Community as a Cornerstone of Conservation

Mitchell Lake Audubon Center and Latino Outdoors support community-centered conservation in San Antonio.
A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher with two insects in its beak. Photo: Robert Michaelson/Audubon Photography Awards

During Latino Conservation Week, we’re celebrating the important role Latine people play in conservation and the power of inclusive, people-centered programs.

We chatted with Sara Pruneda Beesley, Director at Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, Josie Gutierrez, San Antonio Regional Coordinator for Latino Outdoors, and Karina Miller, Latino Outdoors member and Navy veteran. Josie and Karina are both members of Mitchell Lake Audubon Center’s Advisory Board. A curated version of that interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, has been included below.

Mitchell Lake Audubon Center is a wildlife refuge in the south side of San Antonio, Texas, whose mission is to connect people to nature through conservation and community education focused on birds and their habitats. Latino Outdoors is a Latine-led organization that supports a national community of leaders in outdoor recreation, conservation and environmental education.

How did the partnership between Latino Outdoors and Mitchell Lake Audubon Center start?

Josie: My first visit to Mitchell Lake Audubon was at a pumpkin festival in 2015. I had just accepted a role as Ambassador for Latino Outdoors in San Antonio and, along with my 5-year old granddaughter, thought it best to do my nature homework. We explored outdoor spaces together and came across Mitchell Lake.

We went during the fall festival and signed up for a butterfly walk, guided by Patty Leslie-Pasztor. She saw the Latino Outdoors shirt I was wearing and throughout our nature walk, translated the plants and wildlife we saw into Spanish. She mentioned to me that she loves how beautiful the names sound in Spanish and she was eager to know more about the organization’s work and mission. Her sweet and sincere openness to my granddaughter and me is why I chose to host the first ever Latino Outdoors event in Texas at Mitchell Lake. Patty has since led many birding and butterfly outings for us over the years and we are forever grateful.

Sara: Josie actually started the first Latino Outdoors chapter in the state of Texas, in San Antonio. Due to Mitchell Lake Audubon Center’s location in a dominantly Latino community, proximity to interested individuals, and Latina-identifying leadership, we were so excited when she reached out to us to see if we would host their very first outing, a bilingual nature walk.

Karina, what was your first experience with Latino Outdoors?

Karina: My first experience involved camping at Blanco State Park; I had no idea how to camp outside of the military. Many veterans (especially Army) avoid camping because they relate it to their time in tents overseas. I recall my kids looking around and seeing people eating real food while we ate MRE's (Meals Ready-to-Eat); I thought bringing real food would be risky, so I stuck to what I learned in the military. With Latino Outdoors, I learned that camping could be fun (and that I could eat real food).

What are some other events Latino Outdoors and Mitchell Lake have partnered on over the years?

Sara: We’ve led bird and nature walks, hosted outreach booths at each other’s events, and connected each other to other community groups. For example, Latino Outdoors works with a school and brought Mitchell Lake in to help with a community butterfly garden.

And, we’re collaborating with Latino Outdoors for a Sunset Garden Clean-Up at Mitchell Lake Audubon Center on the evening of Wednesday, July 19 to celebrate Latino Conservation Week!

Latino Outdoors stresses that it is “community-first and an organization second.” Can you say more about that?

Karina: As a participant, I never even thought to identify Latino Outdoors as an organization because the structure is more welcoming and casual than the "official" vibe we sometimes get from organizations. Latino Outdoors events always feel like a group of people coming together to learn and enjoy the outdoors.

How is that mindset translated to these partnered events?

Josie: We always start by asking what are the needs and wants for the community. Then we work together to help organize free outings so people engage with conservation on a level that feels comfortable, safe, fun, and special. 

Sara: Mitchell Lake is a community space: our center strives to be a place where everyone feels safe and belongs outdoors. We embrace all levels of “birder” – everyone is a birder if you enjoy being outside and appreciate birds. Many of our volunteers, interns, and staff are from the neighborhoods around the center, and we’re able to offer bilingual nature and plant walks.

Karina: Seeing people who look like us in spaces is a nonverbal invitation to participate. The more we see people who look like us, the more likely we are to feel comfortable in a space.

How do you think taking a community-first mindset changes the way we can approach conservation?

Sara: We don’t move conservation forward without community. The more time we spend in our community and listen to how we can best support them, the more we gain insights into important next steps for the future.

If we are able to positively impact communities by preserving green spaces and habitat, mitigating the heat island effect in urban communities and sequestering carbon to combat climate change, we all benefit. We also need communities to come together to advocate for these green spaces and preserve our parks for humans and wildlife.  Sharing how habitats and other natural spaces benefit both birds and people is key to activating our communities to protect birds, the places they need, and spaces we recreate.

Karina: Right, an educated community is a community that will advocate for its best interests. It can be as simple as teaching people why we should not feed ducks bread, to be conscious of pesticides, and to incorporate pollinators into our personal outdoor spaces; everyone and every creature wins.

Latino Outdoors and Mitchell Lake have co-hosted several bird walks. Can you tell us more about how that supports bird conservation?

Sara: When people appreciate something, they want to protect it. A bird walk at Mitchell lake Audubon Center is not just a walk to look at birds. When we host a group for a bird tour, we also share information about why we have so many (over 350 species have been documented onsite due to our location along the central flyway!) and we discuss why birds are important to conservation. As an indicator species, we know [that] where birds thrive, people thrive too.

Part of Latino Outdoors’ mission is to ‘embrace cultura y familia as part of the outdoor narrative.’ Can you tell us how that relates to the community engagement work that happens at the Center?

Karina: My interest in birding took me by surprise. I first went to Mitchell Lake to enjoy the vegetation, but every time I went back, I learned a cool fact about birds and noticed how excited others would get. It eventually rubbed off on me and I began being more curious about birds.

Josie:  For me, I love family programming. When we bring all ages together, we see the best type of creativity and get a really supportive environment to learn and grow in.

Karina: Definitely. I went to a Latino Outdoors event that involved camping and rock climbing at Pace Bend and Reimer's Ranch; it reminded me of how much I loved rock climbing while I was in the Navy. It was an activity my daughter enjoyed and we learned it was something we could do together! She's 17 now and still prefers our vacations to involve camping.

Sara: We also understand cost can be a barrier to experiencing the outdoors, and though Mitchell Lake currently offers a family discount, we are working towards a revised business model to be free and open to the public by 2028.

Josie: These past eight years with Latino Outdoors have reminded me how slow change can be, but being there as change happens has been such an honor. There is nothing more special than watching a community of all ages come together and bond in the beauty of nature.

Latino Conservation Week runs from July 15 through July 23 this year. You can participate in virtual and in-person events all week. Find out more.