Conservationist serves as teacher, environmental ambassador to students of all ages

Latina educators join a Petaluma program to pass on knowledge of the environment and how to care for it|

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

Haz clic aquí para leer la versión en Español.

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 ScienceStudents & 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.

Connecting BIPOC students with conservation work

Estrada López was the first of what are now three people to have won RAY conservation fellowships with Point Blue Conservation Science, which, she said, has taken a very intentional approach to diversity in its hiring.

After her first year with the organization, she moved to tackle the issue on her own, designing a summer Community College Conservation Internship for BIPOC students to learn about the STRAW program.

Estrada López said it was inspired by a desire to make sure students like herself were exposed earlier to conservation work than she had been, as well as by her prior experience as a peer mentor to community college transfers to UCLA.

Students changing schools and sometimes geographic locations between sophomore and junior years were often disadvantaged when it came to applying for and managing internships, especially if they didn’t have support or guidance to do so. So she wanted to offer help community college students specifically, about two-thirds of whom are people of color.

The program, her fellowship capstone project, debuted as a pilot program in 2019, with six students. It was canceled by COVID-19 the following year. But it transitioned last summer to a mostly online program beginning with 20 participants and is scheduled again this summer, with in-person meetings and the chance to train for potential apprenticeships with Point Blue in the fall.

Planting an acorn seed

In the meantime, Estrada López’s fellowship with Point Blue was extended a second year by mutual agreement, and she took a full-time staff job with the STRAW program in 2020.

The program involves diverse school communities from around the region, reaching 3,000 to 4,000 students from 75 schools in a normal year, according to Senior STRAW Education manager Gina Graziano.

Her creative initiative is a quality, among many, that co-workers say helps Estrada López stand out.

“She has really built something incredible,” said STRAW Project Manager Alison Pollack. “She’s had a lot of support, and there’s been such a need for this, but I really think her sense of humor and her leadership and her excitement around getting people involved in natural resources have really helped build it. It’s been really cool to watch.”

The pandemic has interfered with the now-11-week internship program’s smooth rollout, but already it’s allowing participants to imagine themselves in conservation fields and begin to develop the skills to get there.

Estrada López, wrote Graziano, “not only designed a program that enhances skills and knowledge about the conservation field, but also creates meaningful community, a sense of belonging, and empowerment.

“This sense of belonging is essential in empowering students in the long term, and has been especially lifegiving during the pandemic,” she wrote.

Internship applicants don’t need previous experience in environmental work or even know for sure it’s something they want to do, Estrada López said. But many of those completing the program have shared that they can see a role for themselves in the field when they’re done.

“It’s really life-giving to see how it has kind of a domino effect,” she said. “It’s a little cheesy, right? When I think about it. But like, when I plant a little acorn seed, I don’t know for sure every one is going to make it, but I’m sure one of them will.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

Haz clic aquí para leer la versión en Español.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.