As a child, Sandra Bonilla had a strong connection with the natural world, however, when she grew up and began introducing people of color from Southern California's poorest neighborhoods to local mountains and forests, she said they felt marginalized.
“Almost immediately I saw the outdoor showcased as place for white privilege families, and those of us with colorful backgrounds were not welcomed,” Bonilla said. “As time went on, I realized that my own people were no longer being connected to nature and that our youth had no idea what was camping, or hiking or just enjoying the flight of birds through the top of Jeffrey Pines.”
Bonilla founded the Southern California Mountains Foundation Urban Conservation Corps of the Inland Empire. The program offers young men and women paid work in environmental conservation on meaningful projects where they develop skills that increase job readiness.
To further enhance the educational aspect of the program, the conservation corps partnered with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) California Naturalist and 4-H Youth Development programs to train a group of corps members to become certified naturalists as part of a unique cohort called Los Naturalistas.
With funding from the National Forest Foundation, UC Cooperative Extension 4-H Youth Development advisor Claudia Diaz Carrasco and conservation corps staff members Gaby Nunez and Lizzet Pineda met with the cohort every Saturday for four months to coordinate presentations by the U.S. Forest Service, CalFire and other professionals and to cultivate an appreciation for the beautiful natural resources that surround their community. The group also gathered for weekly cafecitos, early morning study sessions that helped all the participants get through the training materials together.
Translated materials, creative teaching methods, a diverse expert speaker pool, and incorporation of the strengths the students bring to the table ensured that the cohort received training that was culturally relevant. All 12 emerged as Los Naturalistas, ready to make positive changes in environmental justice and access to public spaces for their communities through nature and Spanish-language interpretation.
“I give thanks to people such as Fabian Garcia, USDA Forest Service; Henry Herrera, CalFire; and Claudia Diaz, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, who are making new career pathways for Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans and are ensuring that programs such as Los Naturalistas are changing the color of green outdoor spaces,” Bonilla said.
Diaz Carrasco's involvement in the movement was sparked by an early-career research project funded by UC ANR to identify the most effective ways to reach Latinx communities.
“We found out it's best to go through organizations that are already connected with youth and families,” Diaz Carrasco said.
To learn how to encourage families and youth to participate, engage and stay involved over time, she interviewed leaders of organizations serving this population.
“We were able to identify 25 guiding principles for successful engagement with Latinx families and youth,” she said. “Things like creating a positive ethnic identity, responding to economic poverty, including families and communities, and recruiting culture brokers help build bridges. A lot of these concepts guided the development of Los Naturalistas.”
(For more on the guiding principles for reaching and engaging Latinx youth in youth development, see https://jyd.pitt.edu/ojs/jyd/article/view/19-14-02-FA-03)
The Southern California Mountains Foundation Urban Conservation Corps was a natural partner. They had a diverse corps membership and sought educational opportunities to complement the job skills their corps were gaining through field work.
“Los Naturalistas is a college-level course. You need to do the homework. You need to do the reading. When they get their certification, the participants learn that they can be successful in a college course,” Diaz Carrasco said.
With renewed confidence, the newly minted Naturalistas are encouraged to complete their high school diplomas and enroll in community college classes. They are also charged with completing volunteer time in natural stewardship, education and service. One way they can to that is by sharing their experiences and offering nature instruction to younger members of their communities.
“Instead of me directly reaching the youth, I was able to train corps members to generate interest in California's natural world and the career opportunities available to people who pursue an education. The crew is helping me hit my target audiences,” Diaz Carrasco said. “Part of my work in UC ANR is to mix science and culture. If don't do this work, there are few bilingual people who are able to teach this.”
- Author: Ricardo A. Vela
"I guess the fact that my parents told me whatever I set on my mind I would be able to achieve set me up for success," Diaz Carrasco stated. "Once I enrolled in Food Science Engineering, I loved school so much that when I was done with that degree, I pursued two more."
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) is committed to developing an inclusive and equitable society by reaching all segments of the state's population. On the front lines building trust and credibility are professionals who bring their unique skills, passion and commitment to make California a better place.
"The most rewarding is the opportunity to build bridges between the university's research-based programs and our local communities. When they do not fit, I have fun creating new programs or adapting from what we do have. I do believe science mixed with traditional knowledge has an infinite power to change people's lives," said Diaz Carrasco.
A native of Atizapán de Zaragoza, México, Diaz Carrasco has been part of UC ANR since 2015 as Youth Development Advisor focusing on Latino and /or low‐income youth and families. She faces many cultural and economic challenges to achieve her mission; thanks to her tenacity, dedication and hard work, she and her team have turned their goals into a reality.
"When I joined ANR, there were really few people in the state and around the country doing work intentionally with Latino youth development and 4-H," she said.
Since joining 4-H, she has been instrumental in increasing Latino participation in 4-H programs statewide. Her geographical area of work is the Inland Empire, which includes Riverside and San Bernardino counties. These are two of California's largest counties, with almost 5 million residents, and 65% are Latino.
"About 60% of school-aged youth in Riverside and San Bernardino are Hispanic/Latino," said Diaz Carrasco. "Since the beginning, the primary focus of my position is to develop, implement, evaluate, strengthen and expand local 4-H programming to serve the current under-represented population better."
In an environment that is generally not friendly to changes and challenges, Diaz Carrasco faces a daily array of obstacles to achieving her goal. Among them are high levels of poverty in the families she serves, high crime rates in some communities, and a lack of interest from the parents, who in most cases work two or three jobs to make ends meet.
"The success of my work as the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) advisor relies on how effective my extension team and I can be in sharing knowledge. We have gained this knowledge through research, education, program evaluation, and transfer these into the communities we serve in ways that are relevant for their day-to-day lives while embracing their cultural context," said Diaz Carrasco.
The knowledge that Diaz Carrasco and her team bring directly to the youth, their families, and communities in the Inland Empire creates positive changes and healthier lives. "The way we educate the public matters, and who are our educators matters. Science and culture are at the core of every program we have implemented since I started," she said.
She gives two reasons why her work is penetrating the thick layers of the communities she serves. The first is that she is an immigrant, like many of the families she works with. "I approach my work knowing that a lot of people are going or have gone through the same process I went through in 2014."
Diaz Carrasco also cites thinking out of the box as a reason for success. "I believe creativity and flexibility are at the core of any programs I develop," she stated.
For example, Diaz Carrasco and her team partnered with the Mexican Consulate in San Bernardino, where they held a successful summer camp and strengthened the partnership with the Consulate. Youth could participate in this unique program that aims to help them embrace their Mexican identity, even when, in some cases, they or their parents cannot travel outside the U.S.
The summer camp program was designed to increase positive ethnic identity, and to provide youth development reflecting the Latino and immigrant youth experience and the physiological and social effects of discrimination. The program also responded to economic challenges by assisting families with transportation, providing snacks, and in some cases other items such as toothbrushes, water bottles, or connecting families to health and food agencies. "Above all, we hold the camp in a place that the families were already familiar with and felt safe. This place was the Consulate!" said Diaz Carrasco. "Yes, we turned their art gallery, where official agreements are signed, into a playground. That is what I mean by out of the box,” she added.
The program's interest was visible from day one; in a matter of hours, they reached 100% of the participant count. In the end, the parents expressed their gratitude for offering the programs in an accessible way.
Thinking out of the box has also allowed Diaz Carrasco to partner with major companies in Southern California to benefit the youth.
In five years, she has increased 4-H membership in her area from 667 to 6,021. The overall percentage of Latino youth in 4-H went from 28% to 85%, and the number of volunteers grew from 175 to 354.
Diaz Carrasco measures her success by the words of Sofia, a Moreno Valley student and one of the participants to the 4-H Juntos conference: "Juntos 4-H provides a home and a place where you can safely feel like it is your community. I hope expanding the program gives more students, not only myself but an identity also as to what the community is like and that there are people that care for them and have someone to relate and trust."
Diaz Carrasco has a straightforward message to all those girls who contemplate the idea of getting into the sciences: "My success in science has more to do with resilience than with knowledge. So, the ultimate thing is to pick something you like, have fun doing it and find people around you that also like it or are willing to support you when things get hard."
Dignitaries from the Baja California department of agriculture were recognized along with representatives of the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources 4-H program by the California State Senate on April 2 for an agreement the two organizations forged last year to bring 4-H to children across the border.
In presenting a resolution, Senator Ben Hueso, whose district includes the entire 156-mile border of California with Mexico, said the two countries share an agricultural legacy that has faced growing challenges in recent years, such as drought and climate change.
“This requires California and Mexico to share resources by providing access to outstanding educational opportunities what will prepare leaders, scientists, educators, entrepreneurs and professionals with the knowledge and commitment to address these very important issues,” Sen. Hueso said to his colleagues in the State Senate.
Sen. Hueso said education isn't the only issue addressed by the 4-H-Mexico accord.
“This is also a food scarcity issue, addressing food scarcity in our communities and in the world,” he said. “Both Imperial County and Baja California are very big players on the world stage for feeding people.”
The first group of children in the Mexicali 4-H program learned where their food comes from. A second cohort will undertake a project related to science. The program is a model for establishment of similar 4-H experiences for youth in the rest of Baja California and Mexico.
Sen. Hueso introduced the delegation from Mexico, led by Manuel Vallodolid Seamaduras, Secretary of Agriculture Development in the State of Baja California, Mexico (Secretaría de Desarrollo Agropecuario del Estado de México - SEDAGRO), and others in attendance to accept the resolution, including:
- Hortencia Medellin Acosta, Director of Rural Entrepreneurship, Mexicali, Baja California
- Carlos Orozco Riesgo, Member of the UC ANR 4-H Multicultural and Community Engagement Advisory Committee, former Undersecretary of SEDAGRO
- Belem Avendaño Ruiz, Director of Inspection, health and safety SEDAGRO
- Guillermo Gonzalez Rubio, Director, Livestock health department SEDAGRO
- Agustin Manuel Velazquez Bustamante, Legal Advisor SEDAGRO
- Mark Bell, Ph.D., Vice provost, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources
- Shannon Horrillo, Ph.D., 4-H Youth Development statewide director
- Lupita Fabregas, Ph.D., 4-H Youth Development assistant director for diversity and expansion
- Claudia Diaz Carrasco, 4-H Youth Development advisor, Riverside and San Bernardino counties
“I hope that California, the nation's leading agriculture producing state, will continue to foster cooperation with Mexico and train future leaders through the launch of the 4-H Club in Mexicali,” Sen. Hueso said. “Please join me in welcoming them to the California State Senate and thanking them for their work in advocacy in helping educate the future.”
On Jan. 20, Mexican children dipped their hands into pails of soil to check the moisture level. They tapped the soil into seed trays and then pressed in the seeds of their choice – cabbage, peppers or flowers. Over the next few weeks, the children will gather in a greenhouse next to their Mexicali neighborhood to witness the miracle of germination.
The children also witnessed the building of a new bridge between California and Baja California that will give Mexican youth access to proven, hands-on educational experiences from the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR).
“The need for education doesn't stop at the border,” said Lupita Fábregas, UC Cooperative Extension 4-H Youth Development advisor and assistant director for 4-H diversity and expansion. “The wonderful educational opportunities available to California youth are now being offered to a group of children in Mexicali. And that program will be a model for the rest of Baja California and Mexico.”
Over the last 100 years, the UC ANR 4-H program has taught legions of California children about food, agriculture, leadership and community service using learn-by-doing practices. In January, UC ANR vice president Glenda Humiston traveled to Mexicali to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Baja California Secretary of Agriculture, Manuel Vallodolid Seamanduras, to offer that expertise to youth south of the border.
Seamanduras leads SEFOA in Baja, Mexico, an organization like California's Department of Food and Agriculture with facilities in Ejido Sinaloa, a small, humble neighborhood in Mexicali. At the ceremony marking the signing of an agreement between UC ANR 4-H and SEFOA, Seamanduras likened the pact to a marriage.
“This is a perfect marriage,” Seamanduras said. “This has produced 30 fruits that are not yet mature. But this fruit is going to feed your community.” The fruit Seamanduras referred to were the children in 4-H.
Seamanduras told the youth and families that the new club in Mexico is not a project of his office. “It is your club,” he said. “Give me your word that you will make this a successful program.”
José Enrique Partida Lizarraga is one of the people ready to take up the reins. His grandson was among the thirty 8- and 9-year-old founding members of the 4-H Baja California club.
“4-H will help the children become better citizens and this drew my attention because I have always felt that Mexico lacks good citizens working to better our country,” he said. “It is an honor for me to participate.”
Humiston, who credits 4-H with enabling her to be the first in her family to attend college, also spoke to the children gathered at a signing ceremony.
“We're excited to share the 4-H experience with you,” she said.
Today, projects in new technologies – like drones and rocketry – join more traditional projects – like cooking, sewing, animal husbandry and farming – to give youth channels to explore a wide variety of options and interests.
“We are looking into expanding to community colleges and offering education for future entrepreneurs or youth interested in skilled trades,” Humiston said.
Before stepping off the stage, Humiston lead the children in reciting the 4-H Pledge.
“I'm looking forward to coming down here and seeing 300 or even 400 4-H members next year,” Humiston said.
The establishment of a club like 4-H in Mexico is the fulfillment of a life's dream for Claudia Diaz Carrasco, 4-H Youth Development advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
A native of Mexico City, Diaz Carrasco came to the U.S. to complete a master's degree in international agriculture. She saw kids in green shirts at a state 4-H Round Up that were learning about food security.
“I found my passion,” Diaz Carrasco said. “To solve world hunger, we need to find solutions one community at a time. 4-H does that.”
She intended to return to Mexico to share her new passion with her native community, but got a job with the University of California, where she is serving communities in Southern California that are nearly half Latino, many of Mexican descent.
Helping launch 4-H in Mexico, she said, felt like her own personal mission accomplished.