Miguel Ordeñana (SFS Kenya Fall ’04) is a wildlife biologist and educator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He conducts urban mammal research projects (bats and carnivores!) and citizen science outreach at the museum.
Tell us your story, what is your connection to the land and conservation?
I have been passionate about wildlife since I was a young kid (as far back as I can remember) so I think this was my original connection to nature. This was a challenging interest for my family to nurture because we lived in urban Los Angeles where there aren’t many opportunities to get connected with nature unless you know what you are looking for and know where to look.
Nonetheless, my family recognized and fed my passion whenever they could even though they didn’t really have a background in science or wildlife. Fortunately, I had the luxury of growing up across the street from Griffith Park which is also home to the L.A. Zoo. However, I would say I developed a connection with conservation due to my interest and concern for wildlife not necessarily because I enjoyed being outdoors. In other words, I cared about “the land” because I began to view it as habitat and important to the wildlife that I cared about. My mother would take me on hikes for exercise and when my mom married my outdoorsy stepdad, we went on a few backpacking trips. However, I really preferred the Natural History Museum, Zoos, and watching urban wildlife roam through my neighborhood considerably more than the outdoor experiences. During hikes or backpacking I rarely saw wildlife, and when I did I had no idea what I was looking at. From that standpoint, being outdoors was not very rewarding. This highlights the importance of nature education and literacy. After receiving some nature education and being more aware of my natural surroundings, I now thoroughly enjoy going on hikes and even urban nature explorations. Now, I can’t get out there enough.
With that said, I do have a few memorable experiences picnicking and going on night hikes with my family. Nonetheless, even if Latinos don’t take an interest in the flora and fauna or wilderness areas and enjoy being out there simply for the fresh air, exercise, or challenge, it is important that they understand enough to respect nature. Latinos need to know why not to have dogs off-leash, why hiking off trail is very damaging to natural areas, why not to litter, why not to feed wildlife, and how to take care of themselves in nature. Without this base knowledge the open space that they grow to love (for whatever purpose) will not be around for future generations.
Conservation and open space is fortunately a big part of my full-time job as a wildlife biologist. I love living in the city but open space is a huge asset to have because the city can get stressful. I am very grateful to be able to have my background to understand what urban kids like and don’t like about the outdoors. I enjoy being able to introduce school groups to two of my passions wildlife conservation and outdoor access.
How is this connection celebrated and understood in your community and culture—in the broader conservation community?
This connection is celebrated by my community in a different way due to their lack of understanding of their natural surroundings. It is used for picnics, adventures, relaxation, and rejuvenation which are all great ways to utilize the outdoors and engage with nature. However, in light of development pressures to urban areas, I worry that this is not enough to foster a relationship that inspires Latinos to stand up for local outdoor spaces and be stewards. If they think, “Oh well, it’s going to get built on/they are going to start charging. I guess I’ll just try and find another place to picnic or exercise” then the future of our natural areas remains vulnerable.
Even in rural communities in Nicaragua, where I work and where my family is from, the only time people stand up to development is if they perceive the land as profitable for agriculture/business unless they are educated on the economic, social, and conservation benefits of healthy and connected ecosystems. This is why just like in urban L.A., a better understanding of the ecology of a community’s natural surroundings through environmental education is an important piece of the puzzle when fighting for nature access and ensuring its sustainability.
Latino identities are connected to the outdoors, the environment, and conservation—how are those words reflective of YOU, how is it expressed, what does it look like?
I believe it depends on your upbringing and your family’s history. Family is a huge component of Latino identities but my family and many of my friends’ families did not largely identify with the outdoors. This separation in identity increased as the physical distance between open space and the family’s neighborhood increased. Again picnics and outdoor celebrations were frequent but beyond that my family did not have a strong connection with the outdoors.
What needs to change and how do we grow, celebrate, and have the broader conservation movement connect with the role and values Latinos bring to the field?
Environmental NGOs, land managers, and conservation biologists need to be better represented by the Latino community so the conservation movement benefits Latinos and so Latinos can benefit conservation. I don’t just mean more Latino employees in positions of power in each of these institution types but with full-representation in every department. Representation at every level makes celebrations more meaningful to more Latinos of more diverse backgrounds. There are Latinos who are already eating granola and drinking the conservation Kool-Aid but there are many more who aren’t comfortable around nature. This discomfort sometimes turns into a culture of unhealthy fear and disconnect from nature. In order to have a paradigm shift, we need to inform urban Latinos that nature is all around them even if they aren’t in the middle of a classic wilderness area. Hopefully, this understanding will make them hungry for more which will lead to visiting a local wilderness area and then taking it upon themselves to take care of it for the benefit of future generations.
Why does this issue and work matter to you?
I am a Latino who is passionate about conservation. As a conservation biologist, I feel like I need to give back to the natural surroundings and wildlife that inspired and drive my career. As a proud Latino, I know I would not be where I am today without my Latino upbringing and influences. To be honest there are not very many Latinos in science or the field of conservation so I feel a personal responsibility to work equally hard on my work as a conservation biologist as I do as a future Latino role model and educator. I purposely changed the trajectory of my career so that I could fulfill both of these goals and impact, as well as join, both of these communities.
What does success in all of this look like to you?
I think success can come in many forms. One of these would be the diversification of the conservation community. I think Latinos share a lot of disadvantages, mental barriers and fears that other minority groups also experience and I feel like success would involve the involvement of Latinos at many levels within the field of conservation. I think more access to parks / open spaces requires the conservation community doing a better job of actively exposing the urban community to nature and open spaces. For instance, rather than simply having a visitor center or a booth at a nature event, these agencies need to go to where Latinos live and congregate. Its not only important to see more Latinos visiting open spaces but also seeing groups of Latinos bringing other Latinos and minority groups out to nature, debunking damaging myths about nature along the way. When Latinos finally make that big mental and physical leap to go visit and connect with these open spaces, they need some familiar faces there to meet them with open arms. I think a big step to success is going to be helping the Latino community view the urban environment and even the smallest green spaces differently and as living breathing eco systems.
How is your work with the museum reflective of all this?
I am involved with 3 different NGOs that all impact the Latino community in a variety of positive ways. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) serves thousands of Latino school children from L.A.s urban core through school programs, public programs, and teacher programs/workshops. NHM is moving into a new direction that involves an institution-wide effort to study urban wildlife and connect visitors with local urban wildlife. I specifically joined NHM because I wanted to officially integrate urban wildlife education into my career and because of NHM’s location; surrounded by an under-served community. As a citizen science coordinator, I focus my efforts on science projects that rely on the participation of volunteers. I promote these projects and train volunteers, scientists, as well as teachers/trainers on how to participate and begin their own projects with the support of a scientist. As a scientist, this is very gratifying because I am breaking down barriers between scientists and non-scientists that I and many other people are intimidated by. Citizen science and the variety of projects at least makes science and outdoor exploration less intimidating. For instance, we began a citizen science project called the Southern California Squirrel Survey (http://www.inaturalist.org/projects/southern-california-squirrel-survey) that allows people from all neighborhoods and backgrounds help map the distribution of squirrels throughout southern California. Squirrels are charismatic, ubiquitous (even in urban areas), and diurnal (active during the day), which allows more people to help scientists better understand the ecology of SoCal squirrels. We also use our on-site 3 ½ acre Nature Gardens as urban wildlife habitat, a citizen science training site, and a venue for getting local visitors comfortable and familiar with urban nature.
I am also on the board of Friends of Griffith Park; we make a strong effort to introduce minority children from the inner city to Griffith Park, arguably L.A.s most accessible urban green space, through guided hikes and plant restoration projects. I work hard to share my personal story about my challenges and successes as a Latino scientist with groups, especially under-served school groups (mostly Latino children and teens). My goals are to get these first time hikers comfortable with hiking and aware that their natural surroundings are home to some amazing species and history. Also, I make sure that they know that everyone has their first time in nature, regardless if their first experience is late or early in life. I remind them that open space is for them as much as it is for the rich people that are fortunate enough to live on the foothills of these parks. Hopefully through my story, they understand that these local parks, and cool ambassadors (e.g., P-22) are not only something to take pride in but a privilege that comes with a responsibility. Therefore, we must be respectful and watchful over these cool but fragile open-spaces.
With Paso Pacifico I work with local impoverished communities to change their culture from one that is unsustainable and fearful of their natural surroundings to one that is familiar, comfortable and appreciative of their local biodiversity. My specialty is carnivore research so I often educate school children and adults about the importance of carnivores to the economy and ecosystem and how I go about studying jaguars and other mammals in their local community. We make an extra effort to train the children to be more invested and educated about their natural surroundings. Our efforts are empowering multiple generations of Nicaraguans to sustainably benefit from their natural environment. The commitments of all three NGOs are enabling Latinos to become stewards of their surrounding ecosystems.
Other thoughts, ideas, and reflections:
As a Latino who grew up in urban Los Angeles I understand first hand the many obstacles that keep us from having a connection with nature. Our efforts are not going to succeed if are focus is to simply transport these urban communities on special trips to the closest open large recreation area. We also need to focus on nature exploration that’s easily accessible and often just outside our front door. As an urban wildlife biologist I am learning first hand that urban ecosystems are not just second tier ecosystems, but the next frontier for wildlife discovery. If you can’t quite make it out to a more classic and large open recreation area, there are many fascinating and inspiring natural things to explore in even the most urban environments. We can better serve the Latino community by informing them that they don’t have to wait for the next time they have money or time to reach these sometimes far away recreation areas, but that there is much to do within their own neighborhood with regards to conservation.
Finally, there is value in focusing on children for outreach efforts because they are the future shapers of outdoor access and conservations but it is important to also reach adults and entire families. If parents and role models are not invested, it is easy for kids to become disinterested and discouraged. At the end of the day, most teens and children will follow whatever their consistently present role models support. Even if the kid does want to stray from the pack, the parent is going to provide them with permission, transportation, and time to visit and explore the outdoors. My journey towards my current career barely succeeded because I had just enough support to stray from the pack and follow my goals. I am afraid of what happens when these inspired kids go home to an environment that is disassociated from nature. How many young Latinos have been derailed from a conservation career path before they even get started? And WHY?