useless and have no value…diversity’s good, right? We just need more organizations to be established that are coming at it from this angle. It’s going to happen, it’s already happening. We exist! Other organizations exist and they may not have our model of taking kids out, but doing environmental justice campaigns in the neighborhoods, [CS: grassroots campaigns]maybe it’ll get better. That’s history, right? We cannot rely on mainstream environmental organizations to change.
CS: No, absolutely not. We have to do it.
RR: People are recognizing with some studies and statistics out there now that in a certain year, the nation will be mostly POC. Recognizing the change is going to come, that’s the tough thing. There are so many POC who are “the only ones” right now. I’ve heard so many stories….I’m one of them! Certain times in my work I’ve left an organization or work with a particular group because I didn’t feel like I had the proper support to be successful. But how can you have that support if you’re the only one (a minority)? Giving it time, and also making it an intention to centralize that aspect of including people who have not been included before?
CS: That foundation of dominant culture of “environmentalism is white people;” the idea that they need to start being inclusive is sort of like integration. That doesn't change the power structure or fundamentally change anything at all. It still leaves the power with white environmentalism. There is such a thing as POC environmentalism, in fact, there are more environmental justice organizations per capita in the African-American community percentage-wise or proportionately than there are nature/preservation organizations among white people. One problem is that people don’t see all of that when they see environmentalism. The other problem is that POC working on environmental issues who work grass-roots and on the ground or have campaigns they are trying to accomplish don’t have time to help white people diversify, and why would they want to? They have much more pressing issues and communities to serve. Coalition–building can happen among environmentalists of color. There are not necessarily that many coalitions happening between POC doing nature/wilderness and POC doing environmental justice (EJ) work, so more of those bridges can happen. LEJ had a model of uniting ecology with the EJ piece and that could be an important place of unity. Without the mainstream environmentalism and the white power structure, there are still coalitions and bridges that can be formed and built to create a community of POC working on environmental issues. That has more potential than asking the dominant power structure to be inclusive.
CB: And that is a framework I would rather work in.
CS: I remember, we did this series of workshops for the “Adopt-a-Watershed” organization, an annual summer leadership institute, 1-2 weeks. We did this intensive series for them about POC and environmental activism where we tried to change the way people saw environmental activism. So Native Americans fighting for land rights is a form of environmentalism because whatever land they’re able to protect they’re going to take care of it better than people who steal it from them to develop it. Looking at farm workers unions (UFW), Filipino , Mexican ,and Latino farm workers, one of the workers’ rights they’re pushing for is fewer pesticides, which are making them sick and giving their babies birth defects. Can we look at that as environmental activism because to the extent they’re successful in reducing the use of pesticides the environment will benefit. And I remember a woman at the end saying, “These people are not environmental activists. Maybe they’re EJ activists, but that’s not environmental activism”. And I remember thinking, “OMG, you missed the whole point!” Why aren’t EJ activists considered environmental activists?? Theyare environmental activists! Why feel the need to separate preservation/conservation from EJ activists? If that is the dominant framework/culture of environmentalism, that says EJ activists are a different kind of environmental activist, then we can ally ourselves with EJ and expand EJ to include nature, wilderness, access, environment. That would probably have more potential.
RR: Any last thoughts you guys wanna give on the work you’ve done, specifically on the issue of diversity, or last thoughts you want to give our readers?
CS: “Everything we teach you about nature, you can apply to yourself,” is one of our mottos. Diversity is one of those things. We tell our students that themes in nature apply to yourself and your community and your history. We’re not just teaching about nature for nature’s sake, but because it has applicable lessons.
CB: If you look at what needs to be achieved by the environmental movement and how will we achieve them, all that stuff will not happen unless there is diversity. That is where the power will come from; if not diverse, it will not succeed. If the ecological lesson and the history lesson hold true.