Bay Nature is delighted to announce the winners of its 2020 Local Hero Awards, which recognize four remarkable individuals who have made significant contributions to the conservation and understanding of – and connection to – the natural heritage of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Our winners have been selected from a highly competitive pool of dozens of worthy candidates. They will be celebrated at Bay Nature’s annual Local Hero Awards at the Berkeley City Club on March 22, 2020.
The winners are:
Sejal Choksi-Chugh, Executive Director, Baykeeper
Conservation Action Award
Sejal Choksi-Chugh is leading the fight to defend San Francisco Bay from its greatest threats. Under Sejal’s leadership, the San Francisco Bay watchdog group Baykeeper has achieved significant victories to hold Bay polluters accountable, winning over 100 lawsuits to stop corporate polluters from harming the Bay. Sejal’s direction has helped cut municipal sewage spills in the Bay by 75% and strengthened policies to clean up mercury levels in the Bay. She also stopped a Richmond-based bulk export terminal from spilling dirty materials like coal and petroleum coke into the Bay during storage and loading.
Growing up in an industrial suburb of Atlanta, Sejal was struck by the helplessness of her community in the face of daily environmental injustices. Nearby manufacturing plants polluted the air near her school and contaminated a creek in her neighborhood. These early experiences shaped her lifelong commitment to environmental health and legal activism.
A graduate of UC Berkeley’s School of Law with a certificate in Environmental Law, Sejal arrived at San Francisco Baykeeper through a competitive Equal Justice Works legal fellowship. There she helped win the nation’s first regulations to control farmland pesticide runoff into the Sacramento Delta. After her successful two-year fellowship, she became the organization’s program director in 2004.
Sejal and Baykeeper are now working at the core of three of the biggest issues in San Francisco Bay conservation this year: the legal challenge to prevent dirty coal exports from Oakland; the fight to stop oil refineries from doubling the number of tar sands tankers that cross the Bay; and the battle against the EPA’s attempt to exempt the Bay from the Clean Water Act and allow companies to sell off the South Bay salt marshes.
Known as a savvy negotiator as well as a creative fundraiser, Sejal is widely known and respected throughout the Bay conservation community. “She’s tough and diplomatic at the same time,” says Peter Molnar, Baykeeper’s board chair. “She can pivot from fighting to fixing the problem.” Fixing the Bay’s problems has been Sejal’s passion for over 17 years.
John Muir Laws, Naturalist/Artist
Environmental Educator Award
Artist, naturalist, and educator John Muir Laws, known by his students and friends as “Jack”, has inspired tens of thousands of people throughout the Bay Area and around the country to connect more deeply with local nature through the art and science of nature journaling. Bay Nature readers know him through his “Naturalist’s Notebook,” a beloved regular feature in Bay Nature.
Jack’s free monthly nature journaling workshops and YouTube drawing videos have attracted a legion of dedicated nature observers. Their popularity has inspired the first annual Nature Journaling Conference, held earlier this month in Pacific Grove. Along with well-known wildlife artists like Obi Kaufmann and Emily Underwood, the speaker line-up included one of Jack’s devoted students, the writer Amy Tan.
Widely known for his classic Sierra field guides and Laws Guides to nature and bird illustration, Jack has offered workshops, presentations, and field trips at schools throughout California, notably inspirational talks for learning-disabled students.
Attendees of his donation-based nature journaling workshops celebrate his extraordinary generosity, patience, and humor, commending him for lowering the barrier of entry to becoming an artist.
One student wrote: “Jack is truly committed to the idea that through nature journaling – and by being intentionally curious – people will love nature more, and by extension, become passionate about sharing this love with others.”
Jack holds degrees in conservation and resource studies from UC Berkeley; in wildlife biology from the University of Montana, Missoula; and in scientific illustration from UC Santa Cruz. He is a 2010 Audubon TogetherGreen Conservation Leadership Fellow and has received the Terwilliger Environmental Award for outstanding service in environmental education. You can learn more about Jack’s workshops at www.johnmuirlaws.com.
Vincent Medina, Ohlone Community Leader & Co-Founder, mak-‘amham
Community Hero Award
Vincent Medina is a member of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe and a leader of the movement to revive its language and culture. He is also co-founder of mak-‘amham, an organization that prepares traditional Ohlone cuisine using seasonal wild foods.
Through his work, Vincent highlights the critical and continued connection between the indigenous people of the greater Bay Area and our local environment. A 2004 graduate of Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, in the indigenous Ohlone area known as halkin, Vincent developed his personal mission through his close relationship with his family and his tribe, who nurtured in him a strong sense of identity.
“I grew up close to the same creeks where my ancestors fished salmon and steelhead,” he wrote in a 2018 article for Bay Nature. “My parents drove me up dusty roads to Sunol for tribal camp, and we spent time in the tule marshes at Coyote Hills. Being in these landscapes with older Indian people gave me an understanding of how deep and layered our story is here.”
At Berkeley City College, where he received an Associate’s Degree in Anthropology, Vincent was active in the Indigenous Student Alliance. He is now a board member of Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival as well as the host of KPFA’s radio show Bay Native Circle. He has helped produce videos with the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center to educate the public about mission history, acorn traditions, and stewardship, and he currently works with tribal youth ambassadors on food sovereignty.
“I have known Vincent for more than a decade,” said Nicole Lim, who nominated him for the award. “As a young adult, he had a passion for social justice and cultural revitalization. He has taken that passion and worked to revitalize the language, educate the public about Native American issues, and work as an advocate for Bay Area tribal communities. [With] his commitment and positive outlook … Vincent has proven to be an important leader and inspiration for our tribal youth.”
Read more about Vincent’s work and the first cafe dedicated to Ohlone cuisine, which he co-founded in Berkeley.
Avalon Qian, Course Director, GirlVentures
Young Leader Award
Twenty-four year-old Avalon Qian is a passionate advocate for ensuring that young people from all communities learn to enjoy and protect nature. Born in China and raised in the Bay Area, Avalon participated in her first GirlVentures rock-climbing course when she was just 12. She continued taking courses from the Oakland-based outdoor education nonprofit through her teen years, returning as an assistant instructor after high school and a full-time instructor during college.
A 2018 graduate of Bard College with a BA in Anthropology, Avalon rejoined GirlVentures as the program coordinator for its Girls Climb On San Francisco program, and is now a course director for one of its summer wilderness programs for girls.
“Avalon combines depth of skill in backpacking, rock climbing, and other outdoor sports with a humility and humor that puts young people at ease, and her passion for nature inspires other girls and young women to protect and advocate for the natural world,” said Emily Teitsworth, GirlVentures’ Executive Director.
“In an industry that has historically been predominantly white, male, and affluent, Avalon represents the next generation of outdoor and environmental justice leaders, who are helping build new models of inclusive leadership in the outdoor industry.”
To arrange interviews with our 2020 Local Heroes, please contact Bay Nature Marketing & Outreach Director Beth Slatkin at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 510-528-8550 x107.
You’re invited to join us in honoring our Local Heroes on March 22, 2020 at the Berkeley City Club. The evening will include a reception, dinner, live and silent auctions, and an awards presentation.