In recent months we’ve highlighted voices in the Sierra Club working to educate and enlist the next generation of environmental advocates and activists. This month we’re shining the spotlight on Angeles Chapter budding star, Liliana Griego. A Wilderness Travel Course (WTC) graduate, Forest Committee Volunteer, and ExCom member-at-large, she is committed to the Sierra Club’s mission and working to create a more influential and inclusive Angeles Chapter.
When I first reached out to Liliana to gauge her interest in this profile, we initially made plans to have a physically-distant conversation over a cup of coffee whilst taking a stroll along the LA River -- Liliana is Director of Policy, Advocacy, and Engagement at Friends of the LA River (FoLAR) their office is situated off North San Fernando Road near the I-5 / CA-110 interchange.
Their mission is to ensure an equitable, publicly accessible, and ecologically sustainable Los Angeles River by inspiring River stewardship through community engagement, education, advocacy, and thought leadership. In Liliana’s eyes, the river is a hidden gem of natural beauty, great for recreation, community building. Unfortunately, due to the extreme heatwave currently broiling the West, we had to settle for a Zoom call instead.
So, from the comfort of our air-conditioned homes, we talked about how her upbringing as a native Angeleno molded here perception of what it meant to ‘get outdoors’, how she got her start as an environmentalist with Sierra Club, what it’s like to be one of the ExCom’s youngest members. She hopes her story will inspire other young environmentalists to join Southern California’s largest, most enduring, and influential grassroots environmental organization.
A native Angeleno, Liliana always felt like she had to go somewhere else to ‘get into nature’. It wasn’t until she joined the SC that she realized the biodiversity hotspot which existed in her own backyard, waiting to be explored and enjoyed.
In high school, Liliana remembers summer evenings spent hanging out with friends near the park entrance to Cobb Estate. Scared by rumors of ghosts and hauntings, they’d see who could walk the furthest inside before turning back. “That’s the closest we’d get into the mountains,” she said. “Everyone thought they were this haunted place, but full of magic and mystery.”
Growing up her family never really went camping or hiking. “I think you find that a lot with people raised with immigrant parents,” she said. “Our parents came to the US for opportunities and worked so hard to put a roof over our heads, and now we want to sleep outside?” It wasn’t until later, upon returning from school when she began to realize the true beauty of LA’s natural environment.
It’s a realization she says motivates her to encourage others to get outdoors, whether for a walk around the neighborhood or a beginner’s hike to Inspiration Point along the San Merrill Trail in the Angeles National Forest. “If you’re not out there, you’ll never realize what you’re missing out on.”
Her story reminded me of a few articles we featured on our blog a few months ago. One about eliminating inherent biases that exclude people of color from outdoor public spaces, and another about Sierra Club coalition lead legislation addressing equity issues for park-poor communities. I’ve linked both pieces to this article if you would like to learn more.
One of Liliana’s earliest experiences with Sierra Club was with the Wilderness Training Committee’s Wilderness Travel Course (WTC). As she grew to enjoy hiking more and more, she decided to give backpacking a try in search of a more immersive natural experience. “WTC was a steep learning curve and there was a ton of gear you had to buy,” she said.
She recalls the countless trips to REI and searching high and low for the best deals in order to meet the course’s gear requirements. Liliana borrowed used gear from friends in the program and viewed the long list of items as an investment, but did note that cost can often be a barrier for people interested in backpacking but who lack the means.
“The Club has taken steps to lower these barriers by putting on gear drives and granting scholarships,” she says. “It shows their dedication to equity and inclusion, they want everyone to participate who shows a passion.”
And the cost wasn’t the only barrier, there were physical barriers too. Liliana remembers struggling with altitude sickness, the heavyweight of her pack, and the bumps and bruises one endures trekking up a mountainside. With two outings scheduled in back-to-back, she considered dropping out of the course, her confidence shot from her first ascent the week before. If it were not for her two compassionate, encouraging trip leads, Liliana is unsure she would have completed the course.
“This group was different, they were an all-girls group welcoming of every level,” she recalls. “If you needed to take a break, you could take a break, they were not about reaching the peak, they were about hiking your own hike. That second trip turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.”
For Liliana, being able to go out ‘just to go out’ was something she really needed rather than having to deal with stresses of completing the trip in a certain amount of time or in a certain way, “this was supposed to be an escape into nature after all,” she said. “Just being out on the trail alone, was really empowering and peaceful, and just a really special experience I’m so grateful to have had.”
It’s this mentality, the idea of ‘hiking your own hike’, that Liliana hopes to see the Club adopt as it shifts and continues to strive towards diversity, equity, and inclusivity. “It’s not about peak-bagging, having the right technical clothing, or getting to the top, it’s about the experience and immersing yourself in nature and taking that all in.”
Liliana’s first introduction to the Forest Committee was through Nature for All. She enrolled in their Leadership Academy upon returning from graduate school. “I was feeling really lost when I returned home from school and I felt like the course was a little outside of my comfort zone -- I’d studied marine conservation and was interested in research work, but figured I’d give it a shot,” she told me. “Almost immediately I became consumed by the advocacy work from the training.”
While in the program she connected with Rob Morales, Senior Representative with the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America Campaign and Chair of the Nature for All Coalition. Rob is heavily involved with the Chapter’s Forest Committee and convinced Liliana to begin attending the group’s meetings and events.
“I really enjoyed attending all of the Forest Committee events, learning from the group, supporting their work,” she says.
“It all circles back to my passion for educating, developing, and encouraging the next generation of environmental stewards, caring for our public lands, and advocating for the protection of these natural spaces we hold so dear.”
The Forest Committee’s recent goals and accomplishments include monitoring the implementation of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument plan and holding the Forest Service accountable, supporting legislation to expand wilderness in the San Gabriel Mountains and establish a National Recreation Area (NRA) along the San Gabriel River South of the Monument, and commenting on the East Fork Project along a heavily-visited section of the San Gabriel River.
Liliana ran for a spot on the Chapter’s Executive Committee as an at-large-member in 2019. As a woman of color on the committee, she’s committed to partner with organizations that empower emerging environmental stewards and underrepresented communities which the Sierra Club should involve.
As one of the committee’s youngest members, Liliana admits there exists a sense of intimidation.
“You’re right, it can be hard to feel a sense of belonging at times. Some of my fellow committee members have been at this work longer than I’ve been alive, and that’s intimidating. They come with so much wisdom, knowledge, and experience. It’s hard to know when and where to insert yourself.”
Though she’s still getting used to being the ‘new kid on the block’, Liliana has learned to embrace the feeling of uneasiness.
“It’s something that I have had to learn to deal with as I level-up in the environmental field as a young professional -- learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
So, what’s Liliana’s advice to young people who are maybe interested in getting involved with the Chapter’s many committees? She encourages young people like her to just go for it!
“At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that this is volunteer work, we’re not here for a paycheck, we choose to be involved because it’s work we love. And I think it would be more fun if younger people joined so you’re surrounded by people your age, who share the same interests and experiences.”
“I just joined the Chapter’s Equity Advisory Group and I think that’s really a priority in the Sierra Club. Not only bringing in younger folks into the group but bringing in more people of color.”
“We’ve only had one meeting so far, but I’m really hopeful. The group is well-lead and we’ve identified concrete next steps to take. That’s something I think a lot of other organizations are struggling with right now. Wanting to show up at this critical moment, but not following through.”
In the time that we’ve all been physically distancing ourselves to help slow the spread of COVID-19, Liliana has been able to dedicate more of her time to her interests outside of work and the club. She’s an avid bird watcher, painter and recently adopted a puppy who keeps her plenty busy.
She’s eager for outings and in-person meetings with the club to resume in the near future, but until then, she knows the Chapter is doing it’s best to engage with new groups virtually. She also encourages those interested in preserving and restoring our forests to follow the Forest Committee on Facebook and lookout for upcoming events.
Tell us what you think about these profiles and who you would like to see featured in the future in the comments section below. And please, share far and wide with young environmentalists or anyone who you know would be interested in reading Liliana’s story. Don’t forget to tag us on Facebook (@SierraClubAngeles) and Twitter (@SierraClubLA_OC).