Bay Nature magazineSpring 2024

Bay Nature Local Heroes

Local Heroes 2024: Yakuta Poonawalla, Community Hero

March 21, 2024
(Illustration by Violeta Encarnación)

Yakuta Poonawalla first hiked in the Himalayas at age 15.

“My mother was one of the first people in my life who, when I came back from my treks in the Himalayas, she would say ‘નૂર, તમારા ચહેરા પર નૂર છે,’ a Gujarati phrase for ‘there’s this Noor, or glow, on your face,’” Yakuta says. “​​I want to see that in every person I interact with—every single human being. That’s what inspires me.”

As associate director of community stewardship and engagement for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Yakuta brings this glow and nature to others. Her path has come full circle, from a journey that was far from linear. 

Yakuta grew up in a Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslim community in Pune, a city in western India. Around the age she first hiked in the Indian Himalayas, she began questioning the patriarchal institutions and inequities in her community and beyond. 

The 2024 Bay Nature Local Hero Awards

Every year, the Bay Nature board chooses four community-nominated leaders who are changing Bay Area nature and communities for the better. “These are folks who speak with their actions and choices over days, years, and decades and motivate us all to do the same,” writes our editor in chief, Victoria Schlesinger. Here are profiles of the 2024 award winners:

Katharyn Boyer, Environmental Educator Award

Naji Lockett, Young Leader Award

Kellyx Nelson, Conservation Action Award

Independent and inspired by the environment, she went from leading youth trips through the forests of India to attending graduate school to moving to San Francisco in 2010 and working for the Sierra Club, then joined GGNPC a decade ago. 

At least twice a week, she and her team of 12 invite local Bay Area communities to experience nature in the parks—often for the first time. The team facilitates events such as health and wellness walks at the Presidio, wildflower walks at Mori Point, birding outings at Hawk Hill and Rodeo Lagoon, and partnerships with local public libraries.

Other programming connects themes in nature with international holidays such as Holi and Diwali, Hindu celebrations of color and light; Día de Los Muertos, the day to honor the dead in Mexico; and Eid, an Islamic festival marking the end of a period of fasting and prayer. Yakuta encourages people to celebrate the multicultural landscape of the Bay Area and to see themselves—and their cultures and customs—in nature as they plant native species, tend parklands, and learn about local wildlife.

Yakuta also promotes access to the outdoors through resources like GGNPC’s Roving Ranger and facilitates discussions about questions like “what kind of ancestor do I want to be?” She serves on the board of TOGETHER Bay Area and is a member of the California Landscape Stewardship Network’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Roundtable, among other organizations. 

By connecting Bay Area communities with each other and the outdoors, “we’re creating Noor in nature,” Yakuta says. “I can sense it now when there’s a grandmother from the Tenderloin, from the Arab Muslim community, who’s lost her home … but then she comes here and finds a connection with the Rose Garden, for example, because she had a rose garden in her community.”

“Programs in the park allow us to see ourselves not as alone, not as individuals, but as part of a collective,” Yakuta says. “And that in itself is so powerful.” 

About the Author

Lia Keener is Bay Nature's outreach fellow. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a major in environmental biology and minors in journalism and Chinese language.