The following is a transcript of their conversation. It has been edited for clarity.
Solena Aguilar (SA): To start off, how did you begin your journey as an environmental educator and working with the community. What sparked this interest of yours?
Francis Mendoza (FM): I was a formal high school science and health teacher, straight out of college, got my credential, and I just couldn’t stay in the classroom. I needed to be outdoors. There was a big jump that I made to environmental education. Now, in the Bay Area there are a lot more opportunities, but 25 or so years ago I had to scuffle together one job and another job and a social worker position overnight, but all those things were positions that fulfilled me spiritually. I was willing to put in the work to educate kids outdoors and that was something I hold near and dear to my heart. Growing up in the Philippines as a 5 year old I loved the outdoors, and just being out here in the Bay Area there is a pretty well built out park system. Not just the San Mateo County Parks and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, but here in the East Bay we have a really big park system. I was fortunate enough after about 10 years of really trying to get enough skills and experience to be hired on with them as a naturalist, so that was the jist of my blog post for Kámen Road about 6 or 7 years ago, just highlighting the East Bay Parks.
SA: I feel like in the Bay Area there is a huge emphasis on preservation now, not so much as ‘let’s create these green spaces, but rather let’s preserve them and make sure they are going to be here awhile.’
FM: Absolutely. Thankfully, because of the infrastructure of big green organizations, but also smaller nonprofits and community based organizations, that has been conducive for preservation and also restoration and then hopefully in the near future rematriation of land back to the indigenous peoples. That is the work that I do. All these ideas are intercepted into one.
SA: What recommendations do you have for people looking to get involved with this type of work and bringing land back to the indigenous people?
FM: Pay your Shuumi Tax here in the Bay Area. We have the Sogorea Te Land Trust, and there is a Shuumi tax you can calculate yourself to pay every year. The city of Alameda and actually the city council have approved to pay their share of Shuumi tax as a city to the land trust every year now. This is a monumental thing to happen because oftentimes it’s individuals and organizations so to have a whole city like Alameda do that, it is just emblematic that the trend is going the correct way.
→ Calculate and pay your annual Shuumi Land Tax https://sogoreate-landtrust.org/pay-the-shuumi-land-tax/
So, basically making sure people are aware of not just the Ohlone people, but also the Muwekma, the Ramaytush, and Karkin folks. The Esselen, as you know, down south were given back a good amount of land. Knowing not just the history, but also the contemporary tribes that are around today and what they are doing to revitalize their language, their indigenous food, and then forming relationships with them. This is important because you can’t just expect to jump into something without really having a relationship with the native people [like] just going to these wonderful places where native folks congregate like Alcatraz Island during Indigenous People’s Day. There is a new Native-owned restaurant in Oakland in the Fruitvale called Wahpepah’s Kitchen, and Crystal Wahpepah is one of the first Native-owned women restaurants here in the Bay Area. Fraternizing those places and making sure you are supporting them is a good way to start.
SA: I was reading your blog post where you talk about ancestral practices. How does turning to our ancestral practices help us prepare for a prosperous future and a future where we are actually here?
FM: Absolutely. That’s a wonderful question because ancestry can be very complex. Indigenous and Indigenous people can have a lot of different ancestral layers depending on where they are from. You can be Indigenous to Turtle Island or North America, but my Indigenous lies in the Philippines where I’m from. A lot of white folks, they don’t think that they have that, but it’s just something they need to tap into if they want to in a culturally appropriate way; one, where they’re possibly learning how to make fire because that’s what all our ancestors did as well as making projectile points like Arrowhead spear tips.
That’s something that a lot of my friends who are both native to this area and not native both do and have that connection with. Getting in touch with our indigeneity, our ancestry, is a privilege. Many immigrants here were forced to come from Africa and don’t have that ability to go back as far as they can in their genealogy.
It is also very important to have a tie to the land whether it be the food or the plants, whether it’s a medicinal herb or something more spiritual like the geology of the rocks and how we tie all that to the stars.
Indigenous astronomy is also really important. You don’t have to be an expert in it. You just have to want to have the drive and the fervor to be able to learn about that cultural aspect of your life. And that just grounds you. I think grounding is a really wonderful way to be able to keep all of us humble, accountable to each other. We all have common ancestors whether it be non humans or it could be human ones like Bell Hooks who just passed away. That’s something I’m really holding heavy with my heart is this woman who was such a voice in social activist circles and education circles, and now we won’t be able to hear anymore. But at least we have her legacy through her words and her books.
SA: I heard about that as well today, and it really hit heavy for me. But also, it’s a time to truly celebrate her achievements and commitments and words. I think connecting with ancestry really helps you, like you said, ground yourself and also have that connection to more than just your surroundings. People feel that connection and they realize their responsibility to keep it; to keep the community and the land safe and prosperous.
Moving forward now to the next generation, how do you think nature can impact the growth and education of children? You said that you were a teacher, and now you’re working in environmental spaces. How does environmental education impact students’ overall understanding of how they live in this world?
FM: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think I mentioned this, but after becoming a naturalist and Park Ranger for close to 15 years, I moved on to the Children in Nature Network. They have national and international reach and connect children with nature in systematic ways within municipal governments and school districts. We have our different partners and stakeholders all across the country, so that’s basically what we’re trying to foster: the belief that nature helps children in many ways from social, emotional, but also academic ways and also change the systems from within. All of our systems have these inequities to nature. Structural racism prevents all of our kids from being able to enjoy nature. That’s what’s important to me is just making sure that everybody has access to it [nature]. It doesn’t have to be like a big ol’ hike on the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trail. It could just be a nice little jog in the city park or have an indoor garden and use that to foster that love for the environment.
That has so many far reaching effects that people don’t really see or connect to, like climate change could be really mitigated by just fostering children’s love for nature and Indigenous people’s ties to nature as well. Since Indigenous folks are the ones who are protecting not only their land and water rights, but all of our land and water rights. It’s like a panacea to really help solve a lot of society’s issues.
SA: You mentioned climate change, too. How do you think that has affected our education and understanding of the environment?
FM: I think first of all, just believing in science is really important. We’re a science based, academic, research focused organization that has a research library that rivals any academic college library.
Oftentimes, young folks are not included in the conversation, but we make sure that they are. We make sure that those voices that have been historically excluded, like young people, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, disabled folks or two spirited people are at the table and not just as a performative voice, but one that is substantive, and they have the ability to create systems of change from within.
SA: When talking to politicians or people that have the power to enact more systematic changes, how do you encourage and create authenticity? How do you stray away from performative acts and encourage more concrete actions?
FM: Like I mentioned before with Indigenous folks and tribes, you want to make sure that you build that relationship from the beginning and are not just jumping in, but to try to uplift folks. Those are the things that we do at Children in Nature Network to help our cohorts work with each other to build out their nature connection program so that’s not a one and done clean up at the beach or a two DEI training with your HR staff, but really diving in deep and making sure that leadership is all on board. That goes from managerial levels and other levels as well. Those spaces should be representative of the community and it’s not just purely white-male-cishet spaces but it’s representative of all the community people.
SA: This question is one I like to ask people in community spaces and especially leadership spaces because I, myself, experience burn out. Especially when you are talking with a lot of people who don’t understand, don’t want to understand or maybe don’t even care about systematic racial, gender and cultural based violence. How do you confront burn out and maintain joy in the spaces that you inhibit?
FM: That’s a big focus for people in this realm because you are giving so much within yourself and oftentimes organizations, depending on the organization you work for, look at the Brown or Black person in the room and say ‘oh, you are our DEI person right?’ That happens quite a bit and oftentimes there are outside organizations who look to me as a consultant and say ‘can you help us with our DEI initiative without property paying you, without compensation, without any of the protocol that is necessary to work effectively.’ What I have learned is to say no, to ask the right questions, while taking the steps necessary to have the leadership enact these DEI principles and not just talk about them. A lot of it is performative and not substantive. I make sure to ask the right questions and ensure that they are not just interviewing me. I am interviewing them as well. It is a matter of putting yourself first and making self-care a priority and not just burning out. This work is tough, and you have to really make sure you are taking care of yourself first.
SA: I agree, I think self care is inherently political and a revolutionary idea that people can practice because, especially in a capitalistic space, we are taught that we need to constantly be grinding and working and saying yes to everything. It is really hard to take that time for yourself and yet so crucial for your own survival and growth.
FM: You nailed it on the head with ‘a capitalistic space’. Just trying to make sure capitalism is not the god that many people have promised it to be. There is so much to be learned from a democratic, collaborative style rather than that hierarchal, competition, over-collaboration approach. I’m glad you mentioned that.
SA: Thank you, it has been on my mind as I just graduated in June and am moving and trying to survive but also trying to find time for rest and reminding myself that I deserve enjoyment.
What advice do you have for people looking to live more sustainable lifestyles or lifestyles more connected to community care?
FM: Going off of the last question, sustainability is important within ourselves as well. You want to make sure that whatever role you are performing and whatever outside endeavors you have, you are being sustainable in the way that you work. You could be working 40-60 hours a week but is it sustainable? Some folks can do that, and I was able to do that for 10 years of my life, but I think it knocked out some years in my life.
SA: (Solena laughs) Yeah, that is interesting to think about.
FM: Sustainability within a community is important to think about as well. Not just the human community, but the environment. Making sure we also put our animal and plant relatives at the forefront. Something that often gets put to the back burner is when a species becomes on the endangered species list. We have this scarcity model so that when they get off the list we think, ‘all right, well they are doing okay I guess, let’s continue to mess up the Earth’
SA: Until they get to the endangered species list again and then we are like, ‘oh no, what happened? Everything was going fine’
FM: Same with climate change, right? ‘It’s not that hot’ and ‘we don’t have that many tornadoes or fires happening in the Midwest killing hundreds of people.’
SA: Even now it is like, ‘it’s not even that cold in the winter!’
FM: Isn’t it funny when people say things like that? It’s like a little sudden cold spell is going to help us. It’s also about the extreme weather events and people who are displaced from it. Oftentimes the people who are displaced are Black and Brown folks and folks who are low income. It is the way things are unfortunately until richer whiter Eurocentric folks are most affected by something, not much is going to be done. It’s all going to be politician talk.
SA: That is something I have learned in the past year, especially with COVID. The systems we have in place are not coming to save us. We need to create community care in a way where we can rely on each other for the help and resources that we need.
I really enjoyed what you said about sustainable lifestyles. When I think of sustainability I think of paper straws and those other small choices, but I think you are really right that it starts at your core and with yourself and being sustainable with yourself and that then leads into every one of your choices. That is a good way to approach sustainability because a lot of times I think people will make small, single decisions in the same way of ‘one beach cleanup’. Although those are good, how do you continue to go forward?
FM: There is something to be said for putting your action where your mindset is as well. Doing what you can to make sure you are contributing or not contributing to the degradation of the environment so uplift those that have been doing this from the beginning. Immigrant families have been doing this since the beginning. I know my mom did. We would always wash out our ziplock bags and use them again. Are they considered environmentalists? Now the dominant paradigm is looking at electric cars and things more unattainable by immigrant communities. Connecting those voices are just as important as everything else.
SA: I agree. Shifting that narrative too from single choice to bigger practices.
Well, thank you, is there anything else that you would like to add?
FM: Thank you for this opportunity and interview. I know that it has been a while since I talked with Kathleen and Kámen Road, and she regifting me the bag was so amazing and nice of her. The technical practices that she has and the real intentionality behind everything is wonderful. We have had conversations about ethics when it comes to manufacturing and textiles and making sure they are environmentally and ethically conscious but also knowing that those kinds of decisions are being put into this kind of bag is emblematic of how we can continue to have a great relationship with nature and not necessarily one that is transactional.
SA: I agree. I think she really cares about the impact it all has, and I really enjoy working with her so I’m glad that is felt elsewhere.
Thank you again, it was so nice meeting and getting to talk with you.
FM: Thank you as well, take care.