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Association for Environmental & Outdoor education

AEOE strengthens environmental education in California by connecting providers, building professional expertise, and championing environmental literacy and outdoor learning.


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Want to be informed about upcoming professional development, ways to advocate for access to outdoor learning, and opportunities to connect with other educators across the state? The best way to join our network of dedicated individuals and organizations in California that are committed to using environmental and outdoor education as a tool to create lasting environmental change is to become a member. If you're not quite ready to make that commitment, you can still be informed about opportunities across the state by subscribing to our e-newsletter on our homepage!

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  • June 22, 2024 1:39 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Celebrating Sarah-Mae Nelson: A Trailblazer in Climate Education

    Sarah-Mae Nelson accepted her award at the 2024 Statewide Conference for environmental and outdoor education at Irvine Ranch Outdoor Education Center. From left: Ryan Mayeda, AEOE’s Board President & Chair; Sarah-Mae Nelson, and Estrella Risinger, AEOE’s Executive Director.

    It’s hard to imagine a time when climate change wasn’t a part of the narrative of outdoor education. With dire predictions for the Earth’s changing climate, climate advocacy, education, and engagement are more important than ever. Sarah-Mae Nelson remembers a time when climate conversations weren’t a part of the dialogue. She is one of the nation’s leading climate interpreters. Sarah-Mae currently works with the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) as the UC Climate Stewards Initiative Academic Coordinator.

    Sarah-Mae Nelson was recognized as the California Association of Environmental and Outdoor Education’s 2024 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, an honor that celebrates her unique path and 28 years of service in the field of environmental education.

    We sat down with Sarah-Mae Nelson to learn more about her journey as a trailblazer in climate education.

    What was your connection to the outdoors growing up?

    My dad's family was very much into hunting, fishing, camping, and being outdoors. I got my first fishing pole when I was two years old. We were constantly in state parks and national parks in California. We did RV camping every summer and went all over the place– North Carolina, South Dakota, Colorado, everywhere. My dad had an incredible love for nature. So did my grandparents and my great-grandparents on his side.

    My mom's family came from North Carolina, and they grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains. My great grandmother was actually born in the mountains where the park is now, before it was a park. We were mountain people on my mom's side, and gardeners with a love for the dirt, animals, and being connected to the world around us.

    That's how I was raised. I was also raised to be a steward. We were part of the world and the world was part of us, and it was our responsibility to take care of nature.

    The climate predictions are dire. What keeps you inspired?

    It’s my co-workers. My colleagues across the country and across the world, and my students.

    The Climate Stewards class is an adult education focused class. Our youngest student was 14, our oldest was 87. It's really important to me that we're working with adults because so much emphasis is put on K-12 or K-16 education, but in the United States, most people over the age of 30 did not learn about climate in school. It just wasn't part of the curriculum. So now we have this incredible opportunity with environmental education to reach generations of people.

    There is this moment with students, it doesn't matter how old they are, when they get something, and you can see it in their eyes. It is a transformational moment where they go from being who they were to who they are going to be now that they've learned this thing. And that really is what inspires me.

    What advice would you give an environmental educator who is starting their career?

    The environmental education field has so much potential for support and camaraderie, even if that is not what you naturally gravitate toward. You can ask for help when you need it.

    We know anecdotally that the environment is so important to us. But now we also know from scientific research that being outside fundamentally changes the chemistry of our brain. So we need to get outside when we can. We need to do a better job of understanding that nature isn't wilderness. If you're in the middle of a concrete jungle, nature's still there. Birdsong is still there. Water is there. Air is there.

    So find your people. Make friends, look for nature, and know that we're all doing our best. The greatest gift that you can give to someone else is allowing them to change their mind. Not everyone has grown up with these opportunities, so seeing people change their mind is even more powerful than those lightbulb moments. 

    Sarah-Mae Nelson was selected to be part of a Climate Education panel at the White House in recognition for her work and impact.

    Sarah-Mae Nelson’s work has impacted thousands of people, equipping them with the knowledge and confidence to be Climate Stewards. We are grateful for her contributions to the field of environmental and outdoor education. To nominate another leader in the future or learn more about the Annual Impact Awards, visit

  • May 17, 2024 4:44 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Riverside-Corona Resource Conservation District Receives Organization of the Year Award

    (Berkeley, Calif.) May 18, 2024 – Riverside-Corona Resource Conservation District (RCRCD) received the 2024 Organization of the Year Award at the California Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (AEOE)’s Annual Statewide Conference. Diana Ruiz, Public Affairs Manager for the District, accepted the award on behalf of her team in front of 250 environmental educators from around the state. 

    The Organization of the Year Award is given to outstanding organizations that advance the impact of environmental and outdoor education in California by offering innovative programs, following research-based best practices, and promoting equitable access to environmental learning. AEOE, in partnership with Ten Strands and the California Environmental Literacy Initiative (CAELI), recognized the RCRCD for engaging the community through strategic partnerships and equitable programming. RCRCD aims to sustain natural resources and help others conserve resources so that high-quality water, land, soil, wildlife, air and plant life will be abundant in today’s changing environmental landscape. The district advocates that each acre of land be managed according to its needs. District programs foster the sustainable use of natural resources for each land use, including native habitats, urban/suburban areas, and agriculture. 

    Diana Ruiz and her successor, Jennifer Iyer, pictured here with AEOE Board President and Executive Director. From left: Ryan Mayeda, Jennifer Iyer, Diana Ruiz, and Estrella Risinger at the Statewide Conference for Environmental and Outdoor Education in Orange, CA.

    One such program is the Land Use Learning Center, a remarkable 3-acre plot of land that demonstrates sustainable practices in agriculture, urban areas, and native habitats. This demonstration garden is an educational tool for the community, with accessible trails, interpretive signs, and plant and animal treasure hunts. Visitors can check out a “community science backpack” for free from the center to enhance their experience. There is also a Seed Library on-site for free seeds and a Little Free Library full of natural history and gardening books. Ruiz said, “We've created a community that's more sustainable, that understands how they can be stewards. We've empowered our community to be good stewards of natural resources in a variety of ways and applications, whether it be by supporting local agriculture with our Fresh and Local Food Guide or [learning] how to plant and take care of urban trees.”

    The RCRCD education team at the Land Use Learning Center. From left: Michele Felix-Derbarmdiker, Erin Snyder, Jenny Iyer, and Diana Ruiz.

    RCRCD’s impact on the community is thoughtful and far-reaching, with an over 40-year history of outreach to the deaf community and the diverse cultures in their jurisdiction. The district is also intentional about acknowledging indigenous stewardship of the unceded land and building deeper connections with the local tribal leaders. They are updating their signage to include plant identification and use information in Spanish, Tongva, and Cahuilla, in addition to English. 

    Diana Ruiz accepted the Organization of the Year Award on behalf of the education team at RCRCD. Ruiz is retiring this year after nearly 50 years as a conservation specialist. During her tenure with RCRCD, she developed publications on local birds and native plants, and secured partnerships with several other organizations including Inland Urban Forest Council, CalFire, and UC Riverside. These partnerships have transformed RCRCD into a local hub for learning and leadership and a model for sustainable practices in the region. Ruiz shared, “Everything we do on our site, we try to do it with the intention of demonstrating a conservation practice. Instead of paving our parking lot, we have a permeable material to allow water to percolate into the underground water basins.” 

    “Riverside-Corona Resource Conservation District does incredible work in their community and the surrounding region. I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know several members of their team through involvement with the Environmental Education Collaborative and their participation in AEOE’s Environmental Educator Certification Program. Their dedication and commitment to providing engaging, relevant, and high-quality programming is evident,” said Estrella Risinger, Executive Director AEOE. 

    “We’re thrilled to continue to support AEOE's Organization of the Year Award and especially to honor RCRCD this year,” said Ten Strands CEO Karen Cowe.

    To learn more about the Riverside-Corona Resource Conservation District, please visit 

    RCRCD serves the local community through field trips, public visits 7-days a week, and community events. Here, Erin Snyder shares about the local watershed.


    About the Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (AEOE)

    For seven decades, AEOE has served as the professional association for environmental and outdoor educators in California. AEOE strengthens environmental education in California by connecting providers, building professional expertise, and championing environmental literacy and outdoor learning. For more information on AEOE, visit

    About Ten Strands

    Ten Strands is a California–based nonprofit established in 2012. Their mission is to strengthen the partnerships and strategies to bring climate and environmental literacy to all of California’s TK–12 students. They operate with a small, diverse, and nimble staff and strategic partners throughout the state. Ten Strands utilizes the largest and most diverse institution in California—the public school system—to impact 58 county offices of education, more than 1,000 school districts, approximately 10,000 individual schools, over 300,000 teachers, and 5.8 million children. For more information, visit

    About CAELI

    The California Environmental Literacy Initiative (CAELI), led by Ten Strands, works statewide with guidance from a leadership council to create systems change to support environmental literacy with a focus on access, equity, and cultural relevance for all students. For more information, visit

  • November 01, 2023 11:54 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Full circle. That’s the phrase that kept running through my mind as I drove into the Marin Headlands, eagerly anticipating the smiles I expected to see from the students I was tasked with meeting at NatureBridge’s Golden Gate campus. I had signed up as a driver to bring a group of 5th graders back to school after three days and two nights learning and playing together on the coast. The trip was a rite of passage, a cornerstone experience for their grade. As I came upon the group doing their final wrap-up and graduation ceremony on wooden benches overlooking the Pacific Ocean, there was one smile in particular I was looking for. “Mama! I love NatureBridge!” I heard as I was tackled by my ten-year-old in a huge hug. Growing up in a family that loves camping and regularly takes hikes in the East Bay Hills, this wasn’t a total surprise, but as a former NatureBridge staff member for nearly 10 years and a past participant myself, I couldn’t help but take a breath of relief. 

    One of the educators asked the group, “What were some of your favorite memories of this week?” Students shared their memories enthusiastically, each one eliciting cheers and nods of agreement from their classmates: “Hiking!” “The food!” “Holding hermit crabs in the marine lab!” “Seeing all the wildlife!” “Rolling down ice plant hill!” 

    Reflecting on my own NatureBridge experiences as a student at what was then called Yosemite Institute, I still remember the chocolate pudding in the cafeteria, the awe and wonder of hiking up the mist trail alongside Vernal Falls, and the pride at making it through the Spider Caves in the dark with the help of my friends. These experiences brought us closer together as a community; they introduced us to important concepts like glaciation and redwood ecology; they helped us to find inner reserves of strength, pushing us outside our comfort zones while holding us as we tried new things and climbed to new heights. 

    My trips to NatureBridge were the highlights of my educational journey. These childhood trips were made possible by the efforts of dedicated and passionate teachers who insisted the trips were worth the time spent away from the classroom, and administrators who allocated the school’s resources towards the additional expenses. One of those teachers just so happened to be my dad, who was so inspired by outdoor education that he went on to found and operate Camp Chrysalis, a nature-based summer camp that takes Bay Area kids to Big Sur, Mendocino, and the Sierra. Camp Chrysalis is still in operation today, and my dad has been one of my greatest inspirations in this work.

    How many of you have a similar story: early experiences that shaped who we are today, encouraged our love and connection to the natural world, and inspired us to share those same experiences with others? 

    We are the lucky ones. The unfortunate truth is that while these experiences are common in the outdoor and environmental education community, they are not the norm for most students in California. With increased emphasis placed on test scores and what are considered core academics, the high cost of transportation, and strained resources on schools and families alike, field trips – and especially overnight experiences – are rarely prioritized. 

    At AEOE, we’re trying to change that. Immersive, experiential learning outdoors shouldn’t be optional, only available for those who have access to resources, but a cornerstone of EVERY young person’s educational journey. That’s why we work to strengthen environmental education in California by connecting providers, building professional expertise, and championing environmental literacy and outdoor learning. We are guided by our members: individuals and organizations across the state that are committed to using environmental and outdoor education as a tool to create lasting environmental change. 

    Are you a member of our community yet? If not, we hope you will join us! If you’re not a provider yourself, but believe in the power of nature-based programming and care about a more sustainable world, become a supporter of our work today. Together, we can ensure that future generations have access to meaningful learning experiences outdoors – whether it be at NatureBridge, or at any of the other amazing programs across the state – because it’s not just a field trip, it’s the foundation for our collective future.

  • October 19, 2023 3:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Deepak 'Deeps' Dathari is a veteran of the environmental education field, having served for over 20 years as a naturalist, outdoor educator, and, most recently, as a program director for Camp Cambell. He worked for NatureBridge as a field instructor and mentor teacher, and has helped thousands of students connect with nature through a careful emphasis on self-confidence, storytelling, and a genuine enthusiasm for the outdoors. We sat down for a conversation with him to learn more about what has sustained him through a career that has stretched from the granite-clad Sierras, to the capital of New Zealand, and back again.

    Deeps shares wilderness-informed ABC's. Photo courtesy of Kim Lazier.

    What has sustained you in the field of environmental education?

    Community. There are a lot of careers in the outdoors or environmental field. I've done bird research, for instance, for a number of years, and you tend to be in very isolated crews that are in really remote places. Your crews are small, so your community is extremely small. 

    But in environmental education, your community is large and it's very like-minded young people who are super driven about the work that they're doing. They're fun people that you want to be around, people that work hard and play hard. It's rare to find the combination of those two things: incredibly beautiful wilderness and a very vibrant community coupled with it. You're instantly welcomed into this community as though you've been part of it for years. I don't get paid very much, but because of these people I'm around, I want to keep coming back so I can keep building those relationships, deepening those friendships. [There is] a sense of solidarity that we're all on the same mission, together. 

    The other piece is the work itself. It's so special to work with a kid who has lived near the ocean for their whole life and has never actually seen a beach. Their first time touching sand and they're just in this pure, exploratory, sensory overload. I feel privileged to be near that energy. When people are teaching in the classroom, it's very rare to have those moments of awakening. We see it regularly. 

    Those two factors are the big ones for me [and] why I've been able to stay in it so long, despite it not being the most lucrative. The people I work around are so inspiring, too, because you can learn from them as well. They're always being creative. They're adapting what they do. They're finding new ways to do what they do, and there's a lot of collaboration that goes on. In your professional life, you're being stimulated quite a bit and you're learning so much, always.  Whether it's in the field with the kids, or outside of the field when you're planning and having meetings, you're always learning. 

    Deeps in his element with NatureBridge at Yosemite. Photo courtesy of Kim Lazier.

    What excites you about the future of environmental education?

    We live in a society that has become much less interactive with nature. We spend so much more time on screens. Social media is the place where people pour all their energy. There's almost a value of shying away from discomfort that we cultivate in our society. Getting people outside in nature: touching a tree, getting in water, seeing birds. Knowing how valuable that is, how important, how cool and interesting. It’s so needed because that time away from screens is so rare. That time away when you have to interact with people on a personal level and work together as a group, as opposed from a distance. 

    We really need to create an anti-racist effort in all aspects of society. Because the places we work are on land that has been taken from Indigenous people, and where certain groups have historically felt excluded, the importance of building in anti-racism and cultivating a greater sense of belonging in environmental education are so pertinent right now. It excites me because we’re on the cusp of bringing that in a more robust way into environmental ed. I think people have been tinkering with how to do it well, but now we've gotten a lot of things figured out and [are] implementing it in the field on a regular basis. That really excites me because it makes us feel like agents of change in a broader way. 

  • October 16, 2023 6:08 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Jenna Cobb is an environmental educator and leader who is committed to equity and inclusion in the field. She has served with various organizations in Southern California, at the intersections of urban ecology, culturally-responsive teaching, and justice. Jenna inspires her colleagues, students, and community to create opportunity and increase access to outdoor learning for all students. We asked Jenna about her start in environmental education, and what has kept her committed to the field. 

    Jenna explores the outdoors with students on a scavenger hunt.

    What brought you into a career as an environmental educator?

    I grew up in Torrance, which is near the coast of LA County, between LAX and Long Beach. I got to spend a lot of time in nature with my family. We'd do some habitat restoration at the local vernal marsh, do walks and clean ups at the local beaches, go hiking up in the mountains. From an early age, I felt like, “Oh, like these places are so special. I feel a sense of peace here that I don't at school or at home watching TV.” So I knew I wanted to do environmental work. 

    I didn't really step into environmental education until my last year of college. I did an internship with Grades of Green, which does a lot of student-led environmental action projects. I worked with the trash free lunch challenge around Los Angeles County. It was so great talking to elementary school students who were leading the charge to make their school lunches trash free, whether it was setting up a sorting system or advocating for the elimination of Styrofoam trays at their schools. I love the relational aspect of this work, as well as the direct impact of saying, “Hey, I'm not just doing this work from afar. I get to be with communities as we're working towards this better future together.” 

    My first full-time environmental education job was at Chino Basin Water Conservation District. My supervisor at the time, Becky Rittenberg, who's now at Parks California, nominated me for this award back in 2017 when I was a 22 year-old. Feeling that support and being surrounded by great educators there, as well as within the Environmental Education Collaborative of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, has been such an encouragement for me. I can see some really great things ahead. 

    Jenna presents on soil to a classroom of curious youth.

    What has sustained you in this field?

    The people I've worked with. I had some great partners in this work. 

    During the Environmental Education Certification Program with AEOE, I got to work on my project with an old colleague, Monica Curiel, where we did a trilingual environmental education field trip for adults in our community. It was such a positive experience working together to achieve a common vision we've had for a while. Throughout my career, and currently at Community Nature Connection, I’ve had great colleagues who are inspirations in how they connect with the community of Southern California. 

    The Environmental Education Collaborative, the AEOE certification program, and the networks I'm connected with in the North American Association for Environmental Education make [me] feel like I'm not alone in this work, which is so important. This is also echoed by my faith as a progressive Christian. I believe that the divine is working with us to bring about healing and wholeness in our communities. So both in my spiritual practice [and] my relationships, [I am] being reminded that we are working towards this together. That helps me believe that even in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss, there is hope. I can point to ways that so many people are working towards a better future and that makes me feel sustained in this work.
  • December 05, 2022 2:10 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Last week, Save California Salmon, the 2022 Organization of the Year announced that the new Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Science and Management Junior High Curriculum is out! It can be found at The press release can be read in its entirety below. 

    PRESS RELEASE: New Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Science Curriculum Aims to Teach California Students About Native People, Science and the Environment

    For immediate release: Nov. 28th 2022

    New Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Science Curriculum Aims to Teach California Students About Native People, Science and the Environment

    Nov. 30th online curriculum event will feature Native Educators, Scientists, and Families, Teacher’s Trainings to follow in February 2023   

    For More Information:

    Charley Reed, Education Director, Save California Salmon 707 458-5205 

    Regina Chichizola, Save California Salmon 541 951-0126 

    Klamath River, California- A free new curriculum released for Native American Heritage Month aims to teach California middle school students about Northern California’s environment, and how Native American people use cultural practices and science to care for the environment and the people. Lessons focus on issues such as climate change, oceans, estuaries, fire, and rivers along with keystone and culturally important species, such as salmon, abalone and fire adapted plants. 

    The curriculum meets junior high school standards in sciences, history, language art, visual arts, and social studies and fills a critical need for Native American studies and climate and environmental sciences curriculum and lessons, in public schools. 

    As a Hupa, Yurok and Karuk person living in the mid-Klamath basin, I always felt as if I lived in two parallel worlds.One being immersed into cultural worldviews and another in western education.” explained Save California Salmon’s education director Charley Reed. “There was separation between who I was and what I was expected to learn. It has, and continues to be, a lifelong effort to Indigenize educational spaces so that Indigenous students can see themselves, their history and examples of resilience in classrooms. I believe that this TEK and Science Curriculum is a step to achieve that effort.”

    Proponents of the curriculum identify California’s state standardized curriculum as it relates to Native American people in California is not only exclusionary, but factually incorrect. Existing Core Curriculum frequently teaches about Native Peoples in the past tense instead of recognizing the critical role that Indigenous Knowledge plays in environmental and other sciences. 

    For over a hundred years, Native people have largely not been able to manage the land and water, or practice their cultures. This exclusion of  traditional practices from the landscape has contributed to California’s climate and water crises, and created social injustices and health issues for native people. In the past, the school systems, and particularly boarding schools, have been a big part of oppressing Native cultures. Today schools have the opportunity to embrace Indigenous Knowledge, thereby supporting climate resilience, healing and social justice efforts.

    "Tribes have been long advocating to bring back Indigenous land management practices but it hasn't been until recently that traditional burning has been back on the landscapes" explained Reed. "We have been impatiently waiting for the opportunity to have a prominent role in stewardship. Now, unfortunately we are having to fix big problems that we were originally excluded from voicing concerns about, like dam removal, massive fires, and restoring estuaries."

    Currently, the only standardized curriculum in California related to Native peoples glorifies violence and painful histories, such as the California gold rush and mission system. These histories gloss over California’s genocidal history and erase the fact that Native people are still here, practicing their cultural traditions, protecting the land and combating climate change. In addition to having detrimental effects on Native students, this creates a situation where politicians and agency employees who are tasked with protecting the environment, and working with Tribes, know nothing about the Tribes or their practices. 

    This situation is particularly challenging to native youth who are studying to be future leaders such as Hoopa Valley Tribal youth Danielle Frank. Frank, the former president of the Hoopa High School Water Protector Club, has been featured as an up and coming climate leader by Vogue Magazine. 

    “If we are going to have an equitable future in California we need to deal with climate change, fires and dwindling water supplies, but we can not tackle these issues without changing our way of thinking,” explained Frank. “California's people largely don’t understand how to care for, and not exploit, the land. Native People hold this knowledge. Teaching this curriculum in schools is a way to get students to care for the land and make learning about the climate and science relevant to them.” 

    Frank explains that for instance, California Tribes have always burned the forest with low intensity burns. This was not only to protect their communities, but for the health of the forest and traditional foods such as acorns and weaving materials. The loss of this practice, coupled with climate change, has led to higher intensity, larger fires along with unhealthy acorn trees and basket making materials. “This is a classic feedback loop that students can see for themselves.” 

    Save California Salmon will host a zoom webinar on Wednesday Nov. 30th. at 6pm featuring Native American scientists, Traditional Practitioners, parents and educators that either helped design the curriculum, or are teaching TEK and Native American studies and sciences.

    The public can join at A TEK curriculum teachers training will be held in February 2023. Schools can sign up to get Save California Salmon’s youth centered newsletters and curriculum poster packets. 

    The curriculum can be found at: and the videos from the series are at

    All curriculum, online classes, and newsletters are currently free, however SCS is holding a holiday fundraiser, and is always looking for funding sources. Donations can be made at or through facebook. 

  • June 08, 2022 3:53 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    On behalf of Ten Strands, the California Environmental Literacy Initiative (CAELI), and AEOE, we are pleased to award Save California Salmon as this year's EE organization of the year. Save California Salmon (SCS) is dedicated to policy change and community advocacy for Northern California’s salmon and fish dependent people. They support the fisheries and water protection work of the local communities, and advocate effective policy change for clean water, restored fisheries and vibrant communities. SCS also supports youth-led action centered on cultural and educational advocacy, which is intertwined with watershed action in California’s salmon-dependent Tribal communities. Click here to access the full press release. 

  • November 20, 2021 3:02 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Sama Wareh, M.S – Southern California 2021 Environmental Educator of the Year

    Note from AEOE’s Executive Director: Sama and I had a chance to connect over the phone, where I learned more about her story – what brought her into this field and what has sustained her. What follows are the notes from our conversation. Please join me in celebrating Sama’s contributions to the field of environmental and outdoor education and the many lives she’s impacted over the year. 

    For us (practicing Muslims), environmental stewardship is supposed to be a part of our religion. When I started 16 years ago, I felt as though I was among the minority in my community who was trying to learn more about the environment and sustainability. It’s been really cool to see the progress and number of community members interested in also making it their educational and lifestyle goal. Communities who have struggled just to make a living and fit into society have had a disconnect with barely just trying to get acquainted with a new culture and get by. It’s a privilege to go camping or hiking, or even to have a car to get you to the trail. This next generation are the ones starting to bring back the older generation into it. Budding naturalists, they take an elderly community (largely refugees and immigrants) out on hikes once a month. While the elders may have never been on the trail before, they recognize some of the plants from their home countries. It’s such a wonderful cross-generational opportunity to share knowledge and connection. 

    My parents are immigrants and they came here from Syria. They didn’t have time to take us camping, or even know how to do that. We didn’t go hiking, but we did picnic. We really knew how to picnic! Now I’m teaching in these same parks, but out on the trails farther out. I never knew that there were trails there. Now I take my mom out to these places. 

    My uncle in Syria was my main inspiration to be a naturalist. He was a healer, a homeopathist. He healed my eye once with white sage. When I was out of college, interested in working with animals, I applied to work with Inside the Outdoors. Based on my interest in animals they thought I could be a naturalist. My first day of training, they walked me around the site, teaching me about the native plants. I learned that the Tongva used white sage as an eye wash. It all came together for me in that moment. I knew that I had found my calling for the rest of my life. And that’s what I’ve done since. 

    I worked at Inside the Outdoors for several years, and then at the Environmental Nature Center. I then went to Alaska, hoping to study glaciology and learn the landscape. When I returned, I was still connected with my previous students. I was encouraged to start a school by some of the parents. I was concerned about having to be in an administrative role and not wanting to be disconnected from students. Dr. Khadeeja and Syma were so encouraging, we decided to found Art & Wilderness Institute together. During Covid, we got a lot of interest from the community and women in particular. They wanted to get outside, but were afraid and didn’t know where to start. We’ve familiarized more than 100 women with our trails and wildlife and have trained 10 women to be hiking leaders. 

    There is a saying of the Prophet: “The earth is green and beautiful and God has appointed you his stewards over it.” There’s a word in Arabic, khulafa. It means inheritors/stewards and many times in the Quran it is alluded to. When they’re reminded of that it’s a different mindset. I’m going on a hike and I’m protecting this trail because it’s who I am to do this. At a lot of our mosques they’re still using styrofoam and our students are speaking up and trying to reduce waste - it’s coming from them! The kids are so awesome, they are going to take care of this earth. Hearing them talk about nature and learning about the native plants and animals is so inspiring. 

    I created these trading cards with my art hoping to get kids excited that you have to earn. And some are harder than others to earn, like octopus: you have to spot it and conduct a stewardship project. It’s been a really fun learning tool, a resource that these kids love. We have 70 cards now. We even have a contest where kids can submit their artwork to be added to the connection. [Editor's note: You can purchase them through our partner Acorn Naturalists.]

    The Art and Wilderness Institute has been a snowball effect. We’ve been fundraising for scholarships to get more kids involved - it was actually spearheaded by one of our students, a 9-year-old, who wanted to support a family’s involvement. It’s provided an organic space for the community to get together, have these amazing experiences, and take ownership. It’s been beautiful to watch. I am so grateful, I learn so much from the parents and kids and am so grateful to be part of this humble community. We got to adopt a state park, work on the maps for it, how we would incorporate trails, and replant it. One of our students is stepping into a management position of stewarding this place. This is our earth, we’re trying to save the planet. We have so much work to do. Kudos to all the environmental education organizations out there doing this work – it’s going to take all of us, working up our sleeves. We’re up against consumer culture. Part of why I do what I do is because of how much I didn’t know when I was younger. The earth is a great teacher and the earth’s pace is slow and forth going, and that’s the pace we’re trying to keep up with and be consistent. One project we have is to plant a plant for every kid who signs up for a class - that they get to plant - to help offset the carbon impact of their attendance. Our next step is to do bigger trees. But you start small. If everybody brings their A-game we have a whole lot of awesome going around. 

    We really just have this one Earth that we’ve inherited. It’s our responsibility and we will be held accountable for what we do on this Earth, how we treat community, and what we teach these kids. I know we all have habits that can be bad and it’s hard to live a zero waste life, I know it’s not easy, but every day we can try to do a little better. We can all make a big difference in how we live. Consistency is key. And we’re running out of time with what we’re up against in the carbon mess that we have. I don’t know what this next generation will face, we have a limited time to make a difference in our communities and the environment. The question to ask ourselves every day is: did I learn something new and was I kind to the earth today? And if I wasn’t, what can I do tomorrow to make up for today?

    When I worked at Inside the Outdoors and Environmental Nature Center, I learned a lot from my co-workers. On every journey we’re on, it’s important to look around and see who you can learn from. I’ve learned a lot from my co-workers and I’m so grateful for every step of my journey. 

    Learn more about Sama’s organization at: 

  • August 10, 2021 4:34 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Dear Environmental and Outdoor Education Community,

    We recently learned about the deaths of two valuable members of our community. Please join us in celebrating their lives and contributions to environmental and outdoor education. 

    With care,

    Your friends at AEOE


    We were greatly saddened to hear of the recent deaths of two environmental and outdoor learning champions: 

    rikki (lowercase preferred) Shackelford

    rikki was a long time AEOE member, regular conference attendee, and was honored as the Northern Environmental Educator of the Year in 2005. A falconer, poet, and gifted educator with a deep passion for nature, rikki touched the lives of countless students and staff through his career, including time spent at Web of Life Field (WOLF) School, Exploring New Horizons, Lawrence Hall of Science, and Bay Area Teen Science. rikki’s passing was unexpected and he will be greatly missed by our community. 

    Photo: rikki and his red-tailed hawk

    Tom Preston

    A 2013 Howard Bell awardee for lifetime achievement in environmental and outdoor education, Tom was the former Camp Director of Camp O-Ongo and Camp O-Ongo Outdoor Education Center in Running Springs, CA. His dear friend Jim Sims, also a long-time AEOE supporter, shared at the time of his award: “I know of no other person whose total life work has so positively impacted the lives of thousands of children and youth as they were involved in outdoor education and camping under Tom’s leadership.” In addition to his contributions to the field, Tom was a valued husband, father, grandfather, brother, mentor, counselor, veteran, and friend.

    Photo: Tom, receiving the Howard Bell Award in 2013

    Please join us in sending condolences to Tom and rikki’s loved ones and helping us to honor their memories. 

  • July 20, 2021 4:46 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Following the 2021 award ceremony, Miho was willing to sit down with Estrella Risinger, AEOE's Executive Director, and expand on her background and teaching approach. We hope you will enjoy learning more of Miho's story and are inspired as we are!

    Please tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to this work. Your name is especially powerful. Would you be willing to share? 

    I was born and raised in an urban industrial area in Tokyo. As a curious and athletic city kid, I always loved being outdoors and finding nature in the concrete jungle. I remember discovering a family of rats living under the pavement on our street. I tied a piece of cheese with a string and sent the bait into a hole in the pavement. I waited and slowly pulled the cheese out of the hole. I saw nothing. I had to be more patient! I did it again and waited longer. Sure enough, this time I saw a mouth and whiskers following the cheese as I pulled it out! With excitement, I pulled the cheese too fast and the rat went back in. On my third try, I pulled the cheese out very slowly until I could see the body of the rat. My hypothesis was accepted. And I moved on to a bike ride without cleaning up. When I came back, the entire neighborhood was out. Apparently, the rat family came out to feast on the cheese that I left. I got in big trouble for that.  

    When I was in high school, I watched a BBC program called Yellowstone in Winter. The program showed a bison which was struggling to survive over the harsh environment. There was a woman park ranger next to the animal, explaining that her job is to witness the dying bison, not to rescue the animal because the park is there to protect the entire ecosystem that allows nature to do what it's supposed to do. I was so struck by that concept, thinking that someday I would work in a US national park teaching people about nature. I'm sharing this story because some of us environmental educators were furloughed or laid off from in-person teaching during this pandemic and had no choice but to adapt to delivering online lessons, potentially feeling less effective. But know that the media and online learning could be inspiring and a potentially life changing experience for students. It certainly was for me.

    My dream to work as an environmental educator in a national park came true. And I think this vocation was determined when I was born. Japanese parents make a wish for their children and embed it in the characters of their child’s name. My parents named me Miho with the character 民 (“mi”), which means “people,” as the first part of my name. Inherent in this character is a reference to democracy where all people’s voices are heard and valued. The second character, 穂 (“ho”), means “rice,” the staple food of Japan. The year I was born, the Japanese government passed a law that discouraged Japanese farmers from producing rice in an effort to grow the market for imported produce. As proponents of local, sustainable agriculture, my parents fiercely opposed this law. They valued rice fields as a symbol of reciprocity with nature that has shaped Japanese way of life and our culture. By giving me this name, my parents hoped that I would become a protector of people, culture and environment. In addition, my birthdate is the day that the US Congress officially recognized it as Women’s Equality Day.

    With my name and my birthdate, I was put on the path to seek ways of being and living that value what I call 5Es- Empathy, Equity, Environment, Education, and Empowerment. When I think about it, my career as an environmental educator and an advocate for increasing outdoor access and opportunities for all people, especially for women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color embrace all of these 5Es. 

    I love seeing you work with young people and the way you bring such case and compassion to your work, striving to meet them where they are at and provide an inclusive learning environment. Can you share about your teaching philosophy? (Maybe share your ABCs)

    It's really important to meet my students where they are for a few reasons. First, it calls for a practice of a student-centered approach and as a result, I can better provide what they need to feel connected to themselves and to those around them, including nature. Second, it changes the power dynamic between teachers and students. We can exist in the dynamic of dual responsibility to meet our mutual goals to teach, learn, and grow together. I use what I call Miho's ABC, a simple & kinesthetic accountability practice, to hold ourselves accountable. "A" stands for Aim high, do your best, "B" stands for Being in the moment, "C" stands for Care. I introduce this at the beginning of my teaching and consistently use it as a way to assess where we are and how we want to be as a group. Third, it pushes me to seek understanding of people coming from all different social locations and experiences with a constant self-evaluation of my own assumption and bias. It requires empathy.

    You talk a lot about representation and the importance of centering the perspectives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in this work. I absolutely agree. There is so much work we need to do as a field in building a more just and sustainable movement. Can you talk about the importance of directing resources not just towards hiring and recruitment, but towards developing an organizational culture where staff of color truly feel like they belong? 

    I've been seeking the answers to the question and I will share what I think it's important to pay attention to. 

    Your question makes me think of this quote by Maya Angelou: "people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I remember how my co-workers and supervisors took their time on the job or off the clock to show curiosity and genuine interest in who I am and to learn my stories. They made me feel that I matter, that I am part of the community and that my voice counts. I felt seen and valued, and have a place in this community. I felt encouraged to bring something that makes this place better and I have people who have shared values and interests. These are a few examples of a sense of belonging. It's a feeling that is created in relation to one another. 

    In order to create the sense of belonging, the individuals and organizations must value and invest the time, energy, and resources to cultivate the relationship with one another in various spaces. Affinity space is very critical for both white and staff of color. White affinity space can be used for learning/unlearning ways of being, knowing and thinking of white people (i.e. history, white supremacy culture, etc.) instead of talking about how to help people of color. I want white people to talk about whiteness, not about me, and interrogate themselves, realizing that we all need to be free to liberate all people. 

    In addition to being an educator, you are an activist, a filmmaker, a cyclist, a leader. What gives you hope and keeps you engaged in this work?

    I am driven by purpose, not by hope. Hope is externally driven so you seek out and grasp on it. You can lose hope when the outcome is not what you expected. On the other hand, purpose is internally driven. No matter what the outcome is, you have a reason to pursue your purpose and you continue to work towards what you are destined for. For me, my purpose is written in my name - a creator of greater democracy and protector of people, culture, and environment - so all the various roles I play whether I am an educator or activist, are manifestations of how I meet my purpose for the greater good. 

    I learn this way of existing from nature. During the pandemic, I became obsessed with learning about honey bees, particularly Japanese honeybees. I learned that an average honey bee will make 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey before it dies. To me, it is so insignificant as an individual. But I don't think the individual bee contemplates whether their contribution is too small or worth it. Or they debate with each other whether they should keep doing what they are doing or not. They just get to work until their wings can no longer carry them. Yet as a collective, they make up to 100 pounds of honey. That is more than enough for their siblings they have not yet met to sustain the hive. 

    Learning about the honey bees assures me that I'm part of the collective movement that leads us to liberation for all beings. Knowing that my contribution has a place and meaning is good enough for me to keep going. Change takes time. The process is nonlinear. I need to relax. Pace myself. Smell the flowers. Climb the mountains. Collaborate. And...let's get to work! 

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