welve thousand feet up in the Ecuadorean Andes,
“We’ll be working with an Ecuadorean-based NGO called Fundación Cordillera Tropical,” Carrera says into the camera, his Spanish pronunciation flawless as he documents his current mission. The goal, he says, is to capture images of two cats, the oncilla and the margay, using motion-sensitive camera traps. The cats were first documented in 2008, “and it was a groundbreaking discovery because they’ve never been known to exist at this elevation in Ecuador,” Carrera explains.
“They’re about the size of a housecat but as ferocious as a tiger …”
Carrera speaks with the authority of a longtime conservationist. You’d never guess that the 21-year-old experienced wilderness for the first time in 2007. A mere four years ago, saving and studying the environment were the furthest things from his mind. He and his family were homeless and living in a shelter in Bushwick, Brooklyn. A calling in conservation, much less a college education, seemed
“Everything I knew about nature was from documentaries and the Discovery Channel,” says Carrera.
How Joshua Carrera rose from the depths of a poverty-stricken childhood spent in the city to a job protecting wildlife on some of the world’s highest peaks is far more than a story about a disadvantaged kid who beats the odds. To be sure, Carrera’s tale is one of heart and grit. But his journey also embodies the transformative power nature can have on an individual, as well as the importance of programs that expose children to the outdoors.
In an increasingly urban world, the future of conservation may well depend on city kids like Carrera and environmental education programs like the one that made him such a strong advocate in the first place.
Disconnected From Nature
In 2008, for the first time, more than half the world’s population resided in cities. In the United States, which crossed that urban line long ago, the number is now more than 80 percent. On average, U.S. children today have less exposure to nature than did any prior generation. Add to that the projection that by 2050 the traditional core of the environmental movement—people who are older and white—will be a minority, and you have a recipe for unprecedented alienation from the natural world. “If there is a future of the environmental movement, it’s one that’s more diverse, and one that has more people from urban areas in it,” says Richard Louv, author of the 2005 bestseller Last Child in the Woods. Louv posits that children today are suffering from “nature deficit disorder”—a disconnect from nature that threatens not only their physical and emotional well-being but the future of conservation as well.
Homeless and Confused
Carrera still remembers the shock of the eviction notice. “Suddenly there was a big yellow stamp on the door,” he says. “For the first week I felt like a zombie. I just didn’t know what was going on.”
He was 15. His mother, Alicia, who had come to the United States from Milagro, Ecuador, had been working two jobs, raising Carrera and his sister on her own. The three were scraping by until Alicia suffered a spinal injury in 2004 and the family became entirely dependent on government aid. Within two years the aid dried up, and they hit bottom.
The Carreras made their way to a family-services office in the Bronx where many people slept on the floor. “I remember thinking if you end up here, it’s really bad,” Carrera says. A bus took them to a shelter, in Bushwick, Brooklyn. As they waited nearly a year for more permanent housing, the conditions took their toll.
“I was angry,” says Carrera. “I was confused and lost. Of all my friends, I never thought I would be the one homeless.” To cope, Carrera started boxing at a local club, and he kept working hard at school. He was attending the High School for Environmental Studies, not because of any interest in environmental issues, but because it got him out of Brooklyn, and it offered strong science courses. School was a remaining bright spot in his life. Brighter still was the possibility of landing a summer job away from the city and his circumstances, perhaps through the Conservancy’s LEAF program. In 2006, as a sophomore, Carrera applied for the summer program, never mentioning his family’s problems to anyone at school or in his internship application. But space was limited, and he was rejected. “I was pretty devastated,” he says, “but the thought of spending the summer in that shelter …” So he reapplied.
Getting His Hands Dirty
The Conservancy’s goal for the LEAF program is to give the very kids who are least exposed to nature a personal experience in nature. And as Carrera would learn, a single month can translate into a long-term commitment.
But first, he had to figure out how to adapt to an outdoor life—no small feat for a city boy.
How alien can the natural world be to an urban kid? LEAF veterans tell the story of an intern from Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, who was in New Jersey taking marine life samples with a net and pulled in a jellyfish. He thought it was a discarded silicon breast implant.
Aaron Davitt, a graduate student in geology at the City College of New York, was hired by LEAF to help Carrera and two other interns adjust to Vermont and to train them to do the work of conservationists. The job at hand was to hunt down and remove invasive plant species like buckthorn and Japanese barberry from Conservancy preserves. On some days, they hiked with 50-pound backpacks and ripped out invasives in 95-degree heat plus humidity.
Carrera had never worked so hard in his life. In addition to adjusting to the physical demands, he had to change his ideas about himself. “Coming from New York City, I always had the freshest pair of kicks on, I always cared about the way I dressed,” he says. “Working in nature meant dressing differently and not caring about getting your hands dirty.”
From Davitt’s perspective, Carrera was a natural by the end of the first week. He was such a hard worker that he “raised the bar for every kid that worked in Vermont.”
As he ripped out weeds in the silence of the forest, Carrera began to discover a quiet within himself that had been obscured by the constant, mechanical din of the city. With it came a sense of purpose. “It was very peaceful. Very different, but very satisfying,” he says. “When you work with invasive species, you feel like you’re genuinely helping out because you’re obliterating these bad pests.”
Every day brought new challenges, like stepping into a wobbly canoe to snatch invasive plants from Lake Champlain, and new experiences, like jumping into the murky waters of a woodland pond for a swim. One day Davitt, who had also grown up poor, asked his crew whether there was anything else they’d been hoping to do out in nature. “We want to see the stars,” they all said. So one evening Davitt took them to an open field and introduced them to the constellations. Carrera had studied astronomy, but having spent his life in a city, he had been lucky to see just four or five stars on a good night. Now, out in that field, hundreds of miles from New York, he looked up and was in awe.
Getting close to nature is one aspect of the LEAF program’s mission. Another is introducing the kids to local colleges. Davitt’s interns lived in a dorm at Green Mountain College, in Poultney. For the first time in his life, Carrera became self-reliant—budgeting his money and washing his own clothes. He began to see college not as an abstract goal but as a real choice. He asked Davitt for advice about where to apply. “He was looking for some reassurance,” says Davitt. “I told him you just have to be yourself, and you’ll find a place.”
“LEAF gave me insight,” Carrera says, “an opportunity to experience something completely new that really, really grew on me.” He adds, “After spending the summer in nature, I thought, ‘Wow, I want to do this, but I want to take it to the next level.’”
Onward and Upward
Carrera’s experiences that summer planted a seed that grew fast, deep and strong. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in the University of Vermont and landed other internships with the Conservancy near Choteau, Montana, and in Long Island, New York. Since then, hardly a summer or even a school break passes in which he’s not off on some new adventure involving conservation or volunteering. On his own, he has raised money to build homes for indigenous communities in Guatemala. And Griswold, LEAF’s director, still encourages his efforts: She urged him to apply for the subsequent Conservancy internships. And she helped with essays and provided letters of recommendation when he applied for a scholarship that supports study-abroad projects. The funds allowed him to work in the Andes on the camera-trapping project. Above all, Griswold stays in touch.
“In the conservation community,” says Griswold, “we have this idea that relates to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that people aren’t really going to care about the environment unless they have all of these other basic needs met. Joshua really defied all of that.”
Carrera is one of the LEAF program’s most stellar success stories, but there are others. One of his teammates from his first summer with the Conservancy, Daniel Heller, is currently traveling around the world doing community service; the other, Victor Medina, is a triple major at the State University of New York at Albany and plans on getting a graduate degree in natural resources at Cornell University. Most of the more than 400 kids who have graduated from the LEAF program have gone on to college, and many continue to work in conservation. The program attracts more applicants than it can accept, even though its enrollment has risen from nine interns to 72. Last year the program expanded to New Haven, Connecticut, and a recent $3.1 million grant to the Conservancy, from the Toyota U.S.A Foundation, will allow LEAF to expand further by offering internships to high school students in other cities. This summer will see the launch of partnerships with environmentally themed high schools in Atlanta and Newark, New Jersey; next year, more satellites are planned in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Patricia Salas Pineda, group vice president of philanthropy for Toyota Motor North America, calls the LEAF program “impressive.” Toyota’s support began with an $800,000 grant in 2010 after Pineda met kids from the program. She was stunned not only by the effect the program had on their outlook on conservation but also by their inward personal growth. “They were learning about the environment and developing an appreciation, but their stories went beyond that,” Pineda says. “They talked about really maturing as young adults, learning more independence, more self-reliance ... they learned to develop leadership skills.”
After completing his fieldwork in the Ecuadorean Andes, Carrera heads to Belém, Brazil, where he will be working with another study-abroad program. There he’ll learn about balancing the needs of the Amazon rainforest with those of the farmers and indigenous peoples who depend on it. No doubt, he’ll also be filing more video dispatches about his latest mission. But when it comes to documenting his own place in the world, his self-portraits are most telling.
Whenever Carrera visits a new place, he finds a scenic spot and leaps as high as he can into the air. Then he snaps a photo of himself performing the leap. In some pictures he appears to be floating above the ground; in others he’s launching skyward. They’re all part of his “defying gravity” collection—reminders to himself that he has beaten the odds.