It has been a whirlwind since accepting my new position as Cottonwood Institute’s Program Director. Not only did I get to learn about our CI programming and meet the incredible staff, but I was able to attend educational sessions at Outdoor Retailer Snow Show 2020. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, the cherry on top of my week was going on a CAP Class day trip to Caribou Ranch Open Space with middle schoolers from the Angevine CAP Class. I had so much fun experiencing a CI winter excursion led by the wonderful Erin and Alex and was able to snowshoe for the first time ever! Talk about an amazing first week with CI. I feel right at home here at Cottonwood Institute and am excited to step into my new role.
Where did it all begin for me? Since I was a kid, my family exposed me to the outdoors and taught me to appreciate it fully. We went on annual camping trips up the CA coast, we visited Mt. Baldy during the winter to play in snow, and some summers we were able to road trip out of CA to explore new places, visit historical locations like Gettysburg, and stay at campgrounds along our route. I proudly became the designated tent builder for my grandparents and had that down to a science by the end of a trip. My grandparents also taught me how to cook delicious meals over a campfire (they don’t mess around when it comes to camping food). I acknowledge and appreciate my grandparents for passing down their love of the outdoors and adventuring to me and my family. They created a safe and encouraging environment for me to learn and develop my outdoor skills and feel a sense of belonging in nature no matter where we traveled.
Bringing it closer to home, the one place I spent most of my childhood was at Lincoln Park. This park was right across the street from our apartment and I explored every nook and cranny of it. I joined the swim team at Lincoln Park Pool when I was 7 and swam competitively for a decade (Go Otters!). I also attended Plaza de la Raza, a Cultural Center for the Arts and Education where I danced Folkorico (following my mom’s literal footsteps), took drama and art classes, and performed for my family and community. I also remember being part of several after-school youth programs that my dad led when he worked at the Lincoln Park Recreation Center. Lincoln Park was a place where I could play, explore, express myself, and gain new skills in the comfort of my community. Lincoln Park was and is a green sanctuary in the cement jungle of Los Angeles. I’m so lucky to have grown up in Lincoln Heights with access to this life-giving green space.
I have had so many unique and memorable experiences in nature both in the U.S. and abroad that shaped who I am today. I’ve learned that nature and our environment are part of us. Even growing up in a large city that would seem otherwise disconnected from wild nature, I explored the built and natural environment every chance I had. My connection and relationship with the environment gives me balance and respite when I need it most. This deep connection reminds me of my family and ancestors and everything they’ve done for me which fills me with gratitude. What I do and how I live has a ripple effect on my fellow humans, animals, and entire ecosystems. When I care for the environment, I care for myself, for my community, and I do my part to ensure earth’s survival for generations to come. My lived experiences and vision for a more just and equitable world brought me here to Cottonwood Institute. I recognize youth’s power to become stewards of our environment and to question harmful practices that continue today. Young people’s futures are directly tied to the health and longevity of this earth. I am dedicated to centering and amplifying diverse youth voices so we may vision a healthier future and work alongside one another to make it a reality.
Written by Katie Vega, CI Program Director