Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours. -César Chavez
This Saturday my friend Juan Martinez graduated from Cal State Los Angeles with a degree in History. He will be the first member of his family to graduate from college. This follows Juan being honored as one of National Geographic’s Explorers of 2011 and featured in their current issue. Juan has established himself as a leader in youth activism and a true trailblazer on the importance of outdoor experiences for all people. This leadership has helped to empower local communities and create positive social change. Juan is the definition of a Natural Leader. His story is one that should give hope and confidence to so many young and older people alike. It shows the difference one person can make and how investing in our youth is fundamental to our progress as a society.
I have known Juan Martinez since 2003, when he was graduating from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. Juan had already accomplished so much when I first met him, including an Outward Bound 90-day wilderness adventure and becoming the first member of his family to graduate from high school. When I first met Juan, I had a bone to pick with him. The Sierra Club had worked with Juan for a couple years as they had supported his trips and he had in turn been used in promotional materials. In one of our brochures I inherited, they had Juan shaking hands with Civil Rights icon, John Lewis, while wearing a black T-Shirt that says O.G. No one at the Sierra Club knew what O.G. stood for, but as a listener of rap music I knew it meant Original Gangster, which in my mind was a shot at the Sierra Club and not respectful to Mr. Lewis. When we met at an event at Ken Hahn Park in Los Angeles for the first time, I whispered to Juan, “What’s up, O.G?” He smiled and locked eyes with me in a way that instantly put me at attention and said, “That’s right.” Juan educated me through the years that if he was just going to be a prop in brochures, he would wear the outfit that represented his community and himself. Juan was not doing this to be a face or get promoted but to be a leader; the next eight years have shown me the drive and passion Juan has that make him a leader in his community and in the movement.
Our journey working together on the issue of connecting youth to the outdoors has been an amazing adventure. We started locally in Los Angeles, working with Bill Vanderberg at Crenshaw High School on the positive effects of outdoor experiences on youth through the Crenshaw Eco-Club. This was a tough enough challenge for Juan, because it was his rival school. But we saw the power of the issue in engaging young people who did not have the family or school structure to support them and the leaders that blossomed from even the occasional outdoor outing in their local community. Juan played a pivotal role in working with and showing patience with so many young leaders to get them involved and keeping them focused and engaged with the outdoors. This included putting together a first of its kind outdoor organizing training with the Sierra Student Coalition in Los Angeles. This work was very gratifying for us yet also very challenging and we wondered how we could get the issue on to a higher platform?
The publication of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods in 2005, and the Sierra Club’s commitment to promoting outdoor experiences for youth at a national level through Building Bridges to the Outdoors, helped us build the issue into one that is now looked at by a diverse mixture of groups as fundamental for the health of our people, communities and planet. But to get there, I saw Juan lead Chicago youth on sand dune hikes in 100-degree weather at Indiana Dunes National Recreational Area, speak at a major conference in New Mexico on environmental education, and give testimony to the California legislature. The whole time Juan kept his values and his focus. With his signature flat-rimmed black LA Dodgers hat, representing his beloved team and city, he challenged the status quo and explained how the outdoors was the great equalizer to bring communities together. I saw through this journey his vision, his determination and discipline and desire in keeping his message simple while truly listening to others to help build the argument on how the outdoors has the power to lift communities and connect people.
Juan branched out from the Sierra Club and now is the Leadership Development Coordinator for the Children & Nature Network where he has built a national program Natural Leaders, a consultant for North Face, a Green for All fellow, and National Geographic Explorer. Through all of this, he still gets outside, as highlighted by his ascent of Grand Teton with Conrad Anker last year and his trips with his family to local Los Angeles outdoor areas. He and his team of Natural Leaders have built a network of committed youth and adults, and they are just now beginning to connect the pieces to support and move forward the children and nature movement.
His contributions have been amazing, but what sets Juan apart are his values, ethics and passion. He believes in family first and his support and love for them is always his first priority. His second priority is his community: he proudly still lives in South Central Los Angeles and is involved in numerous efforts to help bring people together in it. Through all of the great work we have done, my best times with Juan have been our shared experiences that have ranged from staring at Mt Baker in the North Cascades while the sun sweeps down to having him protect me at a soccer bar in Greenwich Village in New York City as Mexico fans swarm the only person dumb enough to wear a French shirt during a world cup match last summer. Watching Juan hold my daughter Amélie was one of my greatest thrills as he has become part of our family. I have learned so much from him and he constantly inspires me to work harder, listen more and engage more people from all walks of life into the movement.
Richard Louv put what Juan does into perfect context in the Nature Principle when he said, “Our relationship with nature is not only about preserving land and water but about preserving and growing the bonds between us.” Juan has said, “I love nature because I love people.” He has inspired many and is just beginning his journey and he gives us all motivation to work harder and connect more people and empower all of our communities around the value of outdoor experiences. Through it all, Juan goes home to South Central Los Angeles and I proudly keep in my bedroom dresser the O.G. shirt he kindly gave me. Juan’s rise is a testament to the power of the outdoors and how it can create a new generation of natural leaders. As I saw him get his diploma a prideful smile came across his face and emotion swept over me as I realized that there is not only hope in the children and nature movement but tangible progress, one leader at a time.