Former KIDS for the BAY Student Discusses Career in Environmental Education

At Verde Partnership Garden in Richmond native plants including a beautiful, white yarrow bush burst from every corner, and honey bees drifted lazily from bloom to bloom. KIDS for the BAY (KftB) Communications Coordinator Amy Asmussen interviewed former KftB Student Angel Gonzalez, now Garden Manager, Environmental Educator, and Plant Whisperer at Urban Tilth’s Verde Partnership Garden. In fourth grade, Angel participated in the Watershed Action Program at Chavez Elementary School in Richmond. Jonah Yamagata, who now also works at Urban Tilth as the Native Plant Nursery Manager, was Angel’s KftB Educator for his fourth grade class! 

Amy sat down with Angel to learn more about his experiences with KIDS for the BAY and his work teaching garden classes to elementary and middle school students and maintaining this special green space, which has served North Richmond communities for over twenty years. Angel shared how his KIDS for the BAY education inspired his career in botany and environmental education, as well as his advice for aspiring environmental leaders and educators. Angel also praised Verde students’ hard work maintaining and learning from the garden, and the polyculture, no-till planting methods that make the garden uniquely sustainable.

Pictured: Jonah Yamagata (left) and Angel Gonzalez (right).

Answer: One of the things that has really stuck with me was this demo that Jonah did in class to demonstrate the way heat changes or creates currents in air and water. He had this little plastic bin filled with water, one side was being heated, one side was being cooled, and Jonah dyed it so we could see how the currents changed. I think about that all the time. When I was in college, learning about ocean currents or storms, I was like,“Yeah, that’s what [the demo] was.” 

KIDS for the BAY also took us on a field trip to Alvarado Park, and that was a lot of fun for a lot of reasons. I think it was one of the first times I ever visited Alvarado Park. I felt like I had never seen anything like that. And I don’t even think I realized as a child that Alvarado Park was right in my city. That clicked for me when I was older, and that was really impactful. I remember all the activities we did that day. We were doing stuff in the creek, sampling techniques and learning about all the invertebrates in the water, like the dragonfly nymphs and all the little critters and small fish. That was really cool because we were doing what scientists do. I feel like that experience was what guided me to choose to study botany in undergrad. It opened my eyes to what science looks like and how science helps us understand things about the world right in our backyard.

Answer: It was empowering and enlightening to have the opportunity to see what scientists do and what these tools are for exploring the world and learning about the world. My KftB program gave me an idea of what a naturalist is. We weren’t learning about places across the world, we were learning about our watershed and Wildcat Creek in Richmond and San Pablo. For me, it helped create a connection to the environment. In an urban setting, it’s really hard to have that type of connection as a kid. All the concrete isn’t really conducive to that type of relationship with nature. It takes effort and time and coordination to put kids into those spaces so they can see that they are part of the natural world that we live in. I think having that connection with the local ecosystem made me specifically want to work in Richmond. When I was in undergrad, I was always thinking about coming back to my community, and working in my local environment and getting to explore it more. For one of my botany classes, I did a project on Wildcat Canyon specifically and the plants there. It helped me form that intention of being in this ecosystem.

Views of the shade house and greenhouse at Verde Partnership Garden.

Answer: I am usually the first to get there. I get to spend a little time in the garden by myself. I usually use that as a time to check in with the space and see what are some things that need to be fixed immediately. A big part of my job is fixing things and keeping things maintained. I’m always looking for plants we haven’t watered in a while, the plants that maybe our irrigation system is missing, things that need to be pulled up, things that need to be put in, maybe there’s hazards we want to clear out before the kids get to the garden. Right now, we’re working on replacing our raised beds and shifting soil. For more intensive projects, I try to take advantage of the cool morning. 

Around that time, the kids start arriving at the garden. My co-workers engage directly with the kids, in terms of creating classes and activities. I might take some time to lead a group activity or I will watch out for student behavior, answer questions and help them with tasks. I try to take the opportunity to engage with them on a one-on-one level. My coworkers are pretty preoccupied with the whole class, whereas I am able to talk with the kids at a more personal level. Sometimes I’ll have them help me do the task I am doing. It’ll be random things, like for example, I’ll say, “Hey, do you want to learn about irrigation? Come help me set up the irrigation system, help me plant this thing, come help me weed,” those kinds of things. Then I’ll spend some time at the Urban Tilth office, before returning to the garden to wind down for the day.

Answer: I try to mostly engage the kids that are having the most trouble staying engaged in class. I feel like it helps them feel a greater responsibility for the garden. There were these girls who weren’t doing too much and looking for mischief, and I said, “Hey, wanna come help me?” and so that gave them something to do and also a sense of responsibility. They had that realization, like, “Oh, there are things we can do to take care of the garden.” Maybe they don’t want to be hand-watering, so it’s good for them to know there are other technologies and other tools. I feel like it helps them connect more with the space. 

Answer: I definitely love those quiet mornings. The garden is very rich ecologically and there’s just so many birds. There’s not many spaces like that in North Richmond, or in Richmond generally. Where there’s really old fruit trees and it’s right up against the creek. It’s a really unique habitat and I think that is reflected in all the different wildlife we see. There are so many birds that pass through, but also permanent residents I see throughout the year. They’re always singing in the mornings, that’s their time, and it’s always really nice. But I also particularly enjoy the time we spend with the younger kids. Everything’s a lot more new to them, and they’re a lot more receptive to ideas. They’re always a little bit more willing to be engaged. 

Answer: I went to study and I always wanted to bring that back to my community, but while I was studying, I also started thinking about academia–being in academia, being a researcher, being a professor, and stuff like that. After being in that space and seeing the beautiful and the negative things about academia, and also being in the non-profit and community organization space, I was getting different perspectives and I’ve been trying to figure out how to marry those things. I really believe science is a very powerful tool that we can use to accomplish so many good things, but it tends to get wrapped up or gate-kept by academia and corporate research. I would love to come back into an academic space. I would love to bring those resources and that energy back into my community. I want to make sure we’re addressing topics that are very important and impactful in my community. That’s always been something that’s been a guiding principle for me. I see myself working at Urban Tilth in some capacity for my career. It’s really the place for me.

Answer: It’s important, especially in urban settings, that kids are put into these natural environmental spaces. So they know it’s there, first of all, but also, as they learn about it, it becomes important to them, and that incentivizes them to want to protect it and learn more about it. I have been listening to the audiobook for Braiding Sweetgrass by Potawatomi Botanist and Author Robin Wall Kimmerer, and learning a lot of lessons from Indigenous teachers in a lot of the classes I’ve been in. One thing I’ve been learning is that we have to make plants and nature important to us. It has to be part of our lives for it to be cared for. 

I took a cohort class with Rowen White, who is an Indigenous seedkeeper and educator, and she shared this beautiful story about a specific breed of corn. I want to say the Navajo grow it, and it’s one specific breed of corn they grow for one ceremony. They need the pollen of the corn. The fact that it is required for them to have this for one ceremony–it’s part of a coming-of-age ceremony–ingrains it into their culture. And that ensures the survival of this breed of corn; they’re always going to have to be growing it, they’re always gonna need it, and that incentivizes them to maintain this biodiversity. I think that extends to the rest of the natural world. If nature and our watershed and our creeks and our trees become part of our lives to the point where we can’t live without them, then our survival is inherently intertwined with theirs. And the thing is, it already is like that, we already do depend on them for survival, we just don’t know about it yet. I think that’s where education comes in: helping kids realize that our lives are inherently interconnected with nature. I think the key is helping them realize it for themselves. You can only tell them so much, but a big part of it is moreso guiding them to figure it out for themselves.

Something that has stood out to me is just the level of patience you need to have for the students, and it’s not like, “I need to calm down,” it’s understanding that they are growing up in this world and we’re trying to help them see this different perspective to the world, and it takes a lot of energy to do that. Even for an educator as a person, it’s taken a lot of energy and a lot of time for us to get to where we are and to know the things we know and understand the things we understand. I think it’s important to understand that they’re still learning about these things and these things aren’t always gonna be super interesting to them, and that’s okay. At the end of the day, it’s really about giving them tools to figure it out for themselves. Guiding them to the answers, not necessarily telling them the answers. That’s something I’ve learned from interacting with the kids and watching them learn. It’s also helped me figure things out for myself when I’m thinking about my own youth and my own childhood. It’s been healing in that way. You have to let it be healing for you. You have to let yourself connect with the kids and understand them on a personal level.

If I could tell anybody one thing, it would be to just show up. I think so many important things happen even if you don’t have a plan, even if you’re not one-hundred percent engaged or excited about something, great things happen when people show up together. 

Learn more about Angel and Urban Tilth’s Verde Partnership Garden.

KIDS for the BAY