Oak savanna, with its twisted hundred-year-old trees and wide expanses of grasses, is where Servando Moreno finds most peace. As the stewardship program associate for Audubon Great Lakes, Moreno hopes that he can help preserve the now-endangered oak savanna landscapes around Chicago while also being part of an important change that needs to take place in the landscape of the conservation field.
His fascination with the outdoors stems from his parents. They would always talk to him about their love of the environment, asked him to cater to their house plants, and took care of the family’s garden. That appreciation would turn into realizations as he grew older. Moreno grew up surrounded by corn and soy fields in the Illinois Valley area of Illinois. He also lived within the DePue/New Jersey Zinc/Mobil Chemical Superfund site. When Moreno was a year old his hometown became a federally recognized site because smelting and fertilizer production contaminated much of the town’s air quality. Moreno credits his participation in his high school’s Student Environmental Group—and the Superfund site not being remediated—as the main reason he ‘wanted to dig deeper’ into environmental crises and enter the conservation field.
“When we collected samples of dirt and water in the area and conducted lab studies it really got me thinking about the impact companies and hazardous materials have on the environment. I even made a video about it,” says Moreno. “This feeling of wanting to learn more about my surroundings is ultimately the reason why I changed from pre-med to environmental sciences. As soon as I took a couple of hands-on, urban farming courses and learned about native plants, I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
Like many of his peers, Moreno paired his courses with field experience. During his time at Loyola University Chicago, Moreno was an Urban Agriculture Intern on campus; in 2018 he participated in the program he now manages, Audubon Great Lakes’ Habitat Restoration Internship Program. During his time in the program, Moreno gained plant identification skills, a better understanding of efficient methods for restoring ecosystems, opportunities to collaborate with other green nonprofits, and lasting relationships with volunteers from local Chicago communities. Most importantly, he also found two mentors who valued his abilities and input.
Daniel Suarez and Teri Valenzuela–stewardship program manager and former stewardship program associate, respectively–championed Moreno and were a huge part in bringing him back to Audubon full-time. Shortly after graduating and concluding his habitat restoration internship, Moreno moved on and went back to his 'college roots’ and took an urban farming job. It did not take him long to realize that he missed a sense of fulfillment and happiness. Like Suarez and Valenzuela, he wanted to pair his love of plants and conservation with this newfound interest in wanting to motivate, spark, and show Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) that a career in conservation is a viable option.
“Having them in my corner was really helpful. Teri and Daniel helped me realize my value within the organization,” says Moreno. “Especially as a person of color, it is often hard to advocate for yourself and bring up topics like negotiating a salary or settling for anything less than your worth. For us, it always seems to be a choice between a job that affords you financial security or a job that you really love doing. What I want my interns to know is that there is a way to live comfortably and ethically while still make the world a better place.”
Moreno re-joined the Audubon flock late last year and is currently in the middle of his first recruiting season for the Habitat Restoration Internship Program. Since much of the habitat restoration and fieldwork was curtailed due to the pandemic last year, Moreno hopes to get some sense of normality back into the program in 2021.
“I just want everyone to have the same experience I did,” says Moreno. “Teri and Daniel helped me realize nature can be a place where we steward, a place where we can relax, and a place we can call our workspace. I have big shoes to fill but hopefully my mentorship will spark someone's interest in this field or get somebody really excited about restoration work.”
Want to join Servando’s crew? Audubon Great Lakes’ Habitat Restoration Internship Program is now accepting applications! Visit Audubon's Career Center or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.