Volunteer Report: Michelle Okawa on Our March 2017 Trip to DC

Michelle Okawa is a graduate of the Leadership Academy and a volunteer who joined coalition members on a trip to meet with representatives in Washington, D.C. Below, she reflects on the experience.

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With Bryan Matsumoto (left) and Duyen Tran (right).

What Surprised Me:

Before going on the trip to Washington, D.C., the idea of speaking to Congress members worried me tremendously. I’ve never spoken to government officials before and honestly I didn’t really know what to expect. Despite these pre-trip nerves, Duyen & Rob did a wonderful job preparing us on what we would be doing in each meeting and what we should talk about. One thing that surprised me in D.C. was how unpredictable each meeting would be. Depending on who you are speaking with, you may be meeting with a Congress member or a staffer, sometimes in their office, in a backroom, or even in the hallway lobby. You never really know what to expect!

What We Got to Talk About:

Since we only had about 20 minutes to meet with each office, it was important to be concise and really hit the points we wanted to make. Depending on who we were speaking to, we would adjust our talking points to create the most effective argument to support the San Gabriels. I feel like as a team we had a really great flow to our conversations that complimented each other really well. We all had different roles to play, but it was truly the teamwork that allowed us to shine as a group.

In my presentation, I spoke about being a resident of the San Gabriel Valley my whole life and having very little awareness about the San Gabriel Mountains until only recently. I spoke on behalf of the members of my Japanese American community, and how there is a lack of public accessibility to the national recreational areas that are right in our backyards. During my presentation I got to share pictures and stories about the Leadership Academy project that my supervisor and I implemented last year. Our project was called Camp Chibikko, and we took a group of 75 children ages 5-12 on various field trips to the San Gabriel Mountains. While on these field trips, the children got to participate in several hands-on activities where they learned about the native plants and animals surrounding them. For many of these children, this camp really provided their first introductory experience to interacting with nature. Across the board, parents said that their children absolutely loved the field trips and nature activities they participated in. I stressed the importance of providing people with these opportunities to explore local natural lands, so that they may have access and awareness to the recreational areas that are available to them.

What I’m Still Thinking About:

Even after the trip ended, I continued thinking about the impact that our projects have on the communities that we live in. I am thinking about the incredible opportunity we were given to represent our communities and actually show Congress members how essential the San Gabriel Mountains are to the residents of the Los Angeles County. After this trip, I am determined now more than ever to fight and protect our San Gabriel Mountains that has provided so many incredible experiences for myself and the people that visit.

Volunteer Report: Bryan Matsumoto on Our March 2017 Trip to DC

Bryan Matsumoto is a graduate of the San Gabriel Mountain Forever Leadership Academy and a volunteer for SGMF who joined a group of coalition members on a trip to Washington, D.C. to advocate for protection of our national monuments. Below, he reflects on the experience.

What Surprised Me
I never imagined my first visit to D.C. would be to lobby our members of Congress! It was powerful being in DC in this Trump era… to stand in the Lincoln Memorial and read the conviction of his words was inspiring — leadership in the face of injustice. Government no longer feels mysterious or distant now that I’ve seen how it works in person; it’s just talking person to person and making a case. It shows me that we the people do have immense power, but only if we flex it en masse.

What We Talked About
I was there to help tell our reps why we urgently need more Federal resources to connect our park-starved communities to healthy, nature-rich living.

I shared that I grew up in Temple City in view of the San Gabriel Mountains, but no one took me there — like many people today. Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley was an anonymous suburban experience. It was pleasant, but everywhere else felt more special. It wasn’t ’til friends took me hiking years later, to Sturtevant Falls, that I discovered… there’s magic back there! Discovering the mountains changed my life. We have such special places: beautiful waterfalls, crystal blue rivers and shady canyons so close to home, and they provide peace and relief from the urban pressures of LA. In this political climate, they are more vital than ever for us to recharge in nature, and break the cycle of Nature-deficit disorder.

As a park designer, I shared how I’ve worked on the Puente Hills Landfill Park Master Plan, and numerous parks in our park-poor County, and how a proposed National Recreation Area designation would multiply and maximize the County’s investments to bring park space to our residents.

What I’m Still Thinking About
Connecting people to nature has become my purpose because someone introduced me – and paying it forward is the only way to grow future environmental stewards. “You can’t protect what you don’t love, and you can’t love what you don’t know.”

It’s really motivating working with SGMF because we’re getting real results! Our San Gabriel Mountains have been neglected and underfunded for many years. I had never seen a single ranger out there and now, thanks to the National Monument, we have young, diverse field rangers educating families by the San Gabriel River. We have new, attractive multilingual signs. When people see that we care, they care. We’re pushing and partnering with the Forest Service and our public agencies, to improve public access and outreach, and to innovate. We’re advocating for Transit to Trail shuttles to connect the gaps between our communities and the outdoors. Our Leadership Academy graduates are now rising environmental leaders in our region. It’s an exciting time.

Leadership Academy Spotlight: Megan Devine

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Megan Devine is a graduate of the Leadership Academy who continues to lead the Convert-a-Can program.

How did you hear about the Leadership Academy and what inspired you to apply for the program?

I learned about the Leadership Academy through a friend, Kevin Lynch, who was in the cohort before mine, and he said it was a great opportunity. I also connected with my degree I was studying at the time, environmental science and policy. I am a huge advocate for protecting our public lands and conservation so it only made sense to get involved in the Leadership Academy.

What was your project?

“Convert-a-Can – Using Art and Creativity as a Tool for Advocacy.” Project Convert-A-Can turns unattractive trash bins into interactive art installations to create awareness and advocacy toward the prevention of littering and graffiti. The projects focus is to improve the infrastructure, deter litter and graffiti vandalism, and enhance the outdoor experience by beautifying the specific areas of the San Gabriel Mountains.

What’s the best thing you learned?

I learned vital leadership skills that allowed me to coordinate a successful project and do public outreach. I learned so much history about the San Gabriels and the organizations that work together to protect it.

What surprised you about the program or your work on the project?

I was surprised at the level of achievement I felt after completing my project and the Leadership Academy program. It felt so good to successfully complete both. And the impact it has made on my life was a surprise — it keeps on giving.

Describe being in the great outdoors.

Being in the great outdoors gives me peace. It allows me to let go of reality and be in the present. My senses heighten and I’m able to take it all in for all its worth. It allows me to have a greater sense of being and know that this is what I’m fighting for. The feeling of being outdoors makes me feel free and alive.

What’s your favorite way to spend your day in the San Gabriel Mountains?

I love the drive up Highway 39, visiting the West Fork trail with my sister and mom. Taking a hike down the trail along the river. Sitting down along the river by a waterfall to enjoy a great sack lunch with my family. Telling stories or just being in silence. That crisp air, and the sound of the trees in the wind makes my day.

SGMF Leadership Academy Spotlight: Norma Saldana

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Norma Saldana is a graduate of the San Gabriel Mountains Forever Leadership Academy who served as the coordinator of the coalition in 2016.

How did you hear about the Leadership Academy and what inspired you to apply for the program?
I heard through an email from a former professor. At the time, I was taking classes to obtain my Natural Resources and Wildlands Forestry certificate and had been active on campus, as the President of Earth Club; he thought it was a good idea for me to apply to the academy to build my skills and meet amazing individuals in my community who were doing similar work.

What was your project?
My project was a beautification project of Antonovich trail located in San Dimas. It included reaching out and working with local high schools and having students take part in three workshops. The first was a presentation on San Gabriel Mountains Forever, showcasing their work and, at the time, their efforts to push for the national monument and what it would mean to our community. The second was taking the youth out hiking to Antonovich trail and running simple tests to measure quality of water, and air, observe the wildlife (or lack thereof) and flora in the area (especially noting the presence of invasive species).The third part was to have an open event (inviting the community, city members, etc.) for a clean-up event to pick up (and record) trash, remove graffiti and install signs to alert hikers of poison oak. I ran into obstacles and various factors came into play that limited the completion of the project, including the fact that the trail was owned by three different entities, and there was little partnership at the time.

What’s the best thing you learned?
I learned about a lot of great organizations and community groups. I still keep in touch with them. I also met a lot of great individuals who have now become very close friends.

What surprised you about the program or your work on the project?
Having completed the program, I was surprised at the level of commitment and engagement that the organizers have put into this academy. It’s not just during the program when they work with each individual on creating a successful project — it’s also after. There is a wealth of support from various individuals who are willing to assist participants to connect them with resources in the community; anything from job opportunities to community events and actions and maintaining a positive relationship.

Describe being in the great outdoors.
For me, being in the great outdoors is what I plan my life around. Whether it is going to the park after work, taking a picture and looking up a plant that I saw on my way to work, or taking my dogs hiking on the weekend. There is not a moment when I am not in awe of nature and all that it provides. I feel privileged being able to wake up and see the San Gabriel Mountains every morning, especially living in the foothills, where I am a mere 15-minute drive away. It’s definitely something that I am aware of, especially having only recently had the opportunity to do so because of lack of transportation.

What’s your favorite way to spend your day in the San Gabriel Mountains?
My favorite way to spend my day in the San Gabriel Mountains is to go with a group of friends and explore the trails, learn about the history, observe the native flora and physically challenging yourself. Recently, I discovered Strawberry Peak, a physically challenging hike with inspiring and humbling views of the San Gabriel Mountains.

SGMF Leadership Academy Spotlight: Amy Wong

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Amy Wong is a San Gabriel Mountains Forever Leadership Academy graduate who worked with Day One and BikeSGV before joining SGMF as our Coordinator.

How did you hear about the Leadership Academy and what inspired you to apply for the program?
I heard about the Leadership Academy program through volunteering with Bike San Gabriel Valley and Day One. At that time, I was still learning about the environmental movement here in SoCal and wondered, how could I be a part of it? Moving back home to El Monte after attending school in the Bay Area, I was eager to find like-minded people who care about environmental justice and empowering communities of color. So I joined the academy to connect with such folks.

What was your project?
My project was “Youth Spark,” a four-day youth empowerment program focused on environmental justice, local ecology, and arts as advocacy. I reached out to my old elementary school, Cortada, and worked with students in the ASPIRE after-school program. I made a 12-page hand-drawn workbook, which included a brief history of El Monte and a map of our city’s parks. After our in-class workshops, we all took a field trip to Eaton Canyon, where docents led small group tours and kids played in the river. It was incredibly fun, especially because it was most of the kids’ first time in the mountains.

What’s the best thing you learned?
Kids love nature! There is an instant connection when kids are in the outdoors—a visceral multi-sensory experience. Their expressions of excitement were genuine and priceless. It showed me how transformative open space can be to our youth; how we need to preserve these spaces so their children’s children can enjoy them as well.

What surprised you about the program or your work on the project?
One thing that surprised me was that the students weren’t aware of their own community. Many of them didn’t know their local parks, including Lashbrook Park near their school, on the Rio Hondo River. When I asked them about their favorite places to visit, they listed many places outside of El Monte. So it was important for me to introduce them to their own backyard, the Emerald Necklace and the San Gabriel Mountains.

Describe being in the great outdoors.
Being in the great outdoors allows you to free your mind and be reminded that you are a part of something bigger in the universe.

What’s your favorite way to spend your day in the San Gabriel Mountains?
I enjoy any hike that allows me to see a majestic view from above. In general, I like going on new trails with friends and family. There’s still a lot left of the mountains for me to explore!

Added: Read Amy’s award-winning essay on the San Gabriel Mountains.

SGMF Leadership Academy Spotlight: Jackson Lam

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Jackson Lam is a San Gabriel Mountains Forever Leadership Academy graduate who now works for SGMF member organization Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council (A3PCON).

How did you hear about the Leadership Academy and what inspired you to apply for the program?

I heard about the Leadership Academy through BikeSGV, a bike advocacy nonprofit that I was (and am still) volunteering for [editor’s note: BikeSGV is an SGMF member organization]. After researching the program, I felt it would be a good extension of what I had already been doing in my personal life: advocating for the environment, promoting the outdoors, and fostering community and inclusivity. It was also in my city (Los Angeles), my neighborhood (El Monte), and my backyard (the San Gabriel Mountains). Also, the stipend encouraged me because I was unemployed at the time.

What was your project?

My project, after many ideas and iterations, was outreach to Asian communities in LA County, and especially in the San Gabriel Valley, where cities like Monterey Park, Rowland Heights, and other areas have large Asian populations. We never came up with a title, and I technically never “finished” my project as a Leadership Academy participant. The reason is, soon after discussing the idea, I was asked to work part-time for the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council (A3PCON), an SGMF member that does grassroots organizing for Asian communities for the campaign. The project continues today.

What’s the best thing you learned?

In the Leadership Academy, I learned that there were other people who really cared about and had a passion for our mountains and forests; that there was a concerted effort to protect it and make it more accessible to everybody, including low-income families and communities of color. It is really good to know that there are other people who care as much as I do, sometimes even more than I do!

What surprised you about the program or your work on the project?

I was surprised about how much work actually goes into the process of land management, protection, working with government agencies and elected officials. There are so many details and facets to the work that I never understood before, even though I had counted myself amongst the environmentally aware. I now understand better the nuances, the politics, and the patience one must have to work for environmental advocacy groups.

Describe what being in the great outdoors means to you.

Being in the great outdoors is about letting go, detaching, and re-framing priorities. In the outdoors, one learns to let go of one’s self and our own desires, ambitions, and selfishness—to see nature as not something to control, but to consult with. We detach from deadlines, chores, electronics, and distractions—and connect to something deeper. And it ultimately allows us to filter through all the noise and clutter to see what’s really important. For me, that’s what being outdoors is all about.

What’s your favorite way to spend your day in the San Gabriel Mountains? 

My favorite way to spend a day in the San Gabriel Mountains is with good friends, good food, and existential conversations with no real answers and endless interpretations. This could take place hiking, camping, backpacking, or just sitting underneath an oak tree, fiddling with leaves and leftover acorns.

Leadership Academy Spotlight: Andrew Fung Yip

sgmf andrew monument signAndrew Fung Yip is a graduate of the San Gabriel Mountains Forever Leadership Academy and now works as a program coordinator for Bike San Gabriel Valley.

How did you hear about the Leadership Academy and what inspired you to apply for the program?
I volunteered for Bike San Gabriel Valley and my supervisor thought I would be a good fit for the program. I remember being interviewed for the academy while sitting in my car at school at Azusa Pacific University and watching the Colby Fire burn many acres of the San Gabriel Mountains.

What was your project?
My project is called Queer Hike and is an ongoing project to outreach to individuals that identify as LGBTQ. It is a series of hikes and discussions centered on the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender. The project started in June 2015.

What’s the best thing you learned?
We are the masters of our fates. We are the enablers of both justice and injustice. We are the change makers for the change that we wish to see. The leadership academy empowered me through raising social consciousness and education so that I can do the same with my community. We want to see positive outcomes so we must work for it but it is achievable. I joined the leadership academy and participated in all the coalition outreach events. A few months later, I went to Washington D.C. to lobby and to provide my narrative in advocating for federal protections of the San Gabriel Mountains. A few months after that, I was invited and attended the President’s signing of the proclamation designating the San Gabriel Mountains a national monument. I saw our vision of federal protections achieved through the hard work of many leadership academy students and graduates.

What surprised you about the program or your work on the project?
I was surprised at the diversity of the leadership academy program. My opinion was that mainstream conservation organizations were homogeneous in race and income. I was actually hesitant to participate in the academy but was reassured when I attended the first leadership academy class.

Finish this sentence: Being in the great outdoors….
Being in the great outdoors engages all of your senses to a point where your endorphins shoot through your veins and you understand that you’ve fallen in love again with nature.

What’s your favorite way to spend your day in the San Gabriel Mountains? 
I always enjoy a great hike. My favorite, however, is to bring people that have never been to the mountains before and watch them light up.