One of numerous SCA alums on our staff, Valeria Casas began with SCA at age 15 and immediately forged new and powerful connections with the outdoors. The following summer, she served with other teens from around the country at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. Now as SCA’s Houston Community Programs Manager, Valeria helps SCA members achieve their own dreams while advancing the cause of conservation.
What is your favorite part about working with the next generation of conservation leaders and youth?
My favorite part about working with the next generation of conservation leaders is the opportunity to uplift, co-power, and build community. We get to spend time co-creating a safe and inclusive space to learn more about the natural world and our place in it. I’ve had the privilege to be able to see and work in sacred local and wilderness areas and have created memories that will last a lifetime. Our youth are our future, and being in a position where I get to create meaningful experiential education opportunities for youth to be engaged in conservation is a huge honor. The work that we do not only creates a pathway for environmental activism, but we’re the boots on the ground making our city more resilient, an increasing need due to the detrimental impacts of our environmental Justice issues.
What is one memory that stands out to you from serving at Golden Gate National Recreation Area?
I feel deeply in my soul that my experience serving on SCA’s national crew at Golden Gate National Recreation area changed my life’s trajectory. My leaders and the project partners we worked with were amazing, inspiring, and inclusive. We got to work on trails and explore our project sites. Working the land and then having space in our schedule to explore strengthened my relationship with the earth and myself. I wouldn’t have had access to that if it wasn’t for SCA. We finished our trail work early and got the chance to visit Yosemite National park. I think the road trip itself and beautiful scenic views will forever stay with me as I continue my path to making the outdoors safe for people, wildlife, and the rapidly changing climate.
What is one of the most impactful lessons that your SCA experience has taught you?
When I think about what was the pivotal point in my life that shifted the direction that I was headed, I am taken back to a moment in High school. I was recruited by a smiling face and committed six weekends to serve in my local community’s green spaces. It was the first time I planted a tree or held a tool correctly. That experience eventually led me to a front country crew at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the summer. I came back changed, and for the first time, I began to see my home as a place to improve. That vision was nurtured and grew as I embraced new team and leadership opportunities with the SCA locally and nationally. Now I have the privilege to run the same program that introduced me to conservation, and I see that as more than just building the next generation of conservation leaders. It’s giving the opportunity for youth to explore the world outside their doorstep that they don’t always have access to in an environment of trust, it’s forming meaningful, long-lasting connections, and it’s breaking down systemic silos that exist that make it harder for people like me to work in this field.
What’s the secret to becoming such a sought-after community ally?
I often find myself reflecting on SCA’s legacy. I take a lot of pride in how much it’s grown and I ask myself; How will I continue to honor it? In my role, I have the opportunity to add my perspective and lived experience not only as a participant of the program, but as a queer, plus-sized woman of color. That authenticity added flavor to our programs and we have been able to make a beautiful impact. We’ve become a sought-after ally because we’re rooted in the community and we nurture those roots by how we show up. We center creating meaningful experiences for those we serve — the youth, community, and our partners. There’s always room for collaboration in what we do and exploring those opportunities helps elevate everyone.
Houston has been hit hard by storm-related flooding in recent years and SCA has been a big part of the recovery effort. Where does that work stand currently and how does it feel to help your hometown come back?
All of the work we do locally is resilience-oriented. One of my favorite projects I get to work on is focused on Riparian Restoration, where we get to plant hundreds of trees in riparian zones adjacent to our bayous. This project is building a green buffer that assists us with flooding, water quality, tree canopy, and creates habitat for wildlife. This innovative initiative is spearheaded by The Houston Parks and Recreation Natural Resource Department and supported by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. SCA youth members and interns are the boots on the ground making this work possible. My hope is that we can continue this project and plant more native trees on all buffer zones in our bayous.
If you could give a young Latina/o person who wants to get involved in serving the planet or the conservation field a piece of advice, what would that be?
As I began my journey as a lover of trails and trees, and began to explore and work the land, I didn’t see a lot of people that looked like me. It is because of that that I love showing up as my full authentic self, wearing my cultural regalia and not hiding my tattoos when I work with our youth and partners. Representation matters. I want youth to know that leadership doesn’t have to look a specific way. Never hide who you are or where you come from as our cultural and other intersecting identities give light to the movement.
The lack of equity in the outdoors has been widely documented yet little has changed. If you were put in charge for a day, what actions would you take to make nature and conservation more inclusive?
The first action I would make is to give Native People their land back. I would then make sure that every neighborhood in urban areas has shade and tree canopy. Parks would be equal in funding, and there will be equitable inclusive outdoor programming for all youth.
Visit the SCA100k page for more information on our ten ambassadors.