This is the 50th of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
Lorena Lopez is Community Engagement Specialist at Field Museum’s Keller Science Action Center, responsible for interfacing with communities including on the city’s Far South Side and in Gary. She shared her story with us in her own words. Her comments were slightly edited.
“I’m getting ready for the Beaubien Woods celebration [June 14]. We’re giving out nature bags: native plant plugs and native seeds, milkweed, goldenrod and nodding onion. People really respond to that. We’re lucky enough at the museum to be able to grow these seeds, collect them and put them in envelopes to give to folks. It really feels like I’m Johnny Appleseed.
“My job is to be a connector with communities, connecting with local organizations and community councils in Altgeld [on the city's Far South Side]. It’s an environmental justice community. What’s happening is a bridge and connection to Beaubien Woods [Forest Preserve]. We’re advocating for safe passage from the community to the woods and stewarding Beaubien Woods once a month. We’re connecting with the community.
“I’m not a naturalist and not an ecologist. I don’t specialize in birds, I specialize in people. People need nature, and nature needs people. It’s a duality that’s been present since the creation of this earth. Sometimes a lot of people in conservation forget we need people to thrive.
“A lot of people on the South Side have gone through gun violence and systems to oppress people of color. I have found nature to be completely healing and want to introduce people to its healing powers. We are going to need [nature] to heal. I’m here to support them.
“I started with LVEJO (Little Village Environmental Justice Organization) 15 years ago. As a community we saw a lot of environmental justice issues, starting with a coal-fired power plant and high levels of toxins. I was an open space organizer for more than five years and worked to have a park developed in a just way for communities.
"I want to be clear that conservation is a tool for people. But I will never push my communities to make our programming a higher priority [than addressing health risks]. Removing buckthorn is important, too, but people's lives are at stake.
"It’s not the same thing as when people can’t breathe, and they’re being rained on by toxic chemicals. These people’s lives are really at risk.”
The Field Museum has two upcoming trainings for its Monarch Community Science Project. The trainings will take place June 18 in Spanish and June 20 in English. Learn more here.