Communities Are Their Own Experts

Antonia Machado

A Conversation with Antonia Machado

By Julie Cortez

En español

About four years ago, three generations of a family joined one of the first Paseos Verdes — “green walks” — at Fernhill. As they explored the trails, the family’s grandmother saw various plants she used medicinally, and shared her knowledge of their uses with the group, while a CWS staff member talked about invasive nutria and how native thimbleberry leaves can be utilized as “nature’s toilet paper.”

Antonia Machado shares in this conversation how that experience of community and embrace of various kinds of expertise is at the heart of Tree for All’s Paseos Verdes program, and all of her work as a strategic partnerships project manager at Clean Water Services.

Julie Cortez: What about your personal and professional background informs and drives your work?

Antonia Machado: My main interest is working at the intersection of social and ecological systems, and considering how we create benefits across both. Generally, as a society, we separate these issues and try to address them in silos. A good example is climate change, which is often conceptualized as a strictly ecological issue which can be solved through measures such as advancements in green technology, cutting carbon and reforestation. However, research has shown that one of the most significant measures we can take to fight climate change is investment in girls’ education. Ultimately, tackling issues like climate change and houselessness will require working across sectors and disciplines while centering equity, and working in that space is what interests me.

My background as a bicultural Latina, born in Venezuela and raised in Puerto Rico, informs my understanding that there are alternatives to dominant culture and enables me to work in a culturally responsive way. Meanwhile, my educational background spans from an undergraduate liberal arts degree to a master’s in public administration with a specialization in natural resource policy, and that also informs the transdisciplinary perspective I bring to my work.

JC: Could you share a bit about the origins and mission of Paseos Verdes?

AM: Before I joined CWS, I worked on an Ecosystem Service Valuation Study of Forest Park as a research analyst for PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions. This study was a collaboration with the Forest Park Conservancy, and some of the central questions that we explored in our research were: what do people value about our natural areas, how do they use these areas, and what, if any, are the barriers to use? My own focus within this project was the link between urban green spaces and human health outcomes, particularly how barriers to access contribute to health disparities. The findings of this research heavily informed the development of the Paseos Verdes program and its mission to connect underserved Latinx communities to natural areas. Ultimately, these experiences promote environmental stewardship while providing health benefits of being active outdoors.

We designed Paseos Verdes around the fact that communities are experts about their own communities, and that idea continues to guide the development of the program. At the onset, we asked Bienestar Community Development Corporation: “Are you interested in co-creating a program? What are the activities you would like to do? What are your community’s barriers to accessing natural areas?” And they gave us the formula for the program, which they said should be multigenerational — from children to grandparents — rather than individualistic. They also let us know that transportation was a barrier, and that they would like to incorporate a picnic lunch after the walks, so that’s what we did.

Many times, when we see similar programs fail it is because the program is driven by assumptions about the community in question and what they want or need, instead of understanding that they’re the experts, and success requires deferring to that expertise.

JC: In addition to being multigenerational, why was it important that Paseos Verdes be a two-way learning opportunity?

AM: The two-way learning model is fundamental to the Paseos Verdes program, and recognizes that communities have expertise and knowledge that is just as valuable as the knowledge valued by dominant culture. For example, knowing the Latin name for a plant does not constitute a superior form of “knowing” than knowing it can be made into a tea for stomach aches, or that it is attractive to bees.

So, the Paseos Verdes program is focused more on lowering barriers to accessing natural areas and creating a welcoming environment for our participants than it is to “educate” in the traditional sense of the word. That said, we have had participants share many stories and pieces of knowledge about the natural world on walks.

JC: How did Paseos Verdes adapt to the pandemic, and how do you foresee it continuing to adapt and grow moving forward?

AM: The Latinx community, and particularly the migrant farmworker community that Paseos Verdes works with, have been some of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the onset of the pandemic, we consulted with our community partners and asked how we could continue to help provide opportunities for connection to nature while keeping everyone safe.

The summer of 2020 we worked with Bienestar and Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center to develop and distribute bilingual nature kits with activities that families could do from anywhere — in their own neighborhoods or even while looking out a window. This summer, we partnered with Tualatin Hills Parks and Recreation District to provide open-house style walks at the Tualatin Hills Nature Park, and engaged their NEWT interns to provide bilingual nature walks. We learned a lot from this pilot, and plan on incorporating elements of this year’s program model into future plans.

It also reinforced the importance of providing transportation in order to serve the communities we have been working with, so we are also eager to be able to provide that when it is safe to do so again. We’re excited to continue partnering with THPRD, which is very aligned with the mission of the program.

JC: While Paseos Verdes had to be scaled back during the pandemic, another program you are intimately involved with came about as a result of it: People Protecting People. What sets People Protecting People apart from other PPE distribution programs?

AM: I managed the arm of the project that has been partnering with community-based organizations to distribute personal protective equipment like masks and hand sanitizer to underserved communities in Washington County. This part of the project was established to provide PPE to communities who were experiencing barriers to accessing these items. Data from Washington County Health and Human Services show that underserved communities in our county, particularly communities of color, have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic from its onset. While developing this program, we were intentional about partnering with organizations that serve the communities being most affected. This included culturally specific organizations such as Bienestar, Centro Cultural, and the Muslim Educational Trust, as well as organizations that work more generally with underserved communities, such as the Oregon Food Bank, Meals on Wheels, Family Promise Shelter and St. Vincent DePaul.

The push method of distribution (in which resources are pushed out into the community, as opposed to creating systems where the community comes to you) set the program model apart and was particularly necessary to ensure distribution to these communities. Our approach of partnering with community-based organizations and employing a push method of distribution was very effective in addressing the barriers marginalized communities often face in accessing resources. These include language, transportation, literacy and sometimes distrust of governmental institutions.

JC: Beyond the pandemic, what do you hope comes of the partnerships formed or strengthened by People Protecting People?

AM: The pandemic highlighted the integrated nature of watershed health and the health of our communities. My hope is that we continue to build on the cross-sector partnerships we formed with culturally specific organizations, and find ways to continue working on shared goals that increase the resilience of the Tualatin River Watershed and the communities who live here.

Contact

Julie Cortez
Public Affairs Specialist - Content & Media
Clean Water Services
503.681.4453 (o)
503.880.0503 (m)
cortezj@cleanwaterservices.org

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