Nina Omomo was in her final semester at San Francisco State University as the world locked down into the pandemic. After six years of balancing coursework and working at a restaurant to pay her way through college, Nina had one final requirement to graduate with a degree in Environmental Studies. An internship.
Her schedule was already busy with work, and she did not have existing work experience in the environmental field to feel qualified for an internship. In her search, she found a volunteer opportunity at a native plant nursery with a local non-profit, Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ). LEJ promotes ecological health, stewardship, and community development in SE San Francisco that directly engages and supports local residents in securing a healthier future. As a part of their programming, they manage a native plant nursery and conduct habitat restoration projects throughout the Candlestick State Recreation Area and throughout the Bayview Hunter’s Point community.
Nina walked into that first volunteer experience with some hesitation – would she feel like an outsider? Was this going to be a “pretentious” environmental non-profit? Did she have the skills and experience to be successful? She was relieved by what she found. The atmosphere was laid back, the work was important to the community, it was fun and, most importantly to Nina, it was inclusive – anyone could volunteer, with or without any experience with plants. “I did not feel inferior, and it was very welcoming. I could see myself coming back and doing this type of work.” So, she kept going. Every Saturday morning for several months.
Eventually, Nina applied for a training opportunity through LEJ’s Eco-Apprenticeship program. The Eco-Apprenticeship program is a paid workforce development internship serving youth ages 18-25 each year. Most participants are people of color, many of whom are from the low-income neighborhoods of southeast San Francisco.
Through the training, Nina learned the importance of native plants for ecosystem health, how to source them, get them established, and steward them. To her, a fulfilling part of the internship was learning through mentors. She learned to advocate for herself. She learned to read a landscape and envision a plan for restoration. “I learned more in my one year at LEJ than I did in 6 years of college,” she said. “And, I learned to do something that I like to do which can be hard to find.” Her favorite project? A living shoreline and sea-level rise enhancement project where Nina has been leading a crew to support invasive sea lavender removal and grow thousands of native plants for the revegetation of the site.
Now an Eco-Apprenticeship program graduate, Nina has just been promoted to a full-time position with LEJ as a restoration coordinator. Nina’s encouraging story is one of many coming out of workforce development programs throughout the state that broaden access and training opportunities in resource stewardship.
Literacy for Environmental Justice is one of six of the 2021 Parks California’s Natural Resource Career Pathways Grantees. Learn more at parkscalifornia.org/pathways.