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Darlene’s story inspires engagement of minorities in environmental and conservation careers

“Minorities don’t have the same opportunity to study careers which have to do with conservation, which I consider would be key for them to understand the social disadvantages and the environmental harms."

Darlene Juliao’s great-grandfather had a “ranchito” (little ranch) and a donkey in the mountains of Venezuela. She was born in Manhattan and has lived in the Bronx since she was two years old. Cornelio, her great-grandfather died many decades before she was born.

In my childhood, Cornelio was my grandfather figure. He was a peasant from the cold mountains who never wore shoes but “alpargatas”, Venezuelan handmade espadrilles. I was always willing to ride with my parents the three hours it took to get outside of the capital Caracas to the locality of El Arbolito. The winding road and the thick fog caused us to stop for me to throw up sometimes. “We shouldn’t feed her with egg and sausages this morning,” my mother said to Corita.

This Venezuelan peasant looks like Cornelio, Darlene's grandfather. Photo: Raúl Sojo Valenotti

Corita is Darlene’s grandmother, the daughter of Cornelio and Juanita. Corita was eight years old when she left her home of bahareque and came to live with my parents. El Arbolito wasn’t even a village, and not even a church could be found in this Catholic land, just a ranchito (little ranch) here and there. A very small store was perched on the side of the road. The oil bonanza never reached rural Venezuela, and millions of them left their conucos (parcel of lands), or crop fields, looking for a better life in the big cities.

But Cornelio remained on his land. I can still hear his deep voice while following him and his donkey up the hill where he grew his food. Picking the crops with him was one of my favorite activities, while my father grilled meat for the community. “Yndianita,” Cornelio said, “leave the coffee beans alone; they aren’t ready yet.” Donkeys like the one I rode or followed if we were going up with anything in the baskets or coming down with the goods were replaced by motorcycles a few years after Cornelio and Juanita died.

Attracted by the prosperity that the oil brought to Venezuela, a savvy businessman from the Dominican Republic, with strong ties in New York, came to live in Caracas and fell in love with Corita. After two decades, he saw the disaster coming. Venezuela was drained by corrupt politicians, and the national currency the Bolívar started losing value. The family embarked to New York where Darlene was born.

Darlene inherited Cornelio’s love for animals and nature. She didn’t walk through the fog with Cornelio and his donkey picking plantains or corn, nor watch him drying the coffee beans in his small backyard, but she holds a bachelor's degree in Animal Behavior from the Psychology Department of Hunter College in New York. And I’m envious that she eats the Venezuelan arepas from her grandmother’s kitchen, the same way I ate her great-grandmother Juanita’s hand-ground corn arepas, cooked fresh on her wood stove.

As a junior in high school, Darlene attended a career fair about opportunities from all different fields. At the career fair, she was able to meet and network with professionals that were alumni from her school. Susan Cardillo, a keynote speaker, spoke about how she got to witness animal births and aid in the transportation of animals to the zoo. This was Darlene’s introduction to wildlife careers and what inspired her to pursue a career within this field. While she was in high school, she started volunteering at the Wildlife Conservation Society, better known as the Bronx Zoo, where she was hired and worked for the last six years.

Still, as an undergraduate student, Darlene got promoted to different educational roles, and at the same time, she worked on her thesis project at Hunter College with the Malapterurus electricus, the electric catfish. These fish can deliver shocks up to 300 volts that can immobilize their prey or defend themselves from predators.

Darlene explained that “any research project that is going to be conducted has to have a protocol approved by the institutional animal care and use committee, IACUC. This is required by federal regulations and has a key oversight role in animal ethics, which includes the review and approval of research like the one I was conducting for my college degree.” Her protocol was approved, but unfortunately, due to Covid-19, she was forced to discontinue her research, which doesn’t mean that she can’t follow up with the experiment later.

While getting ready for a master’s degree, Darlene had more time to chat. I asked her why she believes that Latino young people are not as involved in conservation careers. Based on my own experience at the Sustainable Development Department, I can assure you that is not a demanding area of study for Hispanics or African Americans. “Minorities don’t have the same opportunity to study careers which have to do with conservation, which I consider would be key for them to understand the social disadvantages and the environmental harms that affect them and their communities. Most of the time they’re not aware of these impediments,” she stated.

Darlene also said that “these opportunities have been hard to come by because the nature of these roles requires various forms of resources that are not accessible to everyone. A big example is an accessibility to higher education. Over the past couple of years, the price of education has tremendously increased, and it is now standard for many organizations to require a degree for entry-level positions or in pursuit of one, although 5-20 years ago these same positions did not require one. One might say that this is improving conservation efforts, but in fact, it is excluding many people from pursuing a career in this field, especially minorities.”

Based on her experience, she has worked and collaborated with people who did not have a degree were some of the most knowledgeable and well-rounded individuals, but because they could not afford to go to school many were excluded from promotions and moving up within this field.

When looking at many conservation or environmental institutions it is rare to see Afro-Americans and minorities in managerial positions. Darlene told me that if she did not start volunteering at the Bronx Zoo at a young age, she probably wouldn’t have the opportunity of working there.

When visiting her we went places, and to the Bronx Zoo too. From the railroad I could see the hundreds of bus depots and chimneys of industries of every kind, elevating their fumes to the sky. I asked her if she correlated her asthma, which has stuck with her since she was born, with the smells and the toxicity coming out from these huge industrial parks. She said “ It can very well be a possibility because the Bronx is one of the most polluted counties in all of New York State. This is not by accident, but because of environmental racism. A trend that is persistent in the United States and throughout the world is that impoverished communities are the ones that face the burden of environmental problems such as pollution and public health issues.”

Darlene´s mother and auntie

Being raised by a loving family with a dedicated mother and an auntie in a professional career as a role model made a big difference for Darlene. She realized that if she hadn’t been able to volunteer at the Bronx Zoo she wouldn’t have the opportunity of working there. Not every kid in the Bronx gets to visit the zoo. Since Darlene was in kindergarten, she has studied in her neighborhood, without the opportunity of being in touch with nature during school hours.

"The benefits of outdoor education aren’t accessible to all,” is the title of a recent feature published by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, which was republished in the High Country News. The author Tina Deines is a writer specializing in nature, the environment, wildlife, and conservation. She states that nature-based education has increased lately because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but affordability is an issue. “Only 3% of outdoor preschoolers are African American and only 7% are Hispanic or Latino, according to Natural Start Alliance’s 2017 survey of 121 nature-based programs in the United States,” Deines reports.

This means that most of the children who have the privilege of being in touch with nature come from a similar socioeconomic background, predominantly White Americans. Again, it makes a difference to have a loving family that is eager to enjoy nature, but the reality is that low-income parents work long hours to pay rent and to put food on the table. There’s little time to enjoy family and nature. This could be one of the reasons why when talking about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, so few Latino and African Americans are working in qualified jobs in state and national parks and related entities in the country. To thrive in these conservancy-related jobs, the burden of owing for financial aid to get a degree is not something that disadvantaged families are willing to take on.

What I’ve experienced and learned about the sense of place, sustainable living, and environmental justice at the Sustainable Development Department in Appalachian State University in North Carolina has made me determined to support minorities to pursue conservation careers. While Darlene still enjoys fresh-made Venezuelan arepas from the hands of her grandma, millions of Latinos —especially from Mexico and Central America— eat their grandmother’s tacos at their tables in Appalachia.

Discovering the Appalachian region so close to Wilmington where my family lives, I felt a strong desire to take the challenge of going to graduate school in Appalachian Studies. My goal is to learn more about the history of the Appalachian region in general and the High Country in particular, to write and showcase in several formats' stories of Sustainable Development in Appalachia in these anthropogenic times, which are so unreliable and unpredictable. I’m called to this, the land that most likely will see me growing older, after living in Europe, the Caribbean, and here in the United States.

Darlene's grandfather and grandmother. Holding the Venezuelan corn flour "Harina Pan" for arepas

PTo land in Wilmington, North Carolina, twelve years ago and most recently being ordered to speak “only in English” while in public places was traumatizing. I’ve been astonished to see the extent of the state-corporate crimes against the population, especially the poor here in North Carolina. The pollution downstream of the Cape Fear River is in great part a responsibility of the hog and poultry farms, big corporations, and electrical plants. Coal ash, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, the infamous toxin Gen-X, all poison the water, the soils, and the air.

To write and report in several formats the stories of Sustainable Development in the Appalachian Mountains is, in my view, a good way to support the community. When I found out about the Sustainable Development Department, it was like a healing balm to my heart, body, and soul. What I’ve learned at the farm and inside the community has made me determined and given me a strong commitment to supporting sustainable development.

Being an older student, I’m taking the challenge right now. A supportive environment will make potential students desire to be part of a powerful movement to address social injustice, climate change, environmental justice, and equity while giving them a better place in their careers. The Sustainable Development department credo reads, “embrace the moral imperative to actively combat all forms of injustice, including racism, within the university, and in society”; this is what I strongly believe. To collaborate to strengthen a more equitable, fair, and inclusive community for Latino Americans and minorities here and abroad and to find many more Darlene’s on my way is my dream.


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