Talk NERRdy to Me: Juan Ramirez

Jul 27, 2023

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our Reserves. This month, NERRA’s questing querent Nik Charov spoke with Juan Ramirez, outreach coordinator for the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, near Monterey, California. They chatted about lizards and love, fear and families, and other, you know, unimportant things.

Nik: Thank you for joining us here at Talk NERRdy, the increasingly-specialized niche communication for fans of the National Estuarine Research Reserves. There are many fans of you in this System, Juan Ramirez. Maybe this is how NERRA gets more fans! But you’re pretty new to this NERR thing, aren’t you?

Juan: I just celebrated one year. So yes, fairly new to this whole land trust and estuary world, but not to outreach or education programs. I was a teacher locally in Salinas for seven years and then I worked in the Bay Area in Oakland, coordinating youth programs and learning about restorative justice there.

I’ve worked with students for a long time, and I always found that when we went on walks to the lake or camping trips, we were more open with each other.  The physical building has walls, right? And who you are at school might not be who you are at home with family. Those are walls too. Being outside makes students more open.

Nik: We know how beneficial nature is. Why do we need outreach coordinators to get people outside? Why this continual uphill battle with the public? 

Juan: There’s fear. There’s hesitation. I try to create safe welcoming spaces for everybody to be able to relate to each other while we’re in nature.

There’s an activity called “Our Seeds Will Blossom” that I developed out of a conversation with one of my high school students a few years ago. It’s about identifying three values in yourself and seeing them as seeds. Things we want to grow in ourselves. For me, love is my #1 value. That’s what I bring to work and life every day. That’s how I want to show up for people. That is something that I’m growing, tending to, and watering in myself so that I can put it out in the world.

We do that activity, out in nature, and we try to look at where our three values showed up during our walk or while learning about plants. When I take the students or families on a hike up to the ridgeline, I talk about medicinal plants and we start seeing manzanita. I always take a moment with manzanita because that’s what I really connect with. I talk about roots and how we’re all connected and need to be nurturing.

Juan talking about Artemisia and medicine to fellow Latino Outdoor Lideres.

Nik: How is outreach different from education?

Juan: Good question. I think education in the past, especially in vulnerable communities or communities of color, felt top-down. Students might not feel like they are part of the learning, maybe they were taking it in, but maybe some didn’t see their value in it. 

With outreach, because relationships are at the forefront, the participants are part of their learning. They’re part of bringing their full selves and values to whatever we’re learning about. That’s the difference. I get to develop a program with the community, be a true collaborator, a partner. I think that’s the added value and beauty that outreach brings. To be in a relationship means, to me: what do we do together where we feel like there’s an impact? We’re planting yarrow, collecting seed, whatever it is that feels like we’re learning, but we’re also creating some change.

I have multiple youth programs and an outdoor classroom program—fourth graders at Hall Elementary from Las Lomas, which is really close to the Slough. We build relationships on a daily basis—spending time with them, learning with them at the same time that they are. There are little moments of magic because for some students, this is one of the few times that they get to be out in nature and there is a genuine curiosity about everything. 

If I bring that same enthusiasm and curiosity, I’m able to work on relationships with them. I always try to match energy with people. With the kids, I’m playful and I listen. If somebody’s excited about a roly-poly or a millipede, a salamander or a Western fence lizard, I bring the same energy. For my family program, part of it is sitting in a circle and having a conversation. When we sit in circle and we talk about our values, who we are as people, what our aspirations are, how we want to be as parents, how we want to be as children, those conversations also relate to nature.

The Carneros Creek Outdoor Classroom program participants learning about Maritime Chaparral habitat.

Nik: Is this a new position at Elkhorn Slough, or did you take it over from someone? 

Juan: There was nobody in my role for three or four years. The last person left the year before COVID, so it’s been a while. Look, I’m not doing innovative things, I just do them with so much heart and love. I proudly stand on that. Nobody can match it. There could be some arrogance there, but I just love my community. I’m from this community. I see myself in the kids and I hope that they also see themselves in me. And families—I’m a parent too and I get to build that with them. We’re building this program together. I’ve talked about this before, that program for me is a living thing. We’re putting so much love, energy, and our values into the program. It’s not just me. I don’t hold power. We hold it together. 

Nik: I gotta say, people in the land trust world, the environmental movement, don’t usually talk about their work in the way that you do.

Juan: I agree.

Nik: When NOAA asks me how I communicate the value of the Wells Reserve, I talk about love, beauty, reflection, tranquility. I don’t talk as much about fisheries or ecosystem services. Those are important but they’re not what speak to people

Juan: The reason I came here is for relationships, right? To me, my role in this world is to build relationships. I learned really early in my life that that’s what I wanted to do. How can I be in good relationships, not only with people, but everything around me? 

Nik: Where’d you learn that?

Juan: My parents modeled that for me. I saw how they held people in difficult times. They welcomed people into our home. They work on relationships all the time. My mom is the last of her siblings; my dad is the same. They’re seen as elders now. I’m proud to be their son because they were able to model that love for people. That’s how I want to be in life. How do I be a better brother, son, a better neighbor to everybody?

Nik: Being welcoming and open to people—what does that look like in your outreach role?

Juan: I think about my family’s experience. Doing things together is huge. If you have a family that doesn’t get out in nature because of fear of what could happen, that is a barrier, right? This season I’m taking six families out on the Slough on one of the charter boats. None of them have been out on the slough. To see the estuary from a boat, to see otters, all the birds… they’ve been to our site, but it’s completely different in terms of what nature looks like there. If there isn’t someone that is willing to have the experience with them and to share, it can be a barrier. I create programs that are safe and welcoming where we can do things together, because I know nature creates more of an openness and allows for great relationships.

Some of the family program participants on a boat tour of the Elkhorn Slough.

Nik: I’m definitely hearing how the outreach coordinator is a relationship manager, but it also sounds like you’re a therapist, guide, maybe even shaman who helps connect people to this thing that we used to all be a part of, but now we are not. 

Juan: I’m definitely not a therapist, but I do hold space. I think that’s one of my strengths. I love being together with people. To be able to create those spaces where it is easier to be together is my role. But one thing that I’ve found here is: people haven’t had an experience of being out in nature together. They do things individually, but not as families or multiple families. For some of them, it’s one of the first times out in nature. Families have not seen the slough and they live 15 minutes away. 

Nik: How does it change them? 

Juan: I don’t know if it changes them. I think it allows them to be more of themselves. 

Nik: Breaking down those walls again.

Juan: One thing that does change is a deeper appreciation for nature, wildlife, getting to know certain plants. A deeper appreciation for why we have to take care of this place, why this species is so important, why we have to take care of our water. Agriculture is one of the main reasons so many people in this community are here. There’s a big Latino population here. Both my parents are from Mexico. My dad was a bracero. He came in ‘52, worked in the fields until 2000. 

Nik: Did your father feel connected to the land around Salinas? 

Juan: I had that exact conversation the week I started this role. I told my dad I wanted to have a better relationship with the land. And he said to me, “I always appreciated working outside, but I only worked to take care of a product. I never felt a connection or the need to take care of this place.” He shared that in Mexico, he listened to the land and the land listened to him. And that’s where I want us all to get.

Nik: Into a relationship?

Juan: That’s a relationship. People know when to plant, with the weather. They know how to take care of the soil. They know when to burn. When he said that I knew that as open as he is with me and family, I know there’s deep pain or hurt that he’s had in his life. I guess that’s why I felt so grounded coming into work, because of my parents. That’s where I want to get to.

Nik: The Elkhorn Slough Foundation has been working with the local farms, farmers, and braceros to figure out what stewardship means and how we can all help each other, if I remember correctly?

Juan: The Foundation has relationships with multiple farmers. They’re still farming on some of the properties, which are all organic farms now. This is the strawberry capital of the world and that has taken a huge toll on the land because of all the pesticides.

Nik: That’s not a relationship with the land.

Juan: It’s taking from the land. We partner with organic farmers, and continue to support their work. And we retired certain farms on steep slopes, which reduced the amount of sediment that goes into the slough and the ocean. I think agriculture is always going to be here in this area because it’s so rich in terms of producing. But I’m looking forward to what the future here is. How does that restorative practice ripple out into the larger Salinas Valley? 

Nik: It’s like when they returned wolves to Yellowstone and lots of unexpected good things happened. When you return restorative farming practices, you can see what happens to sediment loads, species abundance, community health… we don’t know all the benefits because we’ve been doing it the wrong way for so long.

Juan: It’s ancestral! If I can create space at Elkhorn Slough where we can share that love and celebrate our story, our culture, our families, it’s beautiful. I don’t know how else to say it. There’s no other way. Hopefully we’ll have moments with the students that they’ll remember as formative. They’ll see that there are people that want them to have a deep connection to a place, to land, so that they care for it and one day be stewards, be in a loving relationship with the land, as a family member. In all of my gatherings that I have, family comes up as the most important value. That’s part of what we try to create: a feeling of family. That’s when we get to be our best selves.

Nik: Our original selves?

Juan: That’s where the love is.

Nik: That’s what makes a family. 

Juan: That’s what makes the family.

Want more Juan Ramirez in your life and work? Check out his Elkhorn Slough podcast here.

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ReservesElkhorn Slough, CaliforniaTalk NERRdy to Me: Juan Ramirez