The 2023 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 2023 award winners:
Stu Weiss, Conservation Action Award
In first grade, Blanca Hernández showed up in her classroom in Ninthi, Mexico, with her neighborhood dogs in tow. Her teacher took one look at the dogs and told her, “You can’t bring your dogs to class.” Hernández responded, “Well, then I don’t know if I can be here.”
Even in first grade, Hernández knew the sort of world she did want to live in. “I always had this little imaginary notebook,” Hernández says. “I was like, ‘When I’m a leader, I’m going to do things differently.’” Hernández immigrated to the United States at age nine, moving from her family’s farm to San Diego.
Her experiences attending public school in California—enduring systemic prejudice and racism—informed her journey, and she kept her imaginary list going, planting seeds for a brighter future, one that would nurture and encourage young people of color like her to grow.
Today, in the East Bay’s Richmond, Hernández can still be found with dogs by her side. Her love of animals and nature has remained constant, as has her passion for creating a more equitable, inclusive world. She does this through her position as director of programs and partnerships at YES Nature to Neighborhoods, a nonprofit that provides Richmond-based youth, young adults, and families with opportunities to be outdoors. On top of designing and implementing programs, Hernández is sometimes the person transporting equipment, and other times she is an activity leader.
In partnership with environmental organizations like the East Bay Regional Park District and others, YES offers chances to participate in coastal cleanups at Point Reyes, whitewater rafting on the American River, visits to Samuel P. Taylor State Park, and much more. “I think of people that live in apartment buildings on the second floor, who have never had experiences like my upbringing—where they got to really connect with nature,” says Hernández. “Those are the people that I want in the program.”
Hernández is also involved in TOGETHER Bay Area, the Association for Environmental & Outdoor Education, ChangeScale, and other organizations. “What if we were all leaders?” Hernández says. “Because we all have it. It’s in us. It’s a matter of nurturing it, and polishing it, and putting it out in the world.”
“We learn that so many of our ancestors, regardless of culture, based many of their practices on observing the natural world, and that throughout history some of us have been forcibly removed from this connection,” Hernández wrote in an email. “Our work is about reclaiming that connection to the earth and embracing the power of nature to heal, inspire awe, and develop empowered and compassionate leaders.” —Lia Keener
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