Conservationist serves as teacher, environmental ambassador to students of all ages
The damp soil patties that Petaluma third graders pressed into the ground above the creek behind McNear Elementary School might have been mud pies, the kids were having enough fun molding and shaping them.
They were gaining knowledge, too, as they smoothed loose dirt over flattened “seed balls,” hoping baby blue eyes would soon germinate and flower there, atop the embankment.
Participants in a long-running program run by Petaluma-based Point Blue Conservation Science — Students & Teachers Restoring A Watershed, or STRAW — the youngsters were learning environmental stewardship first-hand, improving habitat along the creek and advancing biodiversity.
The flowers should attract bees and butterflies and spread among other native plants put in the ground days and years earlier by McNear grade school students working collectively to produce more shade and to stabilize the creek bed for the improved overall health of Thompson Creek.
It’s the kind of childhood experience that might have piqued the interest of STRAW Education Manager Alba Estrada López, had it been available to her.
But growing up in the Salinas Valley, the daughter of immigrant fieldworkers who worked alongside her parents at times, Estrada López, 26, was unfamiliar with landscape stewardship and environmental restoration — concepts she now teaches and demonstrates around the Greater Bay Area.
Born in Mexico, she moved to Greenfield as a toddler and grew up “in a lot of natural places.” Her family embraced many of the concepts of sustainable living — keeping a garden, consuming minimally and reusing and recycling what they had. But it was by custom and cultural tradition, not because of broader views on resource conservation, Estrada López said.
Pivoting focus, but sticking to science
Even as a new arrival at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she embarked on a path in pre-medicine, she had yet to be exposed to environmentalism or anyone who dedicated their life to it.
“I didn’t know any conservationists or really think of it as a field,” she said.
A profession described in a landmark 2014 report as an “overwhelmingly white ‘Green Insider’s Club,’” the environmental movement has long lacked racial and ethnic diversity, despite clear evidence that communities of color suffer suffer disproportionately from the impacts of environmental hazards.
Estrada López is working to change that, from the inside.
When she entered college, “I already knew I liked science, because I liked learning life’s little mysteries,” she said.
But to her, an interest in science meant a future in medicine in the same way an interest in language automatically suggested studies in law in her mind. It was’t until her senior year and a restoration ecology course that she learned about conservation science.
It was a stimulating, pivotal introduction to the subject and inspired a series of key intellectual connections Estrada López made while enrolled in the class — conducting field restoration work in tony west L.A. neighborhoods, for example, instead of in less-affluent communities where there might be need that was as great or greater, but the same access to help was lacking.
Lack of diversity in leadership roles
Though majoring in biology, she had been minoring in Mexican Studies and Spanish, and reading the work of Latino authors who lamented limited access to land. She “started to see this dissonance between the technical side of science and the social context,” she said.
She also served as a volunteer mentoring inner city grade-school students through most of her four years of college, unknowingly furthering her preparation for the work she does now.
“It was something I really enjoyed,” she says now. “Sharing science!”
As she approached graduation in 2018, Estrada López pursued plans to take a year to prepare for the entrance exam to medical school.
She also had learned about something called the Roger Arliner Young, or RAY, Diversity Fellowships, a program begun in 2016, in part in response to the 2014 Green 2.0 report that found such dismal representation of minority groups in environmental institutions.
The authors surveyed 191 conservation and preservation organizations, 74 government environmental agencies and 28 grant-making foundations. It found that progress had been made in gender equality, though not when it came to the highest ranking positions.
While increased hiring of ethnic minorities also was observed, Black, Indigenous and other people of color occupied fewer than 12% of leadership roles and never exceeded 16% of overall staffing or board membership, according to the report.