For the Community, From the Community: A Conversation with Marcos Trinidad

Trinidad—center director at Audubon Debs Park in Los Angeles—spoke with us about his roots in LA, his work making the outdoors more inclusive, and his new podcast Human/Nature.

Update: Audubon thanks Marcos Trinidad for 9 years of dedication to conservation and community work at Audubon Center at Debs Park. He is now the regional director for the Riverside and San Bernardino Counties at TreePeople.

During Latinx Heritage Month, we chatted with Marcos Trinidad, the center director at Audubon Debs Park. As their center director, he has nurtured a growing community of volunteers, youth and community partnerships; implemented a facility and grounds improvement plan; and partnered with the National Park Service to establish a vibrant native plant nursery. He also works as a Senior Regional Manager at TreePeople, co-directs LA’s Environmental Professionals of Color chapter, and was the recipient of the Rosa Parks and Grace Lee Boggs Award for his leadership in environmental justice, education and advocacy. We talked about his roots in Los Angeles, his work making the outdoors more inclusive, and his new podcast Human/Nature. You can watch the entire interview here. A curated version of that interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, has been included below.

Your family has deep roots in the northeast Los Angeles community. Can you tell us about that history?

My family migrated here some generations ago, specifically to northeast L.A. We’ve been here for just over 75 years. In fact, my grandmother will be turning 100 years young in a couple of weeks, and she lives about half a block away from Deb's Park. So it was really cool that I was able to work here, because I grew up in the community. My parents actually met at the bus stop a block away from the center. So I often say that when they met they wanted to be able to have a great big family and have one of their sons in that family be the center director for a nature center that will be put right in the neighborhood. 

Debs Park has a holistic, people-focused approach and it serves as a community hub for environmental justice and advocacy work. Tell us how that came to be.

It definitely is a group effort. There have been amazing people that have been a part of the Debs Park family for many years, and I've been able to build off of their hard work and everything that goes into creating a space for community. Each person that has worked here has contributed in such a special way that it's motivating. Now, some things that we've done intentionally have been along the lines of understanding that we need the community more than the community needs us. And I say that not taking away from what we do as an organization, but in terms of the priorities that we all have as a community, as an organization. Once we were able to understand that, we were able to have conversations that were allowing us to move forward in a different direction. We were no longer the ones that had all the knowledge. We were no longer the ones that knew all of the answers. As an organization, we were coming to a table with other people, other community members, other organizations and helping identify issues that we all had different expertise on.

Can you share what a typical day in your life as a center director looks like?

One thing about being a center director—in particular managing a space that is open to the public—every day is going to be different and some days are going to be packed with a ton of really awesome, meaningful work. And then some days are going to be like, “Oh wow, I can't believe I'm having to handle this.” My day starts pretty early. We try to get in some birding as much as possible, and a lot of that is walking the trails looking around. This is both for mental health and also because we need to physically have eyes on the trails to see if there's anything that needs to be addressed because we are open to the public and folks can come in throughout the day. It’s also jumping online and looking at fundraising opportunities. This is the stuff that a lot of folks don't find joy in. But I for one, I really feel that it's the opportunity to build our programs. There's nothing more exciting than thinking about a program, working through it with staff in the concept phase, and then putting it on paper and saying, “Hey, you know what? Who wants to fund this?”


Marcos Trinidad pointing to something out-of-frame to fellow birders while outside on a trail on an overcast day.

Throughout your career, and at Debs Park, you've placed an importance on engaging and inspiring youth to connect to nature and their community. Can you tell us more about that?

Growing up in the neighborhood, I was around these hills and trails and along the river as a kid. And at that time, whether it was happening or not, I was unaware of anyone that was doing interpretation of the natural world. And I'm grateful that I've been able to step into this role and find a field that I'm able to be a part of. I think what’s key is providing these opportunities for youth to come in, see what it's like, see someone that could be either their tío or their parent so they can see themselves in this field. Now, we don't try to turn everyone into a center director that comes through here, but what we do try to allow is youth to continue to explore and maintain that curiosity. Think about your spark bird. And the excitement that came with that. I get to relive that in a ton of folks that come to the center when I show them the great hornet's nest and they get to see the owl poke its head out and this is the first time they've seen an owl. And just that curiosity and that excitement! I'm really excited that we're able to facilitate these important moments. 

How have you seen the impact of your work affect the people you serve?

I think some of the biggest impacts that I'm always able to notice is how it’s affected my family and everything that we've been able to do. And in terms of our community, I would have to point out some of the local initiatives that we've been able to do, like getting legislation passed that will invest in our community parks. It’s working on legislation and toolkits that allows us to be an active participant in discussions like what’s going to benefit our community or how do we create a system that supports community members in safe environments outdoors? And a lot of that has to do with funding public programs and making space available for our community members. 

Can you talk about what it means to you to make the outdoors more inclusive? 

I've been thinking about this recently in a different context. One of the things that I realize is that there's a narrative that people of color aren't necessarily interested in the outdoors and I think we should break that down in a number of different ways. One, how do we classify what is outdoors or what is nature? Is nature something that you have to go to? Is nature Yosemite or some of these big national parks, or does nature start as soon as you walk outside a building or your home? Looking at it through those lenses, when I hear, “Hey, there's a lack of diversity outdoors: are people of color not outdoors?” My question in response to that is: if we're not out yet, where are we? My father works outdoors six days a week. Most of the males in my family have jobs that put them outside as contractors and roofers. But, if we’re looking at the outdoors as going someplace, as conquering a mountain or kayaking down a river, then it is a very exclusive experience. But if we consider nature as being in your backyard, under trees, eating tacos with your familia? Then we experience nature quite a bit. One thing I [push] is that all use of outdoor space is valid. So, I think the conversation needs to continue.

Earlier this year, you started a new podcast called "Human/Nature", hoping to inspire listeners to get out and explore and connect with nature in their cities. Can you tell us more about it?

It's been amazing to have a different platform to connect with and to throw the idea out there that nature isn't something you have to go to. Nature is all around us. We are nature. This podcast really highlights that fact and what we do is really look at all these fascinating things that exist in our communities. We're able to interview a ton of really amazing people doing amazing work and get to some controversial topics within the conservation world. A real goal we have is to inspire folks to open up to observation. I use birds as an example. Birds are the one wild animal that we get to interact with every day. You have to go out of your way to not interact with birds! The podcast is from L.A. Studios, and they've been doing a really amazing job of allowing a lot of BIPOC folks to step into these roles in the industry to tell these stories. We just wrapped up the season, so now we're able to take a little break and relax a little and do some birding.