Vanessa Morales recently completed a Hispanic Access Foundation Communications Fellowship with the National Park Service at the National Trails System. She is a public affairs specialist at the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office. Read on to learn more about her path to conservation and why she believes the outdoors is for everyone.
Olivia Beitelspacher: Welcome to the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office Vanessa! What role do you play within the agency?
Vanessa Morales: I am a bilingual public affairs specialist at the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office. In this role I am the office’s field reporter, photographer, storyteller and community engagement coordinator with Spanish speaking communities in our area. I am so excited to work here!
OB: I’m so excited to work with you as part of Team Public Affairs! Where did you go to school and what did you study?
VM: I attended George Washington University and majored in French with a minor in art history. I also have an economics degree.
OB: What led you to a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?
VM: While I have not exactly had the most streamlined career path, I do believe every experience and opportunity I’ve had up to this point has led me to the Service. I grew up in Chicago, spending large amounts of my childhood in public parks and libraries because they were beautiful, fun and free. My family is from Guatemala, and I grew up speaking Spanish at home, which helped me learn French in high school and university. After graduating, my degree in French took me to France and other places throughout Europe to teach for many years, where I learned about new cultures and landscapes and deepened my appreciation for my identity as a Latina. I returned to the US and began teaching in a Spanish immersion school and learned that my favorite parts about being a teacher were being outside and teaching about wildlife and nature. This motivated me to seek out opportunities where I could learn and communicate about the outdoors on a larger scale. The search brought me to the Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF), the incredible organization that connected me to my National Trails System Communications Fellowship with the National Park Service. Through that experience I earned a Public Land Corps non-competitive hiring authority.
There have been many times I have felt insecure about my unconventional path, but when I read the job posting for a bilingual public affairs specialist at the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office, I suddenly realized that my journey has been unique and valuable. I encourage anyone to never turn down opportunities just because you are afraid you don’t/won’t belong. You do! There is so much to out there for you if you just take a chance on yourself and keep working toward your goals.
OB: You have been on an amazing journey! I love your advice about taking advantage of every opportunity, no matter how unique or unconventional! Can you tell us about a particular project from your career or schooling that makes you really proud?
VM: During my Communications Fellowship with NPS, I had the opportunity to attend a Hispanic Heritage Month event hosted by the Hispanic Organization on Relevancy, Advising, Leadership and Excellence (HORALE). Many of us discussed the common need for Spanish-language material but experienced a lack of available guidance or peer reviewers. The Spanish speaking community deserves to receive content as high-quality as the English material, not just something run through Google translate (which usually results in bad/inappropriate translations). A group of us came together to create the Spanish Language Guide, a guidance document for Spanish-speaking NPS employees tasked with Spanish language writing. We hope the document results in further collaboration and peer reviewing for our community.
OB: Wow, y’all created an important and much-needed resource. I am sure many people who come through NPS will be grateful to have the guidance that your group created. What are your thoughts on the concept that “the outdoors is for everyone”?
VM: The outdoors IS for everyone, but it is not that simple! There is still so much to be done to ensure that everyone knows and feels that. Black people, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian Americans, women, LGBTQIA+ folks and so many others have a deeply complicated and sometimes painful relationship with America and its lands, filled with slavery, violence, forced displacement, discrimination and so many other devastating histories. Not everyone feels safe or even welcome on all public lands, understandably, given the past. We need to listen, learn, teach and open doors for greater participation in the outdoors because as time goes on, these minority groups are growing, and they will be the future stewards of the environment. Private companies, NGOs and government agencies need to partner with organizations that have already gained their community’s trust in order to reach and hire more people of color for more representation.
The outdoors is not a one size fits all, so I also think it is important to remember that different groups of people experience or recreate in the outdoors differently. Some people garden, some people hike, some people like to barbecue. No matter how people participate outside, more needs to be done to educate and motivate people to protect, conserve, and restore the outdoors because the outdoors is for everyone......even those yet to be born.
OB: What powerful sentiments and I couldn’t agree more! What is your opinion on the importance of diversity in conservation?
VM: The more diversity the better! The groups I talked about before, they have all been through adversity and developed solutions to situations and problems different from everyone else. Having a wide range of perspectives and views will greatly help conservation because they can get others to care about conservation and can offer solutions to problems with different perspectives.
OB: So true! Everyone deserves (and needs) a seat at the table if we are truly going to tackle complex conservation issues. How do you spend your free time?
VM: I am an aspiring naturalist. Over the last several years I have been birding, and that hobby has taken me outside of my neighborhood, city, state and country! I love birds and photographing them (ethically) so I try to do that as much as I can. My boyfriend and I have a retired racing Greyhound named Lou, so we enjoy taking him to different parks in southern California. I am also trying to get back into running but putting less pressure on myself to have fast times, and just enjoy the experience.
OB: We will have to go birding soon so that you can help me learn more about identifying birds! Thank you, Vanessa!