We always love profiling our leaders in the movement and in the field. Here is another interview in our series to showcase the individuals that embody the Latino Outdoors story, ambicultural leadership in action. Here is Jessica Gonzalez, a National Park Service program director in New York.
Tell us your story, what is your connection to the land and conservation?
I grew up in Brooklyn, not exactly a spot known for its purple mountains majesty. Growing up, my connection to nature was emphasized by my parents. My parents took messages to heart like “Recycle today for a better tomorrow”, and made sure to tell all guests at our house and even family and friends when we weren’t at home. Although NYC is thought of as a concrete jungle, that’s not the reality. South Brooklyn is very green and I have been lucky enough to live on land that was previously farmland until the 1920s. I’ve explored the waterways of Brooklyn in my kayak and used my bike to explore on land. The dichotomy of living in a city with intense pollution in some locations and dirt so clean you can grow vegetables in it makes one aware of the value of clean land and the impact of humans.
We also had a house in the woods in Pennsylvania where we would just wander through the woods, see wildlife up close, and stargaze with a telescope off our deck. We explored nature because we could, and because we saw the value of interacting with a natural environment.
How is this connection celebrated in your community and culture—in the broader conservation community?
Gateway is lucky to have so many partner groups engage the park in an effort to connect their community members to nature. Casual exploration is one of the best ways people encounter nature, especially in a big city. Nature doesn’t always have to meet a 6 hour trip to mountains, followed by camping without electricity and hot water. So often people don’t enter a green area or walk up to an activity because they assume it’s not for them. Through the Your Park! Your Health! program we invite new visitors, we seek out communities that may know know of our park programs or how they can participate. Your Park! Your Health teaches these new visitors skills they can take with them to other outdoor adventures and connect underserved communities to other wonderful park programs such as kayaking or camping.
We see huge numbers of youth volunteering to help protect, preserve and clean up natural areas. The desire for conservation is there, and people should understand that even little steps like recycling matter.
Latino/a identities are connected to the outdoors, the environment, and conservation—how are those words reflective of YOU, how is it expressed, what does it look like?
Growing up, we explored, simply because we could.
Latino Identities are connected to the outdoors because they are surrounded by la naturaleza. I spent time in El Salvador and saw how integrated the villagers were with their natural surroundings, and it was the same interactions you see with all kids who live near open fields and hills and streams.
Connections to the outdoors to me look like families and individuals safely exploring, learning, appreciating the outdoors, but more importantly coming back, and maybe one day either working in their public lands, or working to protect them.
These words reflect my life because I remember all my life in my visits to my family in Puerto Rico hiking through the jungle, walking out of the house to pick fruit right off the tree, and how we were just surrounded by nature. Nature wasn’t something we had to travel to see, it wasn’t separated from every-day life.
While some us us (me included) may not have grown up camping in a tent, because as my parents said “ why should I sleep in a tent when I could sleep in a bed” it is becoming easier to learn outdoor skills. There is the assumption at times that we wouldn’t be interested in outdoor activities. Luckily I find that this is not a majority opinion and that Latinos are learning about outdoor opportunities through friends, family and the power of social media to de-stigmatize the perceived difficulty of outdoor activities.
What needs to change and how do we grow, celebrate, and have the broader conservation movement connect with the role and values Latinos bring to the field?
Latinos have had a connection to conservation since the beginning of the National Park Service. George Melendez Wright was a Latino of El Salvadorian descent and conducted the first survey of fauna for the National Park Service In order to grow, Latinos need to be allowed to leave the boxes they’ve been put in, which is to only work on “Latino” issues and to have a seat at the table for discussions over engagement, conservation, recruitment and retention. These are issues that affect all populations.
To truly move conservation, both natural and historical, into the 21st century we need to modernize. There is a great benefit from having access to institutional knowledge, but we need to continue modernizing our processes and reaching out to new audiences. Local communities should be involved in the conservation movement, and in those instances where agencies, communities and other interested parties have come together for discussions have resulted in more success due to the collaborative nature of the process.
Why does this issue and work matter to you?
As a Latina who had exposure to nature early on, I feel the need to help connect new and existing communities to the nature that surrounds them. I work in an urban park and I’m still surprised when kids or even adults are experiencing nature for the first time, without being behind glass. A special joy is experienced when a visitor is taught about the world they live in and can bring those lessons home when they leave the park.
The Your Park! Your Health! team, based out of New York City leads a kayaking every other Tuesday night in the park. The audiences we serve are very diverse. They are from different cultural backgrounds and with different life experiences. We are still amazed that we have to invite passers-by to kayaking. There is still the assumption that a recreational activity is not for them and possibly only available to people with money. There are countless studies that laud the benefits of exposure to natural environments. By increasing stewardship we ensure that new generations who support their public lands.
What does success in all this look like to you?
Support for our public lands is essential for everyone. Existing communities benefit from community involvement because many voices are more powerful than one. Good ideas come from many places and the conservation movement benefits from more people of all backgrounds participating.
How is your work with NPS reflective of all this?
My park, Gateway National Recreation Area, has connected to the diverse communities surrounding New York City through the program Your Park! Your Health! (formerly Tu Parque! Tu Salud!). Every summer we bring a team of interns from the surrounding communities into the park to learn about the programs and activities that are available to the public and then host these same programs like Kayaking and camping for friends, family and the public and introduce them to the activities right in their backyard.
Last year we joined the movement to #optoutside the day after Thanksgiving and we’re happy to be hosting Latino Outdoors outside on a cool hike. The year 2016 marks the 100th birthday of the National Park Service and we hope to continue helping all communities to #findtheirpark or #encuentratuparque.
One phrase we heard constantly is that people didn’t know these activities and spaces were open and available to them. It takes more than just showing up, sometimes it means holding out that hand and becoming a trusted ambassador for the park.
Jessica Gonzalez is the Program Director of the “Your Park! Your Health!” program at Gateway National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service.