Youth Leadership with Bird Alliance of Oregon

by Zahir Ringgold Cordes, Educator, Youth & Family Partnerships Specialist

The Green Leaders Program is a paid seven-month program where youth ages 15 to 20 receive training in Pacific Northwest ecology and natural history, environmental justice, leadership development, and environmental education. We meet in a small and close cohort twice a week after school, with the experience culminating in a full-time role as a summer camp counselor with Bird Alliance of Oregon. This program has grown from Bird Alliance of Oregon’s long-term partnership with Hacienda CDC, a dedicated community organization that strengthens Portland’s Latinx community through its affordable housing developments and holistic programming including youth and family services, home ownership support, and entrepreneurial advising and business incubation at the Portland Mercado.

Three photos of Green Leaders in action
Photos by Zahir Cordes Ringgold.

At its core, our intention for this program was to increase access and representation in the environmental sciences and education through empowering young adults of color to be leaders and educators in their community and beyond. We emphasize providing youth with valuable job and life skills, pathways to green careers, and creating safe spaces for participants to explore their own experiences and the contributions and experiences of people of color in the environmental world. Youth are supported in confidently using their voice as leaders to examine both environmental and social justice issues within their own community, and come up with creative ways to contribute. In this end-of-program interview, Green Leaders Esteffany and Alondra reflect on what the experience has been like for them.

How would you describe the Green Leaders program to someone else?

Esteffany: It is a program where you teach kids about different native plants and native animals and about trees. I didn’t know before that trees could talk to each other through their roots. You teach yourself and you teach the kids. The program is fun and calm. You learn how to work as a community, and we have family days, like when we went to Baltimore Woods and planted native plants. [Esteffany is referring to our collaboration with the Friends of Baltimore Woods, a group of neighbors who have been coming together for over 20 years to restore an important nature and wildlife corridor in the St. Johns neighborhood, which is part of Alondra and Esteffany’s community. They have intentionally created space for young students of color to step up as leaders and members of their volunteer team.]

Alondra: The Green Leaders program is a program in which young people learn about the environment and teach kids about it. Nature is at the center of our lesson plans, and you learn how to make learning engaging and enjoyable for children. Overall it is a fun, flexible, and inspiring experience.

Have you participated in Bird Alliance of Oregon programs before?

Esteffany: Yes, since I was a little kid. I did overnight programs and day programs. The experience was the best experience that I ever had because I learned about nature, how fun it was to be doing camp, and learning about all of these different types of animals and native plants that I had never paid attention to.

Alondra: Yes, while I was in middle school I participated in programs with my friends. We did overnight camps and my time at Bird Alliance of Oregon camps was fun and we learned about survival in nature. My favorite part was meeting people and learning from them. Being with a group of people that you have never met before and still laughing together was an enjoyable experience.

What were some of your favorite moments from the program?

Esteffany: Being out in nature, working with kids of color, giving the opportunity for communities to learn about things that are not always given to them in their community. For them to have a chance to experience what other kids experience. I remember everybody’s faces smiling, especially Brianna’s [Green Leader] little cousins, the smiles of the kids who are actually enjoying something that we planned to do. When we had a community camp for Hacienda, I took my brother to camp for the first time and I loved seeing his beautiful smile. He was socializing with kids after the pandemic.

Alondra: My favorite part of the program was when we went to Baltimore Woods for a family event. My coworker and I were in charge of the entire event, and we made it through despite it being difficult to do something that I have never done before. It was great to see everyone’s smiles and to see how involved and excited they were to learn.

What is a leader to you? Has this program affected how you think about yourself as a leader?

Esteffany: Someone that helps others. A good role model to kids and the community. Someone who works every day to show us how life works. I take care of my trash more. My little brother sees me working, and I teach him what we learn. The day we went planting, I already knew how to do it, so I showed everyone else how to do it. I am not shy anymore. I am less afraid to use my voice. I can show people what I have learned.

Alondra: To me a leader is someone who is a role model, someone who leads by example, a person who uplifts, supports, and respects others. Since starting this program I’ve noticed I’ve felt more confident in my skills. I would have never thought that I could stand in front of a crowd and talk about something. This program has made me realize that I can have an impact on this world, even if it’s a small one.

Why do you believe it is important for youth to have positions of leadership where their voices are uplifted?

Esteffany: There’s probably a lot of other kids out there who want to do it but don’t have the opportunity to do it, so they can be inspired by seeing us in these positions. I live in a community where there are homeless people. Me as a leader, I want to help out cleaning up the spaces, and getting our community together so that we can clean up the spaces. My voice is important because people shouldn’t come into my community and tell me what to do because I have lived here long enough to know what is going on in my community and what is needed.

Alondra: I believe that it is important for youth to have a position in leadership because we are the future. We know what we need and are good at adapting to changes. Also youth tend to question and challenge everything, which is necessary for change.

In your words, why is connecting to nature and outdoor education important?

Esteffany: Because it is beautiful to be out in nature to experience different smells in every place you go to. If you are in the forest it is fresh, you smell different trees and plants. If you are in the city you will smell more gas, you will hear cars, you will hear noise going on, but in the forest it is peaceful. You can learn how to take good care of our community. It helped me because I have biology and chemistry and they talked about plants and animals and I already knew about them. It affects your schoolwork in a good way. A lot of parents, like my dad, did not finish school and he doesn’t know native plants and animals from where we live now, and their kids have a chance to learn about it and the kids are excited to tell their parents so that they can learn something too.

Photo by Zahir Cordes Ringgold.

Alondra: Connecting to nature is important because nature is our life. We depend on it. It doesn’t need us, we need it. Everything we have is because of Earth and all its wonders. When you are educated about the environment, you learn how to be more environmentally conscious. This is an important step to help heal our earth.

How do you personally connect with nature?

Esteffany: When I wake up I walk to school and appreciate the wind and the rain. I appreciate the air, I appreciate the trees, I appreciate the trails, the birds, the red robins. I walk my dogs to the park and my dogs sometimes play in the mud.

Alondra: I connect with nature by hiking, planting, and swimming. Also by just being around it and appreciating everything that it gives us.

What makes a positive, safe, welcoming, and inclusive, outdoor learning environment?

Esteffany: Having positive energy. When you are a person of color, and you know you will be working with other people of color, you can speak your language without getting judged, and feel comfortable. People of color have a connection, you are Black and I am Mexican and we have a connection, and when I knew you would be the leader, I felt more comfortable. As people of color, we all have something in common, whether it is the color of our skin, the experiences of our ancestors, or how we get treated. Where we live in the USA there is a lot of racism. And when a kid of color is learning environmental education, like when we did the activity where we picked one person of color to learn about who did something for the environment, kids can learn that too, and know that someone from their culture has done important things.

Alondra: Having people who look like me and share my background and just having people who celebrate all of the differences in everyone and who are accepting. Having a place where your ideas and opinions are heard. I feel like a safe learning environment can have the same things regardless of its environment.

Photo by Zahir Cordes Ringgold.

What are your hopes for the future impact of the Green Leaders program?

Esteffany: To have more people join, and when people hear “Green Leaders,” they know that it is a group of teenagers who help all kinds of communities. I think we should try helping more communities that are out there and work with more people of color. And my hope for the Green Leaders is to keep it going!

Alondra: I hope that our program helps bring learning opportunities and curiosity to our community. I hope it makes people think and want to make a change. I hope that they always feel safe and included in learning in our program. Overall I hope it creates a spark in people to take action.