The soggy earthen buns that Petaluma’s third graders pressed into the ground above the creek behind McNear Elementary School might have been mud pies, the kids had enough fun shaping and molding them.
They also gathered knowledge while smoothing loose dirt over flattened “seed balls” in hopes that baby blue eyes would soon germinate and bloom up there on the embankment.
As participants in a long-standing program run by Petaluma-based Point Blue Conservation Science – Students & Teachers Restoring A Watershed, or STRAW – the youth learned firsthand about conservation, improving habitat along the creek and promoting biodiversity.
The flowers were meant to attract bees and butterflies and spread among other native plants that McNear elementary school students planted days and years earlier in the ground to collectively create more shade and stabilize the creek bed for improved Thompson Creek’s overall health.
It’s the kind of childhood experience that would have piqued the interest of STRAW Education Manager Alba Estrada López, had it been available to her.
But the daughter of immigrant field workers who worked part-time alongside her parents, Estrada López, 26, grew up in the Salinas Valley and was unfamiliar with landscaping and environmental restoration—concepts she now teaches and demonstrates in the Greater Bay Area.
Born in Mexico, she moved to Greenfield as a toddler and grew up “in many natural places.” Her family embraced many of the concepts of sustainable living—cultivating a garden, using minimally, and reusing and recycling what they had. But it happened because of custom and cultural tradition, not because of broader resource conservation views, Estrada López said.
Panning focus but sticking to science
Even as a newcomer to the University of California, Los Angeles, where she embarked on a path into pre-med, she had never been exposed to environmentalism or anyone who devoted her life to it.
“I didn’t know any conservationists or really thought it was a field,” she said.
The environmental movement, described in a landmark 2014 report as “an overwhelmingly white ‘green insider club’,” has long lacked racial and ethnic diversity, despite clear evidence that communities of color suffer disproportionately from the effects of environmental hazards.
Estrada López is working to change that from within.
By the time she entered college, “I already knew that I liked science because I liked learning life’s little mysteries,” she said.
But for her, an interest in science meant a future in medicine, just as an interest in languages automatically stimulated law studies in her mind. It wasn’t until her senior year and a course in restoration ecology that she learned about conservation science.
It was a stimulating, pivotal introduction to the subject and inspired a number of important intellectual connections Estrada López made while enrolled in the course — such as undertaking on-site restoration work in tony West LA neighborhoods, rather than in fewer affluent communities, where this would be the case, had equally great or greater need but lacked equal access to help.
Lack of diversity in leadership roles
Although she majored in biology, she had majored in Mexican studies and minored in Spanish, and had read the works of Latin American authors who bemoaned the limited access to the country. She “started seeing this dissonance between the technical side of science and the social context,” she said.
She also served as a volunteer mentor to inner-city elementary school students during most of her four years in college, unknowingly furthering their preparation for the work she is now doing.
“I really enjoyed it,” she says today. “Share science!”
As she neared her graduation in 2018, Estrada López pursued plans to spend a year preparing for the medical school entrance exam.
She had also heard of the Roger Arliner Young or RAY Diversity Fellowships, a program that started in 2016, partly in response to the 2014 Green 2.0 report, which found such dismal representation of minority groups in environmental institutions.
The authors surveyed 191 conservation and conservation organizations, 74 state environmental agencies, and 28 grantmaking foundations. It found that progress had been made towards gender equality, but not when it came to the highest positions.
While increased hiring from ethnic minorities was also observed, Black, Indigenous and other people of color occupied less than 12% of leadership positions, and never exceeded 16% of the total workforce or board membership, according to the report.