Episode 166: Blooming in a Green Career

Interview with Laura Navar

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Laura Navar, Outreach Manager at National Parks Conservation Association, considers herself to be a bit of a late bloomer in the conservation nonprofit world. She didn’t know that the environmental field would be of interest to her because conservation wasn’t something that was talked about growing up. And yet, as you’ll hear, it’s always been embedded in her Latinx family culture.

In this episode, Laura will share her unique path to a green career and claiming the title of an environmentalist.

Full transcript available after the photos and resources.

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Featured in this episode: Laura Navar

Hosted by Gale Straub

Ad music in this episode is by Josh Woodward & Swelling using a Creative Commons attribution license.

Music is also by Hey Lunar & Eric Kinny via Music Bed.

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Laura Navar

Laura in Oaxaca at San Sebastain de las Grutas
Laura at Artist’s Palette at Death Valley National Park
At the Botanical Gardens in Tijuana, Mexico
NPCA’s Modern Mather Mountain Party (Laura in blue)

 

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TRANSCRIPT

Note: This transcript was lightly edited and created using a transcription service. As such it may contain spelling errors.

Gale Straub – Narration:

I’m Gale Straub and you’re listening to She Explores.

Laura Navar:

For some communities, including myself, I was like, environmentalist, like what is that, it ends on ism? Is it good? Do I have to dress a certain way? Do I have to like, visit a certain place? Like what qualifies me as that? And now I’m like, yeah, I’m an environmentalist. And I’m proud of what I do. And even if I wasn’t doing everything that I’m doing now, I would still be an environmentalist.

Gale Straub – Narration:

This is Laura Navar. Today, Laura works in conservation – she’s an outreach manager at National Parks Conservation Association, or NPCA. Laura is passionate about creating advocates for the environment, and for pubic land. She’s also a community organizer in her hometown of Los Angeles, as well as a former volunteer with Latino Outdoors. I first got to connect with Laura and get a sense of the real impact of her work when She Explores sent Amanda Machado to report on the NPCA Empower-her campout for women. Laura thrives out in nature, connecting people with each other and the outdoors. As far as her career in the conservation nonprofit world, Laura considers herself to be a bit of a late bloomer. She didn’t know that the environmental field would be of interest to her because conservation wasn’t something that was talked about growing up. And yet, as we’ll hear, it’s always been embedded in her family culture.

Gale Straub – Narration:

In this episode, Laura will share her unique path to a green career, into claiming the title of environmentalist. My hope is that if a green career is interesting to you, that Laura’s story will inspire you to carve out your own path. Because now just as we always have, we need environmentalists.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Laura’s mom and family grew up in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Laura Navar:

They grew up in a place where there wasn’t electricity yet. So they were just so much more aware of like the energy it took to sustain a person and so much more conscious of making sure that they were stretching everything out that I was being reused. And they were also poor. So, you know, those practices of using Tupperwares and upcycling clothing and passing on anything from like furniture to dishes, to other people in your family, that was just like a common practice.

Gale Straub – Narration:

These practices came with Laura’s family to America, too. From what Laura told me, practicing sustainability is pretty common in Latinx communities, it just didn’t have a name:

Laura Navar:

I feel like for a long time, there were even just jokes in the Latino community. Kind of like, you know, is there really going to be cookie then that jar? Like everybody knows that there’s a jar, that’s this cookie jar, but really has like your sewing kit or you go into the fridge and you’re like, Oh cool. It’s like butter or whip or something else. And chances are, it’s not going to be what you think it is. And I remember just one, like thing I memorized is like, which jar of butter that had butter. It just always sat in the same shelf in the same place. So I just kind of memorized that’s the butter, everything else is not butter. So if I open it, who knows what it’s going to be. And I just think, you know, with people I’m an only child, but I did grow up with a lot of my cousins, clothes were passed on. And a lot of times, you know, kids clothing back then was a lot more gender neutral. So I wore cousins tee shirts that were boys, or that were girls. It was just like a different mentality to see how you can make something common, but a little bit more beautiful, whether it was because people learn to sew and they added like their own patterns or just because it was a way to engage with having dignity and having pride in the little that we have.

Gale Straub:

It’s interesting that, you know, of course he wouldn’t see that as sustainability or something that you’re doing for the environment. That’s just every day, life is just built into how you’re living.

Laura Navar:

Yeah. And then, you know, I think I started, I became more aware of it later when my, you know, younger, but I started working and I started having a little bit of my own money and my mom would be like, you don’t need that. Like, why didn’t you buy that? And I still see that pattern, you know, and if she lived here, she would probably think I consume way too much, which is true. Um, but she would say like, you know, like, why did you, like if there was something for the kitchen, why didn’t you buy that? You don’t need that specific home appliance or drink it. Like you can do that with this.

Laura Navar:

And if I would be like, Oh, it’s to make it easier. She would be like, really, really, it was that hard to like remove a pit or like it was that hard to like peel this different, different shaped through, like, you don’t really need that.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Now that Laura’s an adult, she’s taken on some of her mom’s sustainable habits too – saving yogurt containers to store leftovers in the refrigerator and buying and refurbishing secondhand furniture are just two examples.

Laura Navar:

I feel like I have definitely found ways now that I understand to kind of align those values and those practices that I grew up with, but in the slightly, maybe more modern way.

Gale Straub – Narration:

A low waste lifestyle came second nature to Laura, but she never thought about working in conservation or at a nonprofit in high school. Laura fell in love with Spanish and Latin American literature growing up.

Laura Navar:

I enjoyed books because it was a way to like transport to different worlds and to have like these different adventures in my imagination. But there were not that many books that I felt like that’s something that I relate to. That’s something I can connect with until I started having teachers who went out of their way to provide that for us. And I did have a couple, but when they got to my Spanish class, I just, I was devouring all that reading. And part of it was because there were just such different genres, like realismo magico, magical realism, that I had not really been exposed to. And there were writings that were really old. They were talking about capitalism and they were talking about nature and they were challenging the role of women, like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. And she was a Mexican nun. And I think, you know, one of the first feminist of Latin America, so I was really excited and that’s what I thought I was going to go to college for, to become a high school Spanish literature teacher, and really kind of bring the historical and the cultural context and just expand my students’ perspective and imagination and empower them in that way the way I felt Spanish literature did for me.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Laura’s plan was to become a Spanish literature teacher, but a misunderstanding got in the way.

Laura Navar:

Um, unfortunately I was misinformed, but I think it might’ve been like the best mistake that happened to me, which is I was signing up for grad school for the teaching credential program at Cal state LA. And when I went to turn in my paperwork and, you know, make my first payment on tuition, I was told that because I was undocumented, I could not obtain the teaching credential because that was state issued. I was just like so shocked. And they, you know, usually I questioned things or I, I think about like, well, how can I ask about this? It’s it’s true. I didn’t even consider that the person that told me just didn’t have updated information and that wasn’t, that she did it on purpose.

Laura Navar:

You know, that’s what she honestly thought. And it’s really hard to know because when it comes to immigration, unless you’re like a lawyer, there are so many different opinions and things are changing all the time. You know, things that were possible five years ago, change now, or you might think like, well, I know someone who was able to get their papers this way or that way. And then you realize it was a very specific situation, which allowed them to do that. So I just, that moment kind of had a little bit of a breakdown because I was like, well, that was my plan to get a teaching credential, to buy myself more time, to figure out what I was going to do with my life. One of the thoughts I had at that point was to go back to Mexico or to go to another country because having a college degree and being undocumented still doesn’t allow you to work here. And I ended up getting a master’s in Latin American studies, which was amazing, but also very difficult because I kept on reading about all these great places and all this history. That was my history, but I couldn’t leave the country or I could leave, but I wouldn’t be able to come back.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Laura talks about this time in her life with grace and acceptance, but it’s worth thinking about all the things that can get in the way of our education, our career paths, our dreams. When citizenship isn’t a given, it makes taking that next step that much more complicated. Laura was able to start legalizing her status towards the end of grad school. Throughout that time, Laura worked as a nanny to pay her way and minimize the number of student loans she needed to take on.

Laura Navar:

That was also a very eye opening experience. When I went to college, I went to a private liberal arts college. So I, I was aware that people grew up with a very different experience from my own. Just the amount of resources they had kind of was mind boggling, but it was different to know that like my roommate had a lot of support and a lot of resources and how different it had been to apply to college for her. The men had been for me, but then when I was a nanny, I was taking care of babies that were kind of like my past roommates or my past classmates. And it made me more convinced that more of us need access to so much more and that we need to really work for our communities.

Gale Straub – Narration:

After grad school, Laura worked at an organization called “Alliance for Better community” doing educational organizing, working with parents so that they could be better advocates for their own kids. We’re not quite there yet in Laura’s story though. Nannying taught her other lessons:

Laura Navar:

I love playing with the kids. Sometimes I joke around that. I, I miss just going to the park every day and taking the kids to play and chase the squirrels. And I did really enjoy that job, but I also know it was a very different experience for me than it was for my mom. She was the housekeeper and she was a nanny to sustain me and her experiences to the way they treated her to the amount of the pay they offered her was vastly different from the amount of pay they offered me and the way I was treated. And she, I think as a person who really taught me to negotiate, and she would say like, no, like you have to demand more. You have to ask for this. You know, I think that one of my jobs, they asked him to speak in Spanish to the kids.

Laura Navar:

And she said, well, are they going to pay you more? And I was like, well, no. And she was like, well, you’re teaching them a foreign language. So they should, I was like, well, do they pay you more? And she was like, well, if she’s like, I don’t, I don’t have the same ability as I don’t have the same privileges you do. So you need to speak up for yourself and you need to make sure that they are valuing you, the weight, you need to make sure they are valuing you the way you deserve to be valued. Does that ever feel like a lot to kind of do that for you and you know, in certain ways for your mom? Uh, it did. And it didn’t of course in the, at the time I was like, Oh, like, this is stressful. But then I compare it to how much my mom has gone through and what she’s done. And it’s nothing. It really isn’t. So while it is, even though it’s emotional, because I saw so much more value with her, then I think sometimes she even recognizes in herself and they, I, I see that pattern with a lot of us how we do this because we value our families and we love our friends. And it’s easier for us to recognize like how amazing other women and other people are, but we really need to work harder on recognizing and really living that value for ourselves.

Gale Straub:

Have you ever told your mom that? Or I don’t know if that’s something that’s hard to say.

Laura Navar:

Yeah. I told her because I told her seriously and also kind of playing around, because she’s always like, Oh, I don’t understand how you just like jump into these unknowns. Uh, because when I went to college, I left the state, I went to Iowa and she was like, we don’t have any family there. Like, you don’t have a car. You don’t know how to drive. Like, you’re just going on your own to this place in the middle of nowhere without a safety network. And she was like, that’s a little crazy. Then when I, you know, decided to make my career change, she was like, Oh, but you know, you already built your network and education and you’re doing well, you’re going to have to start over.

Laura Navar:

And I was like, yeah, but I’m going to be so much happier. I’m just going to jump into it. Um, so there’s been a couple of things where she has said that, but then I tell her, well, where do you think I get it from? Like, but where do you think I learned all of these things? Like the way that you think have brave and the way that you are proud of my independence, whether you were conscious of it or not. That’s what I grew up seeing. My mom is a single mother. She went to school for about a year and a half, um, because of the time. And then the context that she grew up, it wasn’t worth educating women. All they were going to do was get married. So why, why waste your time? And there are times in school when they can be at home helping you in the garden or cooking or cleaning or raising the rest of the family.

Laura Navar:

So she, despite the fact that she never drove a day in her life, that she wasn’t documented that she didn’t have the ability to fully read or write in Spanish much less than English. If she was still a person who left her country, who flew across the country, we lived in Georgia for a while with no family, no knowledge of what she was getting into. And she still managed to hold onto jobs to find jobs and to negotiate her pay and to teach me how to negotiate my pay into for a person of her age and her background. Like really not care if people said things about her, or if people criticized, because she was confident in that she was doing the right thing for herself.

Gale Straub:

I love that. You’re like, you can’t see how I’m able to do this. How are we able to make these changes? How are we able to take a chance that is hopefully going to pay off in the positive for me? Like, I love that you can attribute that back to her.

Laura Navar:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean a lot of things.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Thanks in part to her mom, Laura is not afraid to advocate for herself and pursue meaningful work. After the break, we’ll learn how she made a big career pivot from educational organizing to conservation.

 

MIDROLL AD BREAK

Laura Navar:

When I was younger, it was grilled into me that I had to go to college. And I think it has to do with, you know, my mom having such limited opportunity to get an education and just the realities of the hard life she had. My mom doesn’t have any hobbies. She didn’t have any time.

Laura Navar:

She was always working. So I think she kind of told me I had to go to college. Everyone in my family said, I have to go to college. That was non negotiable. And the goal was so that I could have an office job or a better job. A lot of my family members are either seamstresses or nannies or house cleaners, janitors, restaurant workers. And they just wanted to make sure that we had something better. So I think I knew that, but there wasn’t really a thought of much beyond that. Even once I, you know, got my master’s degree, got my job. I was like, Oh, this is weird. Like, I kind of accomplished everything I was told to do. And now there’s like a lot more time with my life. And it was very liberating in a way to really start thinking about both having that pride, that I honored my family by doing what I did, but also having this new freedom to like shape the rest of it.

Gale Straub – Narration:

We’re back. Laura was in her late 20’s when she started looking inward and thinking about what she wanted her career and life to look like. She knew she wanted a change from working in the education field, but she also didn’t want to pursue another degree.

Laura Navar:

So what I did instead is I took the community based permaculture class and I took like a community based seed saving class. And then that way I was able to get like some community knowledge about plants, which in all honesty, they’re experts in their own. Right. And then after that, I was able to build a network. So I started to meet people who were already working in these green careers.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Looking back, relationship building was integral for Laura in shifting her career. It’s one of the reasons she later started the LA Young Leaders Council, which connects people to the outdoors that have historically been underrepresented in the outdoor recreation and conservation spaces. It was through networking in her community classes that Laura got her first job at the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, where she stayed for a year and a half and helped manage community gardens.

Laura Navar:

I managed eight community gardens throughout LA County. LA County is really, really big by the way…

Gale Straub:

So you drove all around?

Laura Navar:

It’s an incredible amount of driving. Yes, I, for those in the LA area, I had a garden in Wilmington, Pasadina, East LA, Lancaster. Lancaster is part of LA County and there were some very long, horrible days where I spent close to six hours in my car trying to get from one garden to another.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Around this time, Laura also got involved with Latino outdoors by leading and supporting outings by working with the land trust. She started thinking about land ownership altogether. She started to get some clarity around what she wanted in a green career.

Laura Navar:

When I started really thinking about how a challenge I kept on seeing was landownership where the landlord or the neighbor or someone, and they didn’t want that plot to be turned into a community garden, even though the community really, really could benefit and needed this green space. So I started thinking to myself for my next job, I need to look at an organization that is working on policy. I’m not going to do it because I don’t really like policy, but it is important. And I want to help that work in my own way and an organization that maybe has a little bit of a wider reach. So over time, the impact could be greater. And I just kinda thought that put that in the back of my head was, you know, going on with my life when I had different friends, send me the NPCA description.

Gale Straub – Narration:

As I mentioned at the start of the episode, NPCA stands for national parks, conservation association, a nonpartisan membership organization, devoted exclusively to advocacy on behalf of the U S national parks system. The role was as a field representative.

Laura Navar:

It was a little bit like an organizer in that you’re helping connect community with policies that are going to impact them, but it doesn’t really go so far as base building. Um, which has a little bit more of what I did in my previous jobs. And I think that’s partially because MPCA started as a very small organization. And then the primarily policy organization that was based in DC headquarters continues to be in DC, but it really wasn’t until the 1990s that they started opening up field offices, recognizing that for long lasting impact, you can’t just be in one city and you can’t just look at policy.

Gale Straub – Narration:

It was a perfect role for Laura connecting the community with policy and advocating for public lands. She’d also been organizing for years, which came in handy at her new job.

Laura Navar:

One of my first like events at NPCA with, to organize a family bike ride from Pasadena city hall to the Audubon center at death’s park to promote the rim of the Valley, which is our local campaign. And we had about 70 participants show up for the bike ride and there was families and it was people with their kids, people with a little dog in the basket. And it was a lot of fun. And that is something that I brought in from my life and for myself before being paid to organize a couple of friends and I would organize a bike rides. And three years we organized roughly a 50 mile bike ride to fundraise, to create scholarships for undocumented students.

Laura Navar:

So I was like, Oh, I get to bring my organizing my bike riding. I know how much fun they are. And now I feel like they’re still things that I’m growing, growing in in terms of policy, in terms of how I want to further shape my work. But there is creativity in the type of projects that I do. The last trip I was able to do before COVID was to go to death Valley national park with a group of veterans to do a service project.

Gale Straub – Narration:

These service trips are opportunities for people to connect with public lands so there’ll be more likely to want to protect them.

Laura Navar:

Service trips. We did were sites where we could drive to spend a couple of hours there., we had a couple of unplanned hours to drive to different parts of the park and we made it optional. Like, you know, if you needed to go get some breaths and just hang out or chill, then you know, one car would drive back to our campsite and people would chill. And if you were like, yeah, I already walked six smiles, but I’m ready for like two more. Then we would go explore different parts of a park. And that was amazing. Cause we got to go to different sites and we waited until it got really dark at night, had to have a little bit of coffee to stay up. And a few of us, went to Badwater and just kind of sat there and there was no one else there.

Laura Navar:

So we had the entire area to ourselves just to like lie down and look at the stars. And I think that’s also on the long drives. It’s where I really get to know the participants. And you know, ultimately I do want to have more people being advocates. Ultimately I do want more people to go to DC to go to Sacramento, to shop for public hearings, but it’s really these experiences that can do the work as much as we prepare. And as many talking points we have and as good as our policy is, it really is not going to move that many people, unless these people are having their own experience. One that isn’t explained to them when that they were there for and hear that they’re like, Hey, you know, you kinda mentioned this and I didn’t hear all of it, but what do I need to do? Like how, how do I help? And they really think it’s so important to get people outside because that’s really, what’s going to motivate them to speak up for the environment.

Gale Straub:

So would you say that’s your primary way for creating more advocates?

Laura Navar:

It’s sandwiched., I have a, I have a sandwich where usually if I’m taking you outdoors, I’m also going to ask you to attend the workshop. Or if I’m asking you to attend the workshop, then I’m going to try to provide an opportunity for you to go outdoors afterwards. Or it’s a little bit of both like the all women’s camp out. It is camping and there is some structured time to just go on a hike or just, you know, hi to have some time to yourself. But within that camp out, we also have these conversations that I facilitate and we get an instructor to come in and do like a little demo for us. So I think it has to be intentional in that it’s enough space for people to make their own connection, but you’re also providing information, for them to engage with and not everyone’s going to engage with it in the same way.

Laura Navar:

And that’s okay because there are so many ways to be a person that’s advocating or engaging with the environment. Like I know the way I met Cindy from Cero Waste is because she came out on one of the camp outs and, a couple of other people that I think you’ve had on your podcast has been through that network. So as long as it’s motivating people to engage in advocacy in their own way, even if that means, you know, they’re into slow fashion or they’re into like medicinal remedies or whatever it is, that that is a step for me in the right direction.

Gale Straub:

Hmm. That’s great that, you know, the NPCA is not being too prescriptive because we’re not going to really, we’re going to really move forward. If there’s only one way, it’s just not the way human beings work.

Laura Navar:

And that the team, you know, like I know in my head who are my policy, people that it’s online and even, you know, once people started getting more interested in, they really want to know a lot of times I’m like, yeah, that’s, that’s not going to be me. So let’s schedule a guest and you get to meet another coworker, uh, which is also something I think really important, you know, the environment. So movement and change is so much more than one person. And I think I’ve, I’ve seen that through different people. For example, Theresa Baker, I attended her campout last at the end of last year and there was, we got us and I think it’s so important that it’s about us. Um, whether it’s my team at work, whether it’s like a team of people I’m working with, for me, it’s so important to understand that this is about community and it’s about a group of people.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Speaking of community, Laura wants to engage more Black, Indigenous, Latinx and people of color with stewardship and working in the nonprofit conservation realm.

Laura Navar:

I do think that it’s important that we have more self representation from all communities and that we really start thinking people working on these issues. So that reflects what we are in society, whether it’s like percentage or the local perspective or different things, because, you know, I, I am super happy. I’m thankful, I’m grateful that I work at MPCA, but there’s definitely as an organization that’s mainstream, that’s mostly white. That was funded when it was funded. The context of history will impact it. And there is an improvement in terms of becoming more aware of our needs to engage more communities of becoming more aware on how we approach those relationships and the need to take time to build this trust and to build confidence with people that are interacting with us, that we are in it for the long run. Um, and one of those things is hiring when I started at NPCA four years ago, I think I’m pretty sure I was the only Latina. There were some Latinos, but not, not a lot of us and that is changing, but I, I, I want to continue seeing more people getting paid to do this. I love Latino outdoors, but I really, I I’m still hoping they get more funding because that organization is mostly sustained by volunteers and volunteering is good, but we also need to invest financially in these organizations. We need to invest financially in allowing Latinos and other BIPOC communities to do this for a living.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Now that Laura is in her mid thirties, she’s been thinking more about how she can continue to learn and grow one way she’s doing this is by forming a deeper connection with her indigenous roots in Oaxaca.

Laura Navar:

I am trying to become more connected with my indigenous past and to really be proud about it and the way that’s in vocal about it. Um, not just like, Oh, I, you know, I’ve always been proud, but I felt like that was a little bit passive. Um, and now I’m really getting into it because I think there’s so much I can learn. And I feel like it’s empowering to know that my ancestors, um, were Zapoteco and I even took one of those ancestry tests. Um, and I think my like ancestry from Southern Mexico, which my family is from is like 91% of my DNA. Yeah. Which to me, I was like, okay, cool. And then I showed my cousins and some of them are 94, 96. Um, and they put it on Instagram and everybody was like, Whoa, that’s so high. And I was like, yeah, it is.

Laura Navar:

And you know, I should be more proud of that, not to say that, you know, one place or different places better than another, but I have a gap in my history. My grandparents died when my mom was a teenager and we migrated here. Um, you know, there have been a lot of ways in which systems in society have tried to erase my past of who I am. And I just feel like it’s a very important healing and powerful for me to say, you know, my heritage is indigenous I’m indigenous. So this last time I went to Laka, I spent some time with my cousin and they started asking me questions about the history of our church and our town and he’s into it. So he’s going to be digging up some more information. And I’m really excited to just learn more about my people.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Working in conservation, Laura is happiest meeting with people face-to-face to help make real connections with the natural world. While she’s not able to do that in real life right now, by engaging with families and youth in Los Angeles, she’s optimistic about getting more communities involved in environmental advocacy. But she’s careful not to get too comfortable — whether it’s her, or the next generation, And the next generation after that. And after that, this work isn’t done, there’s so much that we need to do to care for our planet and for each other.

Gale Straub:

What would you say are some of your hopes for, for conservation and environmentalism and more people getting involved as, as you look into the future?

Laura Navar:

Well, I definitely think we need more collaboration with all communities. We need to stop being like, is that an environmental community? Is that not an environmental community? Because that’s part of the problem. We all are impacted by the environment. And when we’re like, Whoa, that’s, that’s the school organization or that’s a myth and we don’t connect that’s, that’s part of the problem. But I think more than anything, I want people to feel welcomed to the outdoors. And I want us to not forget to continuously think about what the barriers are, cause it can be easy and I’m very kind of mindful of not to get too comfortable in like, Oh, well we’re making progress or this is getting better. Or, you know, we addressed one barrier and thinking that that’s all we need to do or to even stop asking that question because the reality is barriers are going to change and new barriers that we have not seen right now may have rise.

Laura Navar:

And I just think it’s so important to make sure that we’re considering barriers on an ongoing basis and with time, hopefully some of the barriers we have right now that seemed really difficult and challenging and sometimes almost impossible to overcome. I, I hope that with enough time and enough work, those won’t be there, but I also know that might mean there’s a new set of barriers that didn’t exist or that we just didn’t consider. So I just really want this conversation and these actions to be ongoing and for more types of advocates, more types of environmentalists to be recognized. And for that word to be something to be proud of.

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