by Jessie Lyn Thompson
It’s no secret that technology usage in younger generations is on the rise, and that kids today spend less time outdoors than ever before. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s study on media usage among children goes so far as to say that some kids ages 8-18 spend more time engulfed in media than sleeping. Of course, technology isn’t the only culprit keeping kids indoors, but with so much time devoted to screens, it’s no wonder that kids don’t make it outside anymore. We bombard the youth of our nation with the latest and greatest technological advances and updates. The result? A generation lacking a relationship with the outdoors, a generation deprived of an appreciation for the natural world, a generation suffering from what Richard Louv calls Nature-deficit Disorder a term to describe the growing gap between children and nature.
‘Our culture’s faith in technological immersion seems to have no limits, and we drift ever deeper into a sea of circuitry.’ -Richard Louv, The Nature Principle
It sounds like a scary medical condition that requires Ritalin or Insulin or some other synthetic pharmaceutical miracle pill, but the solution is rather simple: go play outside. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Louv explores the implications of Nature-deficit Disorder and its potential links to several serious problems that youth experience today: obesity, ADHD, and depression. According to Louv, learning about nature and playing outdoors can inspire children in ways necessary to their development. He argues that “an environment-based education movement, at all levels of education, will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.”
At the forefront of the movement stands 27-year-old Juan Martinez, an environmentalist who works to bring youth from diverse backgrounds into nature and to strengthen communities through the outdoors. Captivated by the beauty of nature and its ability to empower people, Martinez set out on a journey that would ultimately bridge international communities together in a quest to incorporate nature into the daily lives of children everywhere. “I believe that using nature as a facilitator for positive change will benefit both the people and the environment. The more we connect with nature as communities, the more likely we are to preserve and protect it.”
At the forefront of the movement stands 27-year-old Juan Martinez, an environmentalist who works to bring youth from diverse backgrounds into nature and to strengthen communities through the outdoors. Captivated by the beauty of nature and its ability to empower people, Martinez set out on a journey that would ultimately bridge international communities together in a quest to incorporate nature into the daily lives of children everywhere. “I believe that using nature as a facilitator for positive change will benefit both the people and the environment. The more we connect with nature as communities, the more likely we are to preserve and protect it.
From a failing grade in his high school science class to becoming the first person in his family to earn a college degree, Martinez has raised the bar and cleared the hurdles at every turn along his journey. Martinez’s story begins on the streets of Compton in south central Los Angeles, one of the toughest neighborhoods in the nation. Faced with temptations from gangs, Martinez seriously considered what life as a gang member could offer. “I was young and naïve, and gangs put food on the table.” Fortunately, Martinez grew up with a loving and supportive family who stressed quality education. But a successful academic career wasn’t the first thing on Martinez’s mind. Sentenced to three months of detention, Martinez received an ultimatum from a hopeful science teacher: stay in detention or join the Eco Club.
“Eco Club was the polar opposite of something cool and worth doing,” recalls Martinez. “I was a football player, so I figured I could just run the place, but my teacher didn’t care who I was.” The club sponsor told Martinez to grab a bag of seeds and head out to the garden. “I chose jalapeño seeds for my mom. I wanted to show my mom I could do something positive because I was doing a lot of negative things.” Somewhere along the lines, as the jalapeño plants began to sprout and grow, Martinez realized that his teachers had tricked him. He started researching how to measure pH levels and how to till the soil and compost. He started to become a better student. “Understanding science and physics gave me strength and inspiration. I wanted to share that.” Building upon his success in the Eco Club, a life-changing opportunity came about when Martinez won a scholarship to study at the Teton Science School in Jackson, WY. Martinez would spend two weeks in a fertile valley hiking through mountains and sleeping under the stars.
Martinez describes the experience as “mind-blowing beyond imagination” and the catalyst he was searching for. “It was the first time sleeping somewhere without hearing gunshots or helicopters.” He remembers looking at shooting stars through a telescope and feeling like a part of two very different worlds. “I could see more stars than I could count. As small as you feel, you feel so connected.” He immediately wanted to share the experience with his family and friends.
“I began looking at life in a way that improves my own life and more importantly, others.”
Thus began the snowball effect, gathering momentum and paving a path for Martinez to become one of the premier youth environmentalists in the nation. He began making waves with the Sierra Club and Outward Bound, bringing underrepresented youth out into nature, an experience he marks as significant to his chosen path. “Not all the kids responded, but many of them did. It reaffirmed that I was doing something I loved.” Martinez recalls one kid in particular who impacted his desire for youth outreach and its ability to make a significant difference in the lives of others. “He was the kid who always got sent to the back of the line. We had a deep conversation about life,” explains Martinez. “I told him to find out what’s beyond your comfort zone; it’s where you grow. You can always go back.” That same kid later became a counselor as well, leading his peers on the very same trips.
In 2008, author Richard Louv and Sierra Club representative Martin LeBlanc, a mentor and major player in Martinez’s life, sat down with Martinez to ask him his thoughts on possible solutions to getting kids outside and growing the movement. “It surprised me at the time because we were always being told what matters, not asked. It felt like somebody was actually listening,” says Martinez. Sticking to his principles of community and leadership, Martinez suggested that a peer-to-peer network of leaders from high schools and colleges around the country would be a good place to start. “I wanted to build this from the ground up.”
Shortly after their meeting, Children & Nature Network (C&NN), an organization striving to close the gap between children and nature, in partnership with the Sierra Club, offered Martinez the chance to enact his idea. “I thought back to the Eco Club. It was very risky and very new; but it felt like the right thing to do.” In Nebraska City, NE, the birthplace of Arbor Day, thirteen young leaders from around the country met to discuss how to get their communities outside and the Natural Leaders Network was born. “It was a call to action,” says Martinez. “We wanted to bring young leaders together in a supportive and encouraging way.” The initial conference proved a huge success, and the program expanded, jumping up to twelve events in a nationwide program called Let’s G.O.! (Get Outside). In a few short years, the program has grown exponentially as 300,000 people across all fifty states, Canada, Africa, and Australia got involved in 2012. “We’re not alone. I’m so happy to share our trials, tribulations, and celebrations.”
Continuing his success, National Geographic selected Martinez as a 2011, Emerging Explorer, an esteemed honor given to individuals making a significant contribution to knowledge through exploration. “I didn’t know whether to believe it or not. I wanted to make sure they had the right guy.” National Geographic featured Martinez in an Emmy award-winning PSA highlighting his story, shot in his own Compton backyard. “It was one of the most validating moments in my career. I realized how important the work was on a global scale.” Paralleling Martinez’s passion for encouraging a direct relationship between communities and nature, National Geographic Explorers sponsors an annual event called BioBlitz where everyday citizens team up with scientists and other volunteers to spend a day collecting scientific data in a National Park. “It gives the people ownership and accountability. It shows people they don’t need a PhD to care about the land.” says Martinez.
As a life mantra, Martinez once noted, “If you can survive in the hood and you can survive in the woods, you can survive anywhere.” Well, Martinez doesn’t just survive; he thrives. Today, Martinez campaigns for the cause all over the country as an ambassador for the North Face, a Sierra Club spokesperson, and a Green For All fellow. He currently serves as the Director of Leadership at C&NN, where he is developing a curriculum for the Natural Leaders program. “It’s a curriculum based on community leadership, outing certification, and engagement in the outdoors.”
Additionally, Martinez advises the U.S. Department for the Interior on a youth conservation corps program.
He attributes his success to the people he encounters along the way and their devotion to the mission. “It really goes out to the communities. It’s a privilege and an honor to work with them.”
Guided by a stern moral compass and a fistful of passion, Martinez continues to spearhead the millennial environmental movement. However, he has a bone to pick with many of the movement’s leading voices. “These messages of sounding the alarms are not working.” Take for instance the polar bear crisis and the melting of the polar ice caps. Martinez believes that to help the polar bears, environmentalists should help the local and global community to understand and relate to the crisis, especially the youth. “It should be more of a narrative that addresses the mutual benefit of people and bears,” says Martinez. “Yes, these are environmental issues, but they are ultimately human issues.” Martinez doesn’t see much room for hope or growth if environmentalists continue to push the idea of an impending doomsday. “Instead of focusing on the dire environmental dilemmas, we need to celebrate our connection with nature and build from there,” stresses Martinez. “Dr. King didn’t say he had a nightmare.” The message of hope, clearly evident in Martinez’s convictions, has the potential to rekindle a connection between kids and nature and beyond. Richard Louv, a major influence on Martinez, mimics similar sentiments about relating the environment to humans. “Our relationship with nature is not only about preserving land and water but about preserving and growing the bonds between us.” Both Martinez and Louv believe that mending the broken bond between children and nature can help heal the broken bond between each other. “It’s really about the empowerment of people,” says Martinez. So it would seem that the remedy for Nature-deficit Disorder mutually benefits and uplifts our children, our communities, our planet, and ourselves. All we have to do is go outside? “Go take a breath of fresh air,” suggests Martinez. “It’s a beautiful thing to be alive in today’s world.”