If you told the teenage Anthony Khalil that someday he would be a mentor, educator, and leader in the fight for environmental justice, he may not have believed it. Back then he just loved to be outside. For the young Egyptian and Filipino growing up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the woods were an escape from the racism and oppression he encountered as a teenager.
Just 20 years later, Khalil has built a career around that same notion of escaping into nature, this time for the residents of San Francisco’s Southeast neighborhoods. As community engagement director for Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ), a nonprofit in San Francisco’s Bayview–Hunters Point, he works with everyone from local schools and nonprofits to funders, elected officials, and government partners, all in service of increasing equitable access to public lands.
LEJ Executive Director Patrick Rump cites Khalil’s unwavering passion and ability to build trust as vital to the organization’s progress. “He brings that passion every day. Very rarely do you see him defeated or dejected. There’s this burning fire in him to do his work. Most people have off days, but there really is no off day with Anthony,” he says.
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The son of first-generation immigrants, Khalil says his happiest memories include hikes in the woods with friends. The redwoods were a grounding force, especially during the difficult teenage years. When he moved to San Francisco, he saw that some communities lacked the urban parks and green spaces he’d found so comforting. He felt something needed to change. “If peace is found on common ground, equity is found on public lands,” he says.
After training as a wetlands ecologist at San Francisco State University, Khalil joined LEJ in 2004 to help provide outdoor access and education for youth and communities of color.
During his LEJ tenure, Khalil has restored wetlands, planted native plants, and built an ecology center at Heron’s Head Park, creating a hub for environmental and cultural education in Bayview–Hunters Point. Recently he helped open San Francisco’s newest campground, at Candlestick Point State Recreation Area.
Khalil believes it’s his ability to be a translator and to connect with people across age, race, and socioeconomic status that lets him have the greatest impact.
“Anthony is so generous with his spirit and time. He’s so humble. He’s the guy introducing the people. He’s the guy giving everyone else the microphone,” says Rebecca Johnson, who has worked with Khalil in her role as co-leader of California Academy of Sciences’ citizen science programs. She recalls a recent community gathering when he seemed to have a personal connection with every person in the room.
“He really believes that we all have expertise to share,” she says. “He has a beautiful way of building community and getting people to share about themselves while thinking about their connection to the natural world.”
Khalil’s connection to nature serves as a sort of North Star, keeping him on track as he navigates what can be a complex challenge at times. In his tenure, he estimates, he’s planted more than 10,000 natives with the help of community volunteers. “It all boils down to putting your hands on the land and remembering how we’re all connected,” he says. υ