Ernesto Pepito was raised by his mother, Patricia, in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District, along with an older sister, an older brother and a younger brother. Today, he oversees youth leadership programs for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the Bay Area’s National Parks and making sure they are accessible to all people. Ernesto was appointed to his current position after he launched and managed an award-winning program at the Crissy Field Center called Inspiring Young Emerging Leaders (I-YEL).
I think the beautiful thing about the parks and Crissy Field is that they allow people to decide for themselves how they want to use these amazing public resources we have in San Francisco. It’s the whole idea of the National Parks that everyone’s invited, even those who haven’t traditionally been invited. Many times, those who are not visiting these parks are the young people and communities who could really benefit from them.
There’s a stereotype that caring about the environment and nature is for white people or that only white people go camping or hiking or care about parks. Part of what I do in my work is to shatter that perception among young people and help them understand that the parks are for everyone, and that caring about your environment is the same as caring about your community.
When Ernesto was in middle school, a representative of the San Francisco Conservation Corps (SFCC) visited his class to talk about the program. Established in 1983, SFCC provides young people from low-income families with opportunities to learn life and work skills while enhancing and protecting the city’s natural resources and parks.
I wasn't involved in clubs or sports. But any chance I could get, whether it was during the summer or after school, I was outdoors with friends playing football and other games. And, for whatever reason, I grabbed the SFCC application and filled it out and they gave me the job. I guess I wanted my mom to have less to worry about. Getting a job felt like it was something that would help the family. I was making $20 a week. It seems like nothing now, but then it seemed huge.
It was a really amazing program. They worked with probably 60 or 80 middle school students to do community service on Saturdays and everyone got a small check at the end of it. I ended up doing that my whole eighth grade year. We were picking up trash and recyclables at Twin Peaks. And then we’d go to Golden Gate Park and do restoration projects. Through the program, I was getting to feel a bigger sense of what San Francisco is and a bigger sense of where I was living. It expanded my world.
When Ernesto started high school, he became a leader in the program and was tasked with supervising other students. Before long, he believed he had found his calling in life. After graduating from high school, he took a full-time job with the San Francisco Conservation Corps thanks to funding from Americorps, the federal government’s program to promote community service.
It was those four years in high school that convinced me I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to have an impact on young people. I felt like I was achieving something positive. I felt like I was getting really good at leading young people at community service projects and leading workshops.
During my senior year in high school, I already had a plan to apply to AmeriCorps so I could work there full-time. They had the middle school students wear yellow hats, and the high school students had green hats. And the adult leaders had blue hats like hardhats. I already knew I needed to have a blue hat. I knew I wanted to be a crew leader. And I wanted that to be my full-time job.
So for two years I led middle school and high school programs for them as the a crew leader. As someone who came straight out of high school, I felt like an expert when I was doing this work because I had been raised through these programs. I could make these connections. It was an amazing feeling. As hard as my college graduate co-workers tried, the other leaders couldn’t make connections to these kids like I could.
Ernesto was recruited to work at Crissy Field in 2001 by a former supervisor at SFCC, Michele Gee (she is now Chief of Interpretation with Golden Gate National Parks). Crissy Field celebrated its grand reopening that year after a $34.5 million restoration campaign made possible by lead grants from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and Colleen and Robert Haas. As part of the reopening, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy created the Crissy Field Center, which offers a range of educational and outreach programs for people from all over the Bay Area. One of the signature initiatives of the Center is Inspiring Young Emerging Leaders (I-YEL), which was created to engage young people in furthering the mission of the park.
While they were still in the planning process, they started holding meetings so people could advise them on what this Crissy Field Center should be. Michele Gee invited me to a few of these meetings just to check it out and give some input. Eventually, she asked me to help design a youth leadership program with high school students. I was very passionate about what I was doing with SFCC, but at the same time the idea of having a blank canvas and being able to work with people I already respected to build or create something new seemed very exciting at the time.
So we created I-YEL and now we have high school students come here every Wednesday after school for two hours then three Saturdays a month for about six hours. They’re learning what the National Parks are about and why they are so important. They’re exposed to environmental issues affecting their community. We change up the program every year so it’s fresh. One year we might focus on water pollution. The next year it might be environmental justice. And they’ll also be learning leadership skills at the same time, whether it’s public speaking and other communications, or working as a team together.
Then basically we hand the program off to them where they’re able to take everything they learned and do something with the new knowledge and skills that they have. So they have to pick an issue that means something to them. And they have to decide what they’re going to do about it. We had one group put on a very successful play. Others have organized mini-carnivals in front of the center about global warming. They’ve produced videos about renewable energy. And last year they put on a conference at Rob Hill Campground at the Presidio called “Backyard Bound.” They invited 100 high school students from all over the Bay Area to experience the outdoors and share ideas on how they and their communities can use the outdoors more.
Although the Crissy Field Center is an environmental education center, I don't necessarily consider myself an environmental educator. This is youth work. It’s about trying to have students think about themselves, think about their surroundings, and what their role is to influence those surroundings and themselves.
Ernesto completed his undergraduate degree while working at the Crissy Field Center. He enrolled at California State University, East Bay; Ernesto was the first person in his family to go to college. After managing the I-YEL program for many years, he recently was named Associate Director, Youth Leadership, with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. In his new role, he is overseeing the Conservancy’s youth programs in the parks while traveling around the country as an expert on youth leadership initiatives in the National Parks.
My first plane ride was through the Crissy Field Center. I’ve been to conferences about diversity in the National Parks. I have gone to South Africa as a delegate to the World Parks Congress. I’ve become a representative for the Crissy Field Center and the Conservancy at gatherings around the country. I also got to travel to Washington and meet President Obama as part of an initiative called America’s Great Outdoors.
I’ve also gotten involved in a committee of the National Parks Second Century Commission, which is looking at how you make the National Parks relevant to everyone, especially those people who don’t have a connection to the parks right now. It’s really a huge honor, and it’s an endorsement that says the work we’ve done here at the Parks Conservancy has been successful enough that it’s important for others to know about it and possibly learn some lessons from what we’re doing.
The I-YEL program at the Crissy Field Center recently won the “Take Pride in America” award from the U.S. Department of the Interior as an outstanding youth program. Each year, 22 students from across the city participate in the program and grow as leaders, conservationists and citizens. The majority of participants come from low-income families. Of the students who have participated in the program, 100 percent went on to graduate from high school and 90 percent have gone to college.
Part of the work I do is about re-envisioning what an environmentalist is. It's someone who cares about problems caused by a liquor store on their corner. It’s someone who wants clean water in his home. I have seen how in Africa and other countries caring about the environment is a life-or-death issue. But here you really have to help people make the connection between the environment and their daily lives.
Being in this park and learning more about it and working here gives students a connection to this place. This becomes a place where they feel safe and comfortable. It becomes their place … a park for everybody, and especially those people who don’t have access to opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and nature.
Crissy Field is located in a very affluent part of San Francisco. And all of our effort, every minute of my time, is dedicated to thinking about the young people who don't get to live here but who have a right to be in this park. That means something to me, and that will keep me happiest if I’m working to provide opportunities for those young people.
Related: Relive the transformation of Crissy Field with this slideshow: Crissy Field: From Airfield to Urban Park