By: Juan Lazo Bautista
Earlier this year I joined the Conservation Education staff at the USDA Forest Service in Washington DC as a HAF Resource Assistant. During these past four months I have been empowered to champion our public lands, delivering programs that make national forests and grasslands accessible to diverse audiences. As a relative newcomer to conservation I was weary about the contribution that I could make but I have been warmly embraced by leaders who are open to listen, eager to learn and humble enough to adjust. Passionate, caring and driven, I could not have landed in a more nurturing place for the kind of work that I truly value (more to come about my partners in crime in a future blog). Together we’re asking more and allowing for a free reign of creativity, giving the public a choice in how they want to protect and experience nature on their own terms.
One thing I love about our team is that it does not shy away from direct action. As the national office, we have a unique opportunity to practice different forms of engagement with the public and our regions. We’ve realized that our work is best served on the ground, meeting people where they are with the intention of building models to help guide and support the work of others.
Experiencing this first hand has given me confidence that grassroots efforts have a place in national level programming. While seemingly opposing, this strategy is proving successful in large part due to our partnerships with community organizations like Corazon Latino and Americas for Conservation and the Arts (AFCA) whose trusting relationships with the public have given us a stake in local projects while the Forest Service in turn provides them a national platform to highlight their work. Initiatives like Descubre el Bosque (DEB), Healthy Forests, Healthy People and the Woodsy Owl Conservation Corps are testimony to the success of this approach, building up community advocates who are now experiencing nature, learning about its benefits and enjoying themselves in it!
During a recent tabling event I came across Rakel, a recurring participant in our DEB events, whose words encapsulate why I enjoy this work so much. Gentle and soft in demeanor, she shared that she’s always enjoyed nature and loves being outside because it helps her deal with her sickness while providing an outlet for her family to recreate. As a mother of three and also from beautiful Oaxaca, Mexico, Rakel reminds me so much of my mom with her unwavering dedication to her family that isn’t alway conducive to self care. I was relieved to hear her say that enjoying nature is easy now. With a trusting group of friends to guide her, earlier hesitations have been eased. She is even encouraging her friends to attend our next DEB events because she knows that they need this just as much. As I listened intently, I realized that for all the reports and briefing papers that we write, moments like these speak more to the impact of our work and validate our rather unconventional approach. I am so grateful and excited for the possibilities. ¡Me ilusiona muchísimo lo que está por venir!