Building Bridges Over Barriers

Mel Sarmento

Mel Sarmento’s passion is connecting people with the outdoors. This 2020 graduate of the Green Foothills Leadership Program works for Guadalupe River Park Conservancy in San Jose as a Program Director. As a direct result of her participation in the Leadership Program, she now also serves as an Associate Director with Guadalupe-Coyote Resource Conservation District (GCRCD), an independent special district of the state of California dedicated to the conservation of natural resources in Santa Clara County.

An educator and naturalist by trade, Mel signed up for the Leadership Program hoping to learn more about advocacy. She knew how to teach people about the outdoors, but she wanted to do more to solve some of the social problems that she saw every day in her work.

From her vantage point as an environmental educator, Mel had noticed that the demographics of the environmental career field do not reflect the diverse community of the South Bay, and as a result, our community suffers from disconnected environmental decisions and skewed learning experiences. And also, as the South Bay’s housing crisis grew, and increasing numbers of unhoused residents moved into Guadalupe River Park, she came to realize how intertwined environmental education and the housing crisis had become.

She hoped the Green Foothills Leadership Program would give her the tools to advocate for change, and it did. During her time in the program, she learned how to develop a strategy, plan a campaign, collaborate with allies and partners, speak to elected officials, understand local government structures and processes, and more. The program also helped her grow personally. “It helped me strengthen my voice, scaffold confidence within myself, and gain tools to help me grow as a changemaker,” she said.

“The program definitely exceeded my expectations,” continues Mel. “When I first joined, I never thought I would leave the program with such an impressive, empowering, and informed support system. Something that strikes me to this day is the facilitation team’s ability to authentically understand each participant and their strengths; this enables them to share opportunities and initiatives directly with individuals they think would be interested. It’s actually quite efficient and impactful! In fact, Green Foothills contacted me directly when an Associate Director role opened with Guadalupe-Coyote Resource Conservation District – I was appointed by the GCRCD board of directors shortly thereafter. It was my first time joining a board in any capacity, and I can confidently say, I would never have considered this opportunity had it not been for the Leadership Program building my confidence.”

Since graduating from the program, the alumni connections have also been important for Mel. “The people I met as a result of this program have been one of my most treasured takeaways from the program,” she said. “In addition to my fantastic cohort and team, the facilitators are amazing resources who have helped me grow professionally and personally. There have been several times where the team has nudged me to broaden my horizons and do things I never would have imagined or considered before. It’s incredible to have this intricate web of alumni and staff who genuinely want others to succeed and grow. It’s great to know that resource-sharing, workshops, job announcements, etc. are just an email away, and I am extremely grateful for the community I have become a part of.”

“In my work, I build bridges over barriers that inhibit communities from engaging with nature and environmental education. We need all community members to feel connected to nature and the environment to make real, long-lasting change. Every ounce of my being and work is to make this process as easy as possible, so we can have more individuals fighting to protect and cherish our natural world. Because of the Green Foothills Leadership Program I’m better positioned to advance those goals.”

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