Faces of Rivers: Gabriela Suarez and Sara Gurdian, The Watershed Project

Faces of Rivers is an ongoing profile series from American Rivers

On a cold morning in Richmond, CA, The Watershed Project team pulls up to a local neighborhood home with a truckload of trees. It’s a community volunteer day: one of the many efforts that build green infrastructure within the community, in this case working to increase the urban canopy.

As fellow team members begin setting the stage for planting, Gabriela and Sara, who are both 21, speak to the homeowner in Spanish. The homeowner is someone they helped find through their own networks, and, as they recall, were quick to bring on board because of how easily they could relate to her. They explain the “why” behind the project, and how the homeowner can best take care of the tree moving forward. Soon, some more local volunteers — brought on through Sara and Gabriela — show up to help finish the planting, and the crew moves on to the next home.

The Watershed Project is a non-profit located in Richmond with the mission to protect local Bay Area watersheds and improve the overall health of local ecosystems as they relate to the urban environment. Through the help of student groups, volunteer days, and the dedication of core staff, the organization aims to build resilient ecosystems and an informed community. Some of their usual projects include bioswales, creek stewardship, cleanup days, and citizen monitoring that check for the healthiness of a creek.

Gabriela and Sara are currently both students at Contra Costa Community College, the nearby school in Richmond. Each of them work with The Watershed Project part-time. Gabriela just finished her first full year with them, and Sara is now going through her third year, with a recent promotion to Community Outreach Coordinator. Although their paths to The Watershed Project and environmental work differ, their reasons today are similar.

Gabriela began with The Watershed Project in high school, on a volunteer trip to monitor Olympia oysters. For Gabriela, environmental and social awareness started as early as kindergarten. She credits her interest in environmental work today to her early exposure to environmentalism and curriculum that centered the natural world.

Sara, meanwhile, began as a high school intern through the Green Collar Program. Although she didn’t have specific curriculum relating to the environment growing up, her passion for the work at The Watershed Project picked up quickly. For both Sara and Gabriela, the work around water and healthy ecosystems translates directly into the health of the people in their own communities, and how the different issues intersect with one another.

Indeed, their success at TWP and in their communities today is a testament to both their efficacy as community activists, and to the importance of representative leadership, or impacted leadership: the philosophy that those from the community should lead any initiative that seeks to solve issues of that community.

In the few days that I spent with the duo and the rest of the team, their impact in the community was clear: from being able to personally relate with the volunteers through Spanish and sheer cultural familiarity, to knowing the area that they live in beyond the science; they know their community as locals.

“If you can’t talk with someone, how can you expect to exchange information and get across to them and connect?” Gabriela posed in our walk near Rheem Creek. For an organization whose work is so community-facing, having community representation isn’t just a bonus, it’s a necessity. It’s become a driving force for the two students.

“When we go out to the community, we know what they are going through. When it comes to community organizing, people want to be represented,” Gabriela says.

“If you can’t talk with someone, how can you expect to exchange information and get across to them and connect?” — Gabriela

“We can relate,” Sara adds on. “We think of nature as nature — but there’s also land use, housing, and food; and using those lenses to analyze every part of your life is impactful”.

The City of Richmond is very community driven. However, it requires that organizations, particularly those that don’t reflect the community, to give positions of leadership to community members. Even more so youth like Gabriela and Sara. Community representation means that staff can not only do the work of creek restoration and science-based work, they can also effectively engage and bring in local folks as well.

After college, Gabriela hopes to work in environmental science, or something that requires long-term monitoring. As for Sara, she hopes that she’ll be able to either work in the environmental justice movement or bring this awareness to places that don’t have it quite yet. Ultimately, the work for each of them is as much about restoring the environment as it is healing their community.

The Watershed Project, American Rivers, the City of Richmond, and Restoration Design Group are working together on a project to restore ecological function to the Rheem Creek watershed while reducing the risk of flooding to nearby residents. The Watershed Project is ensuring that community members are involved at every phase of the project through interviews, workdays, and design charrettes.

For more information on the project visit: http://thewatershedproject.org/rheemcreek/

Story by Michael A. Estrada (www.brownenvironmentalist.org). This is part of American Rivers’ series Faces of Rivers — stories of the people transforming how we live alongside rivers.

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