Spotlight Story

22 November 2023

Yessenia Méndez: Breaking Cultural Barriers and Fostering Inclusivity

Category: Spotlight Story

The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge holds a sanctuary within the city of Philadelphia. As part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, visitors can expect to find a network of lands set aside for native wildlife and plant species. An added layer of value this refuge holds is the charisma and passion individuals like Yessenia Méndez bring to the workplace. As an Invasive Species Fellow, her journey through conservation biology reflects not only her commitment to environmental stewardship but also her efforts to break cultural barriers and foster inclusivity within her field.

Yessenia has been working at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge for over a year and a half now. Her responsibilities encompass a wide spectrum, from conducting invasive species surveys across the refuge during summers to leading volunteer groups in habitat restoration efforts.

“I've been here for two summers, so I've surveyed the entire refuge. That's just going in and looking to see how many invasive species we have and the density. Later, we use that data and put it in GIS to do habitat restoration, seeing where the problem areas are and taking care of them by planning to do some planting or weeding.”

Born to Nicaraguan immigrants, she grapples with familial expectations, seeking to bridge the gap between traditional perceptions and the unconventional outdoor work in which she finds her calling. Her determination to challenge stereotypes within her community has pushed her to be a leader of representation for people of color within the biology and conservation realm. Her commitment to fostering diversity in conservation echoes through her active involvement in educational programs. She has contributed to initiatives like Philly Nature Kids, which engage students, especially those from Latino backgrounds, introducing them to the wonders of nature and the possibilities within the field of biology.

“Doing outdoor work comes with negative connotations and emotions, but this is the happiest I've been in a long time because of the career I chose. I realized that thinking outside work is bad is a common misinterpretation that needs to be addressed within our community. Realizing this led me to feel responsible for being the representation we so desperately need in this field. I didn't grow up hearing about Latino biologists, nor did I see them. I didn't see much Latino representation at all growing up. So now that I'm older, I love going to the schools for Philly Nature Kids.”

Yessenia actively participates in public events, ensuring Latino students feel represented in green spaces and fostering a sense of belonging that she yearned for during her formative years. She remains pushing forward in her pursuit of a fulfilling career in conservation within the federal government.

“One of my big projects at John Heinz this Summer was leading a tree planting project. My supervisor gave me the responsibility just to understand how to clear up an area in which there were a lot of invasive plant species, and how we were just going to plant other trees. Beyond that, I also got volunteers involved. That was a big thing for me just to think about every little possibility in planning it out, making sure that everything went smoothly, and it did.”

Her involvement with Hispanic Access Foundation has not only provided her with valuable opportunities but has also amplified her voice within the conservation sphere. Through this fellowship, she was able to do a detail in San Diego for a week alongside her mentor at the Fish and Wildlife Service. While there, she was able to learn about the invasive species they have there and understand concepts about community engagement and partnerships in the area.

“With the Hispanic Access Foundation itself, I have felt very supported the whole time. This is a very special opportunity that I got to have. I feel like it gave me a voice. Just being able to have a community that can relate to some things that I'm going through, just career-wise and also family-wise.”

For Latino Conservation Week, Yessenia was flown to Two Rivers Park, in Glenwood Springs Colorado. During her time there, she learned about the community's needs, and how they were approaching current challenges related to land preservation and access. She also had the opportunity to write about the importance of Latinos in parks and having a week to celebrate the integration of culture, heritage, and natural preservation.

Yessenia's journey signifies not only a personal quest for fulfillment but also a broader mission to break barriers and stereotypes and empower underrepresented communities within conservation biology.

“We all are connected. The plants, the animals, the people, the land. Understanding that brings harmony. Giving others a voice and using your voice to advocate for others and the land and what is right is extremely important. I think that type of leadership is what we need to see more of.”

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