Closing the Gap: Environmental Education Means Amplifying the Power of Communities to Make Systemic Change

Marcos Trinidad is the Director at the Audubon Center at Debs Park where he has critically advanced environmental literacy through community organizing to foster relationships with low-income communities of color. Beyond being a bird center, the Audubon Center under Marcos’ leadership has redefined environmental literacy by fostering community relationships that broaden the scope of outdoor education. 

In a joint project between Audubon California, the National Audubon Society, and Latino Outdoors called “Mapping Migraciones,” Marcos details his grandparents’ journey from Jalisco, Mexico, before they arrived in Los Angeles in the 1930s, where he continues to live with his wife and children more than 70 years later. Mapping Migraciones is a fascinating exploration of the connections between us and nature, mapping cultural migration using migratory bird data and family histories. 

Marcos is a co-director of L.A.’s Environmental Professionals of Color chapter, where he works to advance equity, inclusion, and diversity. The Environmental Professionals of Color Network is a growing community of leaders of color who work on an immense array of crucial environmental concerns. 

In this interview, Marcos challenges traditional conservation and environmental education programs that fail to serve communities of color. Despite having the smallest carbon footprint, communities of color still receive environmental education to reduce their impact while deflecting this same responsibility from those in power. 

How did you get involved in youth and outdoor education? 

I was born and raised in the Highland Park neighborhood of Northeast Los Angeles. There was an abundance of experience with nature but a lack of access to an education that could help me interpret that experience. Traditional conservationists and environmental educators teach people that nature is separate from urban areas and away from cities. Nature is abundant in urban areas if you know where to look for it and interpret it. 

The first real experience I had with nature was going out on camping trips with family members. The experience was joyful, however, I did not spend much time observing and appreciating the landscape as a naturalist or birdwatcher. We engaged with nature by virtue of its ability to provide us a space to pitch tents and ride dirt bikes. It wasn’t until later, as a young adult, that I learned to engage with nature differently through the military. My military experience forced me to understand the topography, how to read a map, and navigate conditions that I wouldn’t normally consider. My interest in environmental education began with awareness of how to navigate the land we are in.

How does your journey to environmental education translate to youth programming?

It was a long process involving lived experience striking a balance between community needs and environmental education. For a long time, it was really about learning about the environmental education community and how those groups were interacting with the communities where they were working. I saw a lot of issues with the approach. For too long, funding has gone to creating environmental education not developed by a diverse team striving for equity. It felt wrong to deliver programs about recycling, water conservation, and carbon emissions to communities that are victims of all of those things more than perpetrators; it assumes the worst of communities impacted the most. I was teaching low-income communities of color that had the lowest carbon footprint in Los Angeles about saving water and recycling.

My grandma’s fridge will have four butter containers at any time, but only one of them has butter in it. The others were being reused. We are teaching communities that cannot afford to waste about conservation. We are teaching communities that cannot afford to let their water run about water conservation. These communities are not simply waiting for the holy gospel of education not designed for them. We need to work with the already existing ecological relationships in these communities. 

What have traditional environmental education programs failed to understand in their work to serve communities of color?

Traditional environmental education neglects an understanding of equity and power. Rather than deliver programs that do nothing more than making someone feel good about themselves, people should be working to create systemic change. Environmental literacy isn’t just about selling eco-friendly dishwashers with a water conservation setting—many low-income communities of color don’t even have dishwashers. Environmental literacy is about community organizing and systemic change. 

Environmental education needs to be redirected to the people responsible for making the decisions that created the problems in the first place. We need to push back against the traditional conservationist movement and environmental educators because they don’t understand how our communities value nature. All use of outdoor space is valid. Use of outdoor space doesn’t need to be defined by one group. We get to define our use ourselves. If I work outside six days a week in the hot sun, do you expect me to go kayaking or hiking on my one day off? What’s wrong with going outside and sitting under a tree and eating carne asada? People of color vote for environmental policy at a much higher rate than white people across the board. Yet, it’s white folks and environmental educators who sit around a boardroom “strategizing” about how to reach out to low-income communities of color to inform them about environmental education. What is more important is how the community can educate them, because they don’t get it.

Today, we have community members voting for state legislation in much higher numbers than the zip codes funding those education programs. Folks don’t want to focus or talk about that, because ultimately what it comes down to is that knowledge really is power when that knowledge has the potential to challenge current power dynamics.

How have you seen the impact of your work affect the people you serve? 

Currently, our focus is very community-driven. As an organization, we had to accept that we need the community more than the community needs us. Conversations are different when you understand that this work isn’t about being a savior but about collaborating with communities to serve them. Low-income communities of color must deal with homelessness, substance abuse, and human trafficking—issues that environmental educators are unprepared to deal with because we didn’t go to school to be social workers. Any environmental educator who believes that these realities aren’t part of their work is the one who needs environmental education. That is how we create culturally relevant environmental education. 

Here at the Audubon Center we have this beautiful space that does environmental education, bird walks, and partners that do healthy fitness walks. We have school groups come out to give tutoring. We have a women’s group that comes out that creates a safe and courageous space for women to build each other up. But we also feel things like affordable housing are a part of our work. It’s not just about programming but about building lasting relationships that we can effectively create change with. 

How do organizational partnerships with the Audubon Center create culturally relevant and equitable education for the communities you serve? 

When you know a community, you’re able to network and move in a way that addresses your immediate needs and addresses the needs of others. It becomes a relationship, and it forms a bond in a way that you’re able to see the impact. You’re able to create an exchange of ideas and different approaches to the same problems we’ve been dealing with for a long time.

Community organizing has become a crucial part of our environmental education work. At an event, I learned that people were hesitant to participate in neighborhood cleanup programming because they feared it would lead to them no longer being able to afford to live in a neighborhood where their families had lived for generations. I could have bombarded them with several reasons why environmental work is essential, but I chose to listen instead. As a result, the Audubon Society partnered with the housing advocates, Southeast Asian Community Alliance, Public Council, the largest pro bono group of lawyers, and Team Friday to create an anti-displacement toolkit for green infrastructure called “Greening In Place”; which is something no one thought Audubon would do. 

This is where the real work will start to happen. When communities can learn about their environment, become land stewards and not fear about displacement. Understanding the community needs and shifting the power dynamics that provides a space where communities can thrive is when we are truly reaching our goals of educating people on the environment they live in.