Audubon Spotlight: Gabriella Sotelo Finds the Missing Pieces

A chance encounter with a sea creature far from home led Sotelo to focus her journalism career on conservation and environmental justice.

For Gabriella Sotelo, games were an important part of growing up as the youngest child of a Dominican-Peruvian household in Clifton, New Jersey. The initial gaming sessions with her brother on a Nintendo 64 grew and morphed, eventually turning into a love of tabletop gaming and puzzles. These days as a reporter with a strong interest in reporting on environmental justice issues, Sotelo weaves all of the disparate elements of a story—reporting, source quotes, and other details—into a larger picture. It's another way to solve a puzzle, she says, albeit one that happens to have real-world implications.

It took awhile for Sotelo to find exactly how she wanted to turn early loves of puzzles and writing into something more focused. She discovered it, of all places, at the Sea Life Centre Aquarium in London, when she felt an instant connection to a seahorse swimming in a tank. She says she initially didn’t quite grasp what had happened, just that looking at that seahorse felt incredibly powerful. When Sotelo returned home to New Jersey for winter break that year, perusing old grade school relics helped everything fall into place. The tiny sea creature recalled memories of Girl Scouts with her sister and mother, who would chauffer them to field trips at local beaches and parks to engage in small acts of conservation.

“I found a note written to my future self where I promised myself to always reduce, reuse, and recycle,” says Sotelo. “I looked at that piece of paper in shock. Small me knew how much she loved conservation, and it was in the back of my head growing up.”

At the first opportunity, Sotelo switched majors to journalism and environmental studies. During the course of her studies, she noticed her coursework didn’t address the troubled histories of racism of some of conservation’s most prominent figures, like John Muir and Aldo Leopold. Those omissions made her second-guess her place in the conservation movement, and she says she struggled with the idea that conservation felt like a space only for these white men, rather than for people like her.

Sotelo also recognized in those moments that her family is from a part of the globe that experiences disproportionate impacts from climate change, but receives less public attention or support. This turned out to be the missing piece she was looking for when she was deciding where she wanted to focus her career efforts.

“Even though it’s winter right now and [an unseasonably warm] 60 degrees in New Jersey, people in other countries are experiencing far worse effects of climate change,” she says. “We need to start addressing problems we’re creating.”

Early career experience also showed Sotelo the need for more diverse voices in conservation and how she could be that voice. While writing for Treehugger, she published a story on how climate racism leaves people of color at greater risk for heat stress. Writing it was one thing, but the lasting impact was seeing the response to it.

“After I read the [outraged] comments on that story, I knew I was doing something right,” she says.

Her path to Audubon followed a similar trajectory. During one of her last classes, Sotelo says she read about competition between Barred and Spotted Owl in the northwestern U.S. That led Sotelo to Audubon. But what convinced Sotelo to apply for a job at Audubon was seeing the news that the organization had condemned its own namesake for enslaving Black people and perpetuating white supremacy.

“It amazed me that this organization could recognize its own racist past,” she says.

For the last seven months, Sotelo has reported on Audubon’s work for conservation as a Walker communications fellow. Her first stories were tests of her journalistic skills. She published one of her early pieces—a story about Rose, a Piping Plover that nests in Chicago—only a couple of hours after she received the assignment. 

“I was really proud of myself because I was able to get the quotes, research, and whatever edits [my editor] had for me in an hour, and get the piece published that day,” says Sotelo.

Now, Sotelo spends her time speaking to folks throughout Audubon’s network seeking stories she’s interested in writing. She says the experience has improved her editorial instincts and helped her write more impactful stories. Further, Sotelo says her lived experience made reporting and writing profiles of Latina women working in conservation that much more resonant. When she interviewed Gloria Lentijo, working lands strategy manager at Audubon Americas, and Tania Romero, former program coordinator at Debs Park Audubon Center, she says it was like she was “talking to friends or family.”

But beyond honing more practical skills, like interviewing people and reporting stories, Sotelo says her time at Audubon has made her a better advocate—something she always ties into her work as a journalist. 

“I find myself able to question what’s happening, what the background is behind certain issues, and who I can talk to about that. It’s a lot of pattern recognition,” she says. “Journalism is a lot like puzzles: It’s recognizing that one thing that makes everything click.”