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Michael Estrada: Intersectional Approaches to Community Engagement

Michael Estrada: Intersectional Approaches to Community Engagement


All right. So I’m Michael. I wanted to do
my presentation in sort of a story format. I think people have asked me all
the time, like, what do you do? And I’m always like, I don’t know how to answer
that question. I answer it differently every time, but I think one of the things
I do the most is just storytelling in different forms. So, I’m gonna tell a
story and hopefully it’ll talk about what I do and hopefully it’ll be
relevant to the work that you all are doing as well. Before I started doing
what I’m doing now, which is working with Brown Environmentalists Media Collective,
I was a teacher. I started off as a teacher teaching environmental science,
environmental studies, in a non-profit that work primarily with students of
color, and at this nonprofit, most of it I had a good amount of, like, leeway with
what I taught as long as, like, certain concepts were able to get across. So, like,
we taught about, like, wetland restoration. We taught about, like, the importance of,
like, you know, water quality and all that stuff, but in in my second year of
teaching at this non-profit I was able to start an after-school program and in
those after-school program we would always do, like, extra trips on
the weekend to go hiking, camping, and stuff, and then on one of them I decided
to do like a little social experiment, mostly for my own benefit, to see kind of
what would happen. And I started off, so the theme of the, so I kind of tricked my
students. I was like, “we’re all gonna go on a hike,” and then I sat them down in front of a
quick PowerPoint and I was like, “I got you!” right? [Laughter] Like, gotcha journalism.
And I started with the question, what does an environmentalist look like? And
with that PowerPoint, it was just pictures of different people. They didn’t
have their names, and I just went through the slides, and we had a discussion of,
like, does this person look like an environmentalist to you, why or why not?
Some folks that were on there, like Leonardo DiCaprio was on there, some of
them recognized them but they’re like, ‘oh yeah, like, you know, blah blah he’s white
like you fit it.’ They saw the Revenant, you know, it was like oh. I don’t know if
any of you can seen that movie, yeah. I’m sorry, I got distracted by that movie for a second in my head. I showed a lot of people, but the one that my biggest takeaway is the last very last picture is I showed a
picture of myself in high school, and at that point, like, they knew who I was and
knew, like, what I was about, like, I’ve been teaching with them for a while and I was
like, all right, like, does this picture of me in high school – I actually don’t have
it, I wanted to show it I couldn’t find it – but just picture kind of, like… I
basically look the same. Like I haven’t changed that much, thank my mom for
the genes, but I haven’t change that much. I was basically, like, you know, I look like
this my hair was kind of like a little bit different, but I had a clean fade, you
know. I had my hood on and I was like, does is person look like
environmentalist? So, like, don’t take into account like that you know me, and then
one of my students was like, “no, like, you don’t.” I was like, “why?” He’s like, “you look too ghetto,” and I was just like damn, like, I don’t know if you
all seen this meme, but that was little of me. I was just like right. But it was a
really monumental moment for me because here was a moment, a very honest moment, of my students that I’m really grateful that I had, but it sent me on a path
of thinking, all right when I took this job, my whole, one of the reasons why I
wanted to be an educator was because I want to make things relevant to my
students and I always try to see myself in the audience, I always try to think of
myself, would I have cared if I was in high school listening to this? So to hear
that discrepancy of, like, you know how they saw me now or how I was or and
basically still the same person, like I haven’t really changed. There was
something about that and in the work that I’ve been doing following my time
as an educator has all revolved around this idea of imagination, or especially,
like, storytelling. So I always say, like, we’re in a constant battle for our
collective imagination. Especially for people of color, so like I
make the point to enter places sometimes like especially places like this, I enter
with my hood on and the reason is to break that barrier of what the proper
respectable respectability politics means. So, like, I enter a room and I still
have a hood on today like if it were colder I would be wearing it for the point to make like I’m a UCLA educated, like graduated, I have all these
things, but I can enter this space and this, my being, is a part of this space. So
after, though, when I left that job as a teaching, as an educator, or, sorry, when I
was still in that second year of being an educator, there was another critical
moment that happened for me. So their nonprofit that I worked at used to host
the Goldman Environmental Prize winners in 2015, one of the prize winners
was this woman named Berta Caceres and in 2016, the second year of my teaching,
of that teaching position I should say, she was murdered. So she was an
Indigenous activist in Honduras and my family comes from Central America,
El Salvador. That’s why I trace my Indigenous roots to, and that was the
point that drove it home for me because here is this discrepancy in how my
students saw themselves, how they saw me, how we see each other, and yet around the
world, if you actually paid attention to the news like the folks who are still
paying the price and who are still actively fighting for their environment
the most are people of color. This is a picture… Perfect, all right. This is a
piece of artwork, this is a Bretta, and it’s a piece of artwork that really
speaks to me. Those are two hard-hitting points. There’s this huge discrepancy and
the narrative that my students had heard growing up, and it was a narrative that I
heard too, growing up, and it sometimes isn’t like an explicit thing, it’s just,
you grew up here in high school, and these are the things that you already
intuitively feel. Like that’s not me or that’s not something that I would see
myself in. this was a study that was at least monumental to, like my work, and
framing, and having like the evidence that to show like alright cool like this
is something that I know, this is something that I want to teach, and then
this collection of data by the Guardian was just evidence to show that the folks
who were paying the price the most still were people of color around the world. So,
like, we though, we often talk about like Indigenous land rights here in the United States and it was amazing to see that, you know, that
the battle hasn’t really ended. Like, these are the names for just 2018, so
this is this year and these are the names of folks who have passed away or
who are murdered, I should say, assassinated for one reason or another, and if you look,
like, Philippines, Colombia, India, like so there’s a huge discrepancy there, and my
work, since being an educator, has all been about how to figure out, how do we get
rid of that discrepancy in the narrative and how do i reclaim these history, or
how do I reclaim my history, and how do I help other folks reclaim their histories? What I did after those two years, about a
year ago, I started a platform. Essentially, I’d kind of I’ve been
working as a photographer, mostly doing some writing, and I wanted to have a
platform for these stories that a lot of the stories that I would share with my
students to kind of like see like, ‘hey you’re a part of this, like, this is your
legacy, like, don’t let, like this is the image of what like an environmentalist
looks like, or what, you know, a social justice person looks like.’ Like, get in
the way, like this is your legacy, and I started Brown Environmentalist, just as a
social media account. It was just an Instagram handle, it wasn’t like this big
like published paper, like it was just like a social media thing, and I started
posting things, I started posting these stories I started writing about it, and
one of the big stories that kind of got my work out there was this story of tree
huggers. So, like, for me I was like all right like I’m gonna go for something
that’s very like integral or like something that’s like really ingrained
in our mind, and tree huggers was like a concept that, to me, was like all right
like when I think of environmentalism or how I always thought about like tree
huggers and like, just does anybody want to offer like what that word comes up
for them like if you think of tree hugger, like who do you see? [crowd input] White
hippie! There, I was like, correct cool, like we’re on the same page, yeah. Like
that’s what I thought about, but the whole was like that was part of the
problem. Like here’s this narrative that we keep hearing and a lot of it is wrong
and it goes back to Berta Caceres, it goes back to the environmental defenders
that have been killed – I’ll go back to that. But one of my first pieces I got a lot of attention were the original tree
huggers, and it was the origin story of tree huggers. It
traces back to 1700s, it was Indigenous Indian women. So women in India who
actually literally embraced the trees and were killed as a result in defending
their trees. So here’s a history, a really like a beautiful history that shows the
resilience in humans and can be applied over and over again. It’s like how
protests happen now, but for the most part like people weren’t talking about
it. It’s like you can think of tree huggers like, you should be thinking
about these women. And then what popularized the term was in the 1970s or
late early 1970s there was a movement called the Chipko movement and it’s just
like the embracing movement, and they were inspired by the Bishnoi woman, or
Indian women, who were in in the 1700s and again in India they showed up and
this movement essentially got appropriated, right. So if you think of
like 1970s, different time from 1700s, like stories could be easily got like easily westernized, picked up, and then, like, without taking too much time, like, we have the term in our head as tree huggers and however you might see
it, like a White hippie, even though we have like evidence they’re stories,
there’s accounts, like if you actually like looked into it, the history is there,
but for some reason or another, right, it’s erased. So my goal with Brown
Environmentalists, and this is the official mission statement that I gave
it or like purpose statement that I gave it – it’s a collaborative long-form multi
media collective working to amplify the experiences, contributions, and leadership
of Black, Indigenous and people of color in the environment. So a lot of folks,
sometimes, like we’ll just use people of color as a collective thing, but in some
spaces, they also make the point to, or I like to make the point of having Black
and Indigenous in front of it just because of the impact that it has of,
like, not erasing those two first things and putting everybody in people of color because not everybody wants to identify as people of color, some people are indigenous to be
born black and they wanting identify as such, and making those points is really
important to me. all right, so in that work, I’ve been in, some of the stuff that I’ve done since then I wanted to, like
alongside of tree huggers, I wanted to start working with folks who are already
into space and my goal is really just being like, how do I change this
narrative? How do I make it clear that like we’ve been out here,
we’ve been doing these things? One of the things I did was I created a series
called Environmentalism Represented. It was a portrait and interview series that
I did at PGM1, which is a conference for people of the global majority in the
outdoors nature and environment, and it happened in Oakland this second year in 2018, and I think I took these portraits as a way of like naming
and as a way of showing what Environmentalism like really looks like,
what I think environmentalism really looks like, and especially, like, in the
present current because sometimes it’s hard, like you see the names and it’s
like ‘oh they’re in Colombia, they’re in India’, but then it’s like, who are the
folks who are doing work in their communities? And it’s like, for me I was
like, you know, here’s a huge conference filled with, like, over 250 people who are
all like brown, black, indigenous like, and we’re here, we’re out here, and we’ve been
out here. Which brings me to the point of, or the power of, naming. A lot of my work
is just that. It’s like naming, like how can I make sure that the folks who
haven’t been named or erased from history are named? Because there’s power
in saying the name and there’s power of presenting the name. The second point
that really important too, I think, intersectional approaches. Which is
why we’re here, is what I like to call impacted storytelling. So impacted
leadership is making sure you’re giving leadership to the folks, or you’re putting
into leadership to the folks who are impacted by an issue. So what I see with impact of
storytelling is that it’s really important for folks to be able to tell
their own story and have the means to do so. So like how, in the keynote, we just
heard of, like, you know, stepping aside and like giving people the platform, the
tools, like that’s part of it. It’s like impact of storytelling, giving
people the means to tell their story and a lot of it’s like stepping aside. And then this. I can share this also but,
this is something that I’ve used in past discussions and like workshops of
just, like, different forms of like what an Erasure can look like because the reason
that my students didn’t see me even, like that as a current state, like as an
environmentalist, is because these stories have been erased, right. If they
were at the very front, and yeah I’d be like, no problem, like, oh obviously like,
you know, you care about them, obviously you can dress exactly how you dress, and
you care about the environment, but these different forms of erasure show up in
our lives every day, and it’s part of the work of, like, the daily work of like
making sure that you are giving space for folks to name their experiences and
to tell their stories. One of the campaigns I started real quick, which is
really important for me to always say, was this idea of Been Outside. So like
the concept that like people of color like are not new to the environment, they’re not new to being outdoors, like, we’ve literally been outside, like
we’ve been out here, we’ve been doing these things, like, it’s reflected in
history. The tree huggers history, like, there’s one. Like, just very clear example,
like, makes a lot of sense to people, but we’ve been outside. These two pictures
are, in fact, my great-grandmother on the right, and then my grandmother on the
left, and they’re in El Salvador, like, and they’re outside like, and what’s funny for me is like, not until I actually started this campaign, my mom was like, “oh, I have pictures of like like our family like outside!” And I was like, ‘what?” Like, you
know, like for me I was like, I had to actually like ask the right question to
like get these two photos, you know. My mom was like, “oh, we have those photos.” But, it’s really important, it’s like I see myself in them. Does anybody know who this is just based off of their
portrait or this painting of them other than Batty Roy? So this is a piece of
artwork by an artist named Jamini Golden. I highly recommend her work. But, yeah.
If there’s one takeaway, it’s like in order for like to do community engagement, I think you have to have all
of these voices and you have to be giving space. So if you have a platform,
step aside. Like the tree huggers piece, the biggest engagement or biggest
platform I got was on the Patagonia blog, and that’s because folks like were like, ‘hey, this is a great story,’ they stepped aside, and they’re like, you know, go for
it, like, tell the story, do the thing, and like go for it. This is a picture of the
rights for climate March that just happened like a few weeks ago. It’s Dr.
Mustapha le, and I want to end with a quick quote from a longer piece that
I’ve written before. “We are not an isolation, we are a continuation.” And I’ll
say it again, but, “We are not in isolation, we are a continuation.” So all of us are
not isolated, we’re not isolate from our histories,
from other people’s histories, from each other right now, we’re continuations of a
longer legacy. So always having that be acknowledged is really important, and I
think telling these stories. Yeah, thats all I got.

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