We first encountered Cheyanna Washburn in her role as an intern with the California Phenology Project at the John Muir National Historic Site in her hometown of Martinez. Now a student at Diablo Valley College in botany and recreational therapy, Cheyanna found her path into the natural world at the alternative New Leaf Leadership Academy, where she participated in many restoration and environmental education projects. Today, Cheyanna continues on that path as the Youth Programs Assistant at the Historic Site, where she develops programs for youth to learn about their environment and the legacy of John Muir. Washburn is the winner of Bay Nature’s 2014 Youth Engagement Award.
JC: Where did you grow up?
CW: I was born in Antioch but we moved to Martinez when I was about seven.
JC: How did you get interested in the outdoors?
CW: I’ve always had a curiosity for nature. When I was younger I always wanted to go outside and play in mud and dirt — my mom tells me that a lot. I didn’t really grow up having much of a backyard — my mom was a single parent who was mostly trying to get the bills paid and we lived in apartment complexes. But my grandpa believed in camping, so I have memories of camping with him on Angel Island and at Lake Berryessa.
Also, because I’m 25 percent Cherokee, my mother and I would go to gatherings where there were drum circles and I made moccasins and learned about the Cherokee. That really helped expose me to my more natural side.
JC: Tell me about your high school experience.
CW: I went to the Environmental Studies Academy, which is now called New Leaf Leadership Academy. It’s an alternative program within the Martinez Unified School District that emphasizes hands-on, experience-based learning. I jumped right into restoration projects and other things that were hands-on and I wound up doing almost every single project. We did ecological peer mentoring projects to help bring ecological awareness to youth at local elementary schools; we did wildlife monitoring with professional biologists; and we did six mural projects about John Muir, which is really pretty cool, because he lived in Martinez. The summer after my freshman year I was a conservation corps leader at John Muir’s house in Martinez.
JC: Did New Leaf make it easy for you to be so active?
CW: They asked me if there was anything that I was interested in and pretty much put it on a silver platter for me. That was the first time that had ever happened to me. I was at Alhambra High School for my first semester and I was definitely a struggling student. I had some bad habits and I personally didn’t see myself graduating. But as soon as I got to New Leaf, I hit the ground running and I graduated with over a year’s worth of extra credit.
New Leaf provided opportunities that were perfect for my learning style. I have add — not very intense, but it’s really hard for me to focus on one thing for a long period of time without being physically engaged with it. Before that, I didn’t know I was a hands-on learner who needed to write everything down and hear it as well; I just thought I couldn’t learn. I’ll tell you something really embarrassing, but I’m also really proud of it: between junior high and the end of freshman year at New Leaf, I went from a 0.5 average to a 4.0.
JC: When did you decide on doing environmental work as a career?
CW: In my senior year , I was selected by the Children’s Nature Network as one of four teen representatives to Disney’s Nature & Kids Celebration.
They flew us down to Disney World in Florida along with other youth from around the world. There were three days of speakers and seminars about conservation. It was great. Having the opportunity to go to these events about youth development, and engaging the leader inside of us, and having speakers who had amazing experiences — I actually cried in the middle it, it was so inspiring. I thought to myself, “I’m here because I’m one of these people who changed something in the world.” After that I made myself own it, in a sense. I realized maybe this isn’t just about high school; this is my career.
JC: What were your favorite natural places around where you grew up?
CW: The places where I went camping with my grandpa, like Angel Island. But in my mind the place I always thought about was Yosemite. But I never thought I’d get to go there until I was old and retired and could afford the trip there.
And now I’ve been there! I was chosen for an internship at the park last summer. It was amazing going from “I’ll never go there until I’m old” to working there for three months.
JC: You’ve been involved with the Phenology Project for several years now. What is it?
CW: The California Phenology Project is a way to get the youth and other community members involved in observing changes in their local environment through observation of seasonal changes in selected plants. I got involved as an intern at the John Muir National Historic Site in 2011, when I was 17. Now I’m able to look at plants and say, “Oh, that is that type of plant,” or “Oh look, it’s budding right now.” It’s almost like it’s normalized in my brain. It used to be so hard, but now I have a story behind each plant. Also, just seeing the physical evidence of climate change makes me step back and look at my own life.
JC: What do you find most exciting about your new job?
CW: As a Youth Programs Assistant at the John Muir Historic Site, I connect high school students to restoration events and volunteer opportunities. I do training for phenology, so I get kids connected to climate change and how that relates to them. I’m now the kind of person who I got help from when I was in high school. I’m still feeling my way, but its kind of everything I’ve ever wanted.
JC: Is part of your work motivating your peers to be interested in environmental issues?
CW: Definitely, yes, like these experiences taking youth out on hikes and letting them know about things to look at that they wouldn’t have noticed before. As soon as they get a chance to do it, it just clicks. The new interns I’m working with right now are so excited. They’re like, “I get to learn the plants and know which are the bad or good ones? And I get to wear a uniform and answer questions?” They just never realized they could do anything like that before.
JC: What are your goals for the next few years?
CW: I’m hoping to apply for another internship in Yosemite, but in more of a lead position where you manage students in the internship. That position is more focused on education, ecological awareness, and public speaking, which are things I definitely want to work on. I want to push beyond my own limits and gain more experience — but also still be a part-time student.
JC: What’s your long-term career goal?
CW: To become a superintendent at a national park, hopefully somewhere amazing and beautiful. I wouldn’t mind Yosemite! I know it’s going to happen. I’ve actually had dreams about it lately.