Recognize that not everyone is going to be as passionate as you about your mission. I found out quickly that not everyone wants to speak about representation or inclusion ALL of the time (if at all to begin with). But it’s important to keep people informed about what you are trying to do. Make it easy for learning to happen by providing resources.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexla Perez Sanchez.
Being a part of a community comes with many benefits, but it also comes with challenges. We all hold the same amount of responsibility in making sure that our mountains, rivers, wildlife, and community members are thriving. I hope that through my work, more People of Color, LGBTQ2S+ individuals, and many more folks can fall in love with our home and fight for it.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I was born in Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero, but immigrated to the United States when I was three years of age. I grew up in Hendersonville, North Carolina, with my younger brother and older sister. We spent most of our days going to school and playing in the trailer park where we lived. My mother was a single parent mainly working as a housekeeper, but she had many jobs on the side that helped us make ends meet. Thanks to her, we never went without food, water, or shelter, but most importantly: we never went without her love. The majority of my childhood was played out in that trailer park.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
An organization that I feel truly changed my perspective about nature, my community, and myself was Conserving Carolina. They are a non-profit whose mission is to protect, restore, and inspire appreciation of the natural world. I became involved with them through their Summer of Service AmeriCorps Program in 2018. A group of six of us worked on many community-related projects, removed invasive plant species to restore wildlife habitats, and repaired hiking trails.
I adopted many physical skills throughout this program. Still, I think the most impactful skills that I developed were selflessness, mindfulness, and tackling discomfort for the sake of growth. Our mentor and group leader, Tony Beurskens, reminded us every day that there is “beauty in our differences and comfort where they overlap.” I took those words, embedded them into my mind, and placed actions behind them. And as my love for nature grew, my passion in wanting to combine two worlds grew as well. I wanted to find a way to make opportunities for people who looked like me (and didn’t look like me) to interact with nature in a comforting and safe way. Through this passion, I knew folks would discover a way to see the beauty in their differences and find that pocket of comfort (nature) where they overlap.
Almost three years later, Conserving Carolina has created a Communications and Engagement Internship for me. I have led monthly Bilingual Hikes and created Spanish Signage and a Spanish version of their website. We have begun many community projects and connected many POC-focused organizations to our non-profit. We have made incredible leaps in the right direction, and we have been able to educate POC and Spanish-speaking individuals about the outdoors while supporting ways of developing their new passions.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Making a Difference is helping someone, something, or a group of people do right.
In class, at work, in the grocery store, I have found myself speaking out about the lack of accountability or recognition that people should be giving. My voice shakes, and I find myself shifting around, but I feel it is important to speak my mind. I believe it is my responsibility to hold my community accountable to the standards that I hold myself to.
I was nervous about coming into an internship that would require me to point out the “lacking” in areas and to have uncomfortable conversations with participants or staff about why my involvement in the organization and community was valid and necessary. I have been fortunate to receive acceptance and support from Conserving Carolina, and I feel appreciation for this organization that believes wholeheartedly in my work. However, there are still moments that require me to spotlight comments or actions that I believe the organization should stand against. Metaphorically speaking, sometimes that spotlight gets a little too “heavy” or “hot,” but I am prepared to keep this light shining until we see continued positive change.
OK super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Through this internship, we are looking to open the opportunities of engagement, inclusion, and true representation of People of Color that will help spark a passion regarding nature, conservation, sustainability, and community. We can create safe spaces to help educate and inform individuals about the outdoors and inspire change.
It’s easy to want to shy away from taking steps in a new direction when you have little knowledge about the goal that you are trying to work towards. Climate Change and additional environmental and social issues are hard to fix when we all feel divided and distanced. I come to work every day and put my all into this internship because nature is a way for us to connect. My goal is to find and share respect and love for one another, with the hope that as a community, we can start fixing the injuries that we have caused to our home, the Earth. And, hopefully, along the way we can also begin acknowledging and healing the injuries that we have caused to each other.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My mother tried really hard to take us on “small family field trips” focused on the outdoors, but we would never know where to go. After a couple of years, my mother found out about the Carl Sandburg Home and heard that it was a great place for us to walk. However, when we arrived, we didn’t get very far. We quickly realized that all of the signage was in English, and as a Spanish-speaking family, we had no idea where to go. Regardless, we tried walking a little farther in but again turned back because my mother was suffering from severe back issues due to working long hours all week.
This moment, in particular, seems like a core memory to me. For the rest of my teenage years, I thought about how many families were left out from exploring nature due to the lack of non-English signage. Or even how many English-understanding families felt underprepared because they have never been offered materials to learn about Hiking Rules or Outdoor Safety? I knew that I could not have been the only one feeling excluded. So, later when I joined Summer of Service, I was given tools that I knew could offer solutions to this. With my hard work and dedication, no one else would have to turn back at the Trail Head.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
My “Aha Moment” came with one of the Summer of Service group hikes in 2018 with Hendersonville’s AIM Club. At the time, the Migrant Program in Henderson County led AIM Club dedicated to offering different experiences and opportunities to Students of Color. I remember that the majority of the students at this hike were just like me. Their hiking experiences could be counted on one hand because of the lack of opportunities offered to individuals and groups that looked like them. We had conversations about how many of our parents never took us hiking because we didn’t know where to look or how to do it. And that’s when it hit me! I wasn’t alone! I was not the only one who had to turn back!
That hike was phenomenal! We hiked a trail on Bearwallow Mountain that Conserving Carolina had protected, and everyone kept mentioning how great of an experience this was for them. The happiness was contagious. And once the hike ended, I knew that this was the moment that would solidify my suspicions and fuel my passion for fixing the issue.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
I have been repeatedly told that my attitude and energy stay in a room long after leaving. So, I would say: lead yourself with the best part of your heart and soul. Someone will always want to hear your ideas, and the skills that you have are needed too. You have so many things to offer. Don’t be afraid to talk to people and follow the path that keeps you interested.
I spoke to so many people in my community and volunteered in different spaces to make sure that I could understand my community from all points of view and fight for those whose voices were limited. So, I guess
I would say:
1- Educate yourself on all aspects of your mission/goal
2- Talk to everyone and anyone. Hear their story.
3- Go forward with good intentions
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
In one of the bilingual hikes where we focused on identifying invasive plant species, my mother attended, and she said, “I never knew that plants are like people. They all look the same to an extent, but when you look close, they all have different attributes that make them unique.”
This moment made me feel so proud of her because her outdoor connection was starting. She felt interested in learning about nature. She was comfortable enough to be able to pay attention. She was beginning to see nature in a more detailed and personal way. It was such a simple statement to her, but to me, it was one of the most beautiful things that I have ever heard her say.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
I think that the funniest thing was my inability to say no, along with wanting to do it all. I began to feel overwhelmed and found myself spiraling. I realized that you have to stop yourself and prioritize.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
My mother was my main cheerleader; I would be nothing without her. I owe her my all. But along with her, my brothers and sisters and stepdad were also always there to support and love me. Even my family members in México were cheering me on! It was so cool! I have two mentors outside of my family: Areli Perez-Nava, Jose Manuel Vackero, and Tony Beurskens. Behind their backs, I am consistently referring to them as my “guías espirituales” (spiritual guides) because I hold them so highly in my heart and mind. They’re my heroes.
My supervisors, Rose Jenkins and Ericka Berg, never stopped believing in me and have given me everything and more to make sure that I am happy and can continue my work to the best of my abilities. Also, working so closely with powerful, intelligent, and well-respected women has done phenomenal things to my feminine energy and is the most inspiring. A big thank you to them!
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
A young individual had gone to an AIM Club hike with Conserving Carolina and had just moved to this country by himself not very long ago. He had left his family back in his home country and found himself starting a new life here in the United States. He is the personification of kindness and pure joy. We had had many conversations about his experience coming to the US and how he felt being here now. But when we finished that specific hike, the look of happiness and contentment that he had completely knocked the air out of me. He had made friends and had developed joy that came from being present and welcomed. He mentioned how the hike had given him a sense of peace and happiness, along with new knowledge of the outdoors that he had not experienced to that extent in a while.
That right there was worth more than pure gold to me.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
My message to my community is that being part of a community comes with many benefits, but it also comes with challenges. We all hold the same amount of responsibility in making sure that our mountains, rivers, wildlife, and community members are thriving. Step out of your everyday zone and talk to people who look different from you. Help fix the bad that someone else is experiencing. Take part in things that are bigger than you, and get to the root of the problem while holding others accountable. Remember that until we begin to recognize the strengths within our individuality, we will not fully appreciate the Land and all that it has to offer. Once we acknowledge the individual importance of ourselves and others, we will recognize the value of the Land. Or maybe we will be able to look towards the Land to find the significance of ourselves. Because at the end of the day: We come from the Land; the Land is Life.
To our society, I would say that we better start making it a norm to care about things that don’t only involve us. With COVID and consistent injustices happening worldwide, we have seen more to consider than what’s just in front of us. We have to hold ourselves as a collective to higher expectations and lead with good in mind.
And to politicians, I would like to stress the importance of allocating funds to programs like the Migrant Program, which works through the public school system. The individuals who work and volunteer in this program have strength, passion, and intelligence that I have rarely seen anywhere else. They have a right to better resources and deserve support from you, our politicians; it is the government’s responsibility to support them. Do not fail us at the job that has been democratically given to you. People of Color have a right to funds!
And for all communities, societies, and politicians, I extend the message that the responsibility to educate oneself on sustainability and environmental justice/respect, being actively anti-racist, gender equality, indigenous rights, human rights, and basic humanity falls on all three groups!
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each)
5 things that I wish someone told me when I first started:
1. Recognize that not everyone is going to be as passionate as you about your mission. I found out quickly that not everyone wants to speak about representation or inclusion ALL of the time (if at all to begin with). But it’s important to keep people informed about what you are trying to do. Make it easy for learning to happen by providing resources.
2. Keep Learning. Make an effort to never stop learning about what more you can do. Learn about other’s experiences. Keep reading, attending seminars, and listening to others. I have had instances when speaking to others where I learned of a struggle that I had not focused on before. For example, when I hoped to set up more hiking trips with AIM Club, I stumbled across the issue of transportation. Many of the students’ parents cannot drive their children to these hikes due to a lack of transportation or having a driver’s license. I learned that attendance to these hikes came at a cost for many of these parents and students.
3. Put Yourself in a Place of Discomfort for the Sake of Growth. Although I was fortunate to learn this early on, I think that it’s important to recognize and understand what this means. Face a situation
that may be uncomfortable to grow past where you are.
4. Identify the Beauty in Your Differences and Take Comfort in Where They Overlap. Doing this helped me in keeping my faith in the success of the project. If I had not gone on that first AIM hike, I would have continued to think that I was a rare case in missing out from the outdoors all of my life. I found comfort in the fact that I was not alone, and I recognized that there were many differences in how people in my situation can connect with nature and their community.
5. Maintain the Need to Meet New People. There was an entire week and a half when it felt like I was meeting a new person every day! I was excited and having a hard time remembering names, but eventually, I was able to remember everyone and associate them with their organizations. I found that the most success has resulted from collaboration and inclusion of other people and their organizations. For anyone starting a new project, my advice is to keep meeting others! People will consistently be wanting to help you. Accept the help and always offer to help in return.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
We’re here for the long run, so fight for it. Keep your ideas sharp and be consistent. And don’t ever let your age hold you back or silence you because silence is a form of acceptance. Being young means, you have more time to learn new things and make things happen. Passion will always outshine something as minimal as your age.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
My number one hero is Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
After my time serving in AmeriCorps, I would consistently ask myself, “Now what?” I had been given such an amazing opportunity in serving my community and developing myself, but that had come to an end. I had worked hard to receive some scholarships, and I was ready to be the first in my family to attend college and to “become someone.” But there were too many things missing in me, and I couldn’t even pinpoint what they were.
Months later, in 2019, I saw a video of AOC giving a speech during a committee hearing in response to pushback on her climate change policy, the Green New Deal. From the second that video started, I was at a loss for words. Here was an individual who was speaking with every part of their soul.
I could see myself in her. She raised her voice and pointed just like me. She was strong and focused.
The video ended, and I remember thinking, “This is who I need to be — No, this is who I can be.” I changed my major the next day to Political Science.
I don’t ask for much except the opportunity to say Thank You. You made me realize that I am someone, and I can become and develop any version of myself that brings me happiness and strength. This is something that I promise to pay it forward. I send you cool thoughts and warm feelings. Eres mi héroe, mujer poderosa!
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow Conserving Carolina’s Instagram @conservingcarolina to read a little bit more about how we are continuing our work for inclusion, representation, conservation, sustainability, and education!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak my truth and my heart! I appreciate it!