Group of Latino/Latina people fish off a pier.
The Festival del Rio Anacostia is held at Waterfront Park in Bladensburg, Md., on Oct. 9, 2021. The festival offered visitors free boat tours on the Anacostia River and free fishing lessons, with poles included. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Like all large-scale environmental efforts, restoring and protecting the Chesapeake Bay takes all of us working together. While local governments and nonprofits can make a big dent in reducing pollution or preserving landscapes, each of the region’s 18 million residents has an impact on water quality and can play a part in their community.

For this, we look to the help of environmental stewards—people who are willing to adopt environmentally friendly practices and encourage others to do so as well. This could be planting and maintaining trees in their yards, installing rain barrels to reduce runoff, replacing non-native plants with natives or any other number of behaviors that positively impact the environment.

Environmental stewards and volunteers are critical to our mission of restoring the Chesapeake Bay, and there is no shortage of programs where we tap into their time, energy and expertise. However, it helps to wonder how equitable our efforts to engage them are. While affluent retirees might have the time and resources to adopt new practices or volunteer, what about people with greater financial and cultural barriers?

Take for instance the Chesapeake’s Spanish-speakers—a multicultural group of individuals who comprise anywhere between 2% and 10% of the population in states and jurisdictions within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Over the years, various environmental organizations and government agencies have been working to bring Spanish-speaking communities into the stewardship fold, in the hopes that they can be mobilized into helping restore the Bay.

However some would say these efforts aren’t always taking into account the needs of the community.

“The approach to engaging Latinos and Spanish-speakers [has been] really extractive and one-sided,” said Abel Olivo, co-founder of the nonprofit Defensores de la Cuenca, which translates to “Watershed Defenders” in English.

According to Olivo, too many stewardship programs ask Spanish-speaking communities to participate in environmental efforts—tree plantings, stream cleanups, educational events, etc.—without giving them anything meaningful in return. This can be especially unfair for Latino families with limited resources.

“We're asking for people's most precious commodity, and that's their time,” Olivo said. “Time away from work, time away from church, time away from their family.”

The “one-sided” approach to engagement, according to Olivo, is neither fair nor sustainable. If we want Spanish-speakers (or any community group) to spend their time and resources stewarding the environment, there needs to be a worthwhile incentive that’s going to benefit them and their community.

Defensores de la Cuencas’s Youth Corps program is one example of how to do so. Like many other environmental education initiatives, the Youth Corps aims to change the way young people think about and act within nature. But with this program, there’s an additional benefit: academic credits. After speaking with teachers and educators, Defensores de la Cuenca learned that many Spanish speaking students find it difficult to get the service-learning hours needed to graduate high school, so they developed the Youth Corps program with that in mind.

Career training is another benefit Olivo and his team use to reward stewards. Through the nonprofit’s La Academia de Defensores (The Defenders Academy), adults participate in hands-on, experiential learning on issues related to water quality and the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and then are given a stipend to conduct capstone projects of their choosing, like tree plantings or rain gardens. This experience leads to new green infrastructure in neighborhoods but also helps people acquire professional skills like managing budgets, acquiring permits and coordinating volunteers.

“They're really creating leadership skills and opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have time or access to,” Olivo said.

Ultimately, Olivo believes stewards should be financially compensated for their time as well. La Academia de Defensores is a paid program, as is their new Tree Ambassadors Program that provides $6,000 over 18 months for intensive training related to the importance of trees, tree planting and tree maintenance. In this program, ambassadors find up to 20 spots for trees in their neighborhood where people are willing to care for them. Ambassadors check in with hosts regularly to tell them when trees are dry or stressed in other ways.

All of these incentives can be brought back to the community where they create long-term value. According to Olivo, this is what Spanish-speaking engagement in the Chesapeake has been lacking: paid community level capacity building opportunities.

“There really wasn't any true investment in the communities to be more self-sufficient and be better prepared to lead for themselves,” Olivo said.

Before founding Defensores de la Cuenca, alongside co-founder Herlindo Morales, Olivo worked on Capitol Hill as a lobbyist. Olivo then became a full-time caretaker for four years with his second son. When he decided to enter the workforce again, he wanted something meaningful and fun, which eventually led to running the nonprofit that he and Morales had been envisioning.

Defensores de la Cuenca formed in 2020 with the goal of being a Spanish-first nonprofit working to protect watersheds while uplifting communities. Their programs and events are all in Spanish and are always geared toward the community. However, the nonprofit’s approach to stewardship engagement can be replicated in other under resourced communities.

In many low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, there are similar financial barriers and time constraints that don’t allow for meaningful engagement. Even the environment itself can be a burden. In these communities, environmental stressors such as extreme heat, lack of green space and poor air quality are having negative impacts on people’s wellbeing.

“We have higher rates of asthma, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and hypertension that are all due in part to our environment,” Olivo said.

When you stack up all these burdens, you start to realize what people’s priorities are. And according to Olivo, incorporating those priorities into stewardship programming is how to truly make communities a part of restoration.

“Believe me, when I say that, if you ask somebody what's more important—to decrease climate change or put food on the table—it's always going to be put food on the table,” Olivo said.

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