Stepping into their strengths: Teens gifted with life-changing environmental education experience 

Stepping into their strengths: Teens gifted with life-changing environmental education experience 

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From advocate to mentor to donor 

Gwen Heistand recently retired from Audubon Canyon Ranch after an illustrious 21-year career with the organization as Martin Griffin Preserve resident biologist, preserve manager, and director of education. One of the bright stars she’s left in our sky is her ongoing commitment to the Conservation Science Intensive (CSI) program. 

CSI is a residential, field-based experience designed to empower youth leadership in the environmental sphere. The program centers on the feminine, including young people who identify as transgender, non-binary, and/or as women. Participants develop valuable leadership skills, become more confident in using their unique voice, are mentored by expert leaders with diverse pathways into the conservation field, and often follow their passion for nature into career paths they learned about through CSI.  

We sat down with Heistand to hear about her CSI journey, from advocate to mentor to donor: 

Audubon Canyon Ranch (ACR): What was the genesis of the CSI program  — how did it come to life? 

Gwen Heistand (GH): The whole thing started in 2016 when Audubon Canyon Ranch secured funding to launch a mentor-based summer science program. We were so lucky to hire Julia [Clothier], who had a ton of great experience starting and running a camp as the director of the Clem Miller Environmental Education Center. We took a look around and saw these crazy talented women at Audubon Canyon Ranch and all of this beautiful land. It was kind of like magic, watching it all unfold. Before the students even got there, being able to sit in a room with the women scientists and educators of Audubon Canyon Ranch, and talk about what we wanted to see, what we wished we’d had, and how we could tie the whole thing together for high school students. It was one of my favorite things about my tenure to that point.  

ACR: Can you describe what it was like to see the program unfold “in real life?” 

GH: I watched some of the women of Audubon Canyon Ranch who didn’t necessarily feel comfortable in a teaching role or weren’t sure how to relate to high schoolers flourish in this incredibly safe and creative environment. That week inspired everybody. I remember a participating biologist summing it up when she said, “You know, I didn’t have any hope. And now I do.” So, I think that we certainly learned as much as the students.  

ACR: What did you witness in the students who attended? 

GH: That first year, there was a lot of van time because we traveled to all the preserves, and just hearing the conversations, where the students were getting comfortable and excited about the fact that they didn’t have to put non makeup and they hadn’t looked at their phone. It was so cool to watch that sort of transformation and see the friendships that were formed.  

ACR: What inspired your desire to become a donor? 

GH: My mother was one of the only female chemistry majors in her college. I have a photograph of her teaching chemistry to a class full of guys with Einstein and other male scientists posted above the blackboard. I think about what she experienced and what I experienced as a woman in a technical field. We both care about how much is changing and how much still needs to change and value contributing to a program like CSI. When my dad passed away from dementia, we were able to use his IRA to contribute to things we (and he) value. My mom loves getting the program updates, seeing what’s going on, and she’s really happy to have that be one of the ways we use that money. And I believe in this program so deeply. 

ACR: What moves you about the CSI program? 

GH: I think about last year, when we drove to the top of the [Martin Griffin Preserve] ridge and emerged from the dense redwood fog. A couple of students from the Midwest emerged from the van and started hugging each other and jumping up and down in this wholly new landscape. Or, the total joy expressed in early morning tidepools. Or, students spread out in the expanse of Walker Creek delta looking for invasive species. Or, gathered around a lion kill hypothesizing about what happened. Or, collecting data about invasive crayfish and seeing what results when our hypotheses are wrong. And watching that understanding dawn about the way science is done — if something tested doesn’t work, you get more information and come up with another hypothesis. Just being able to be part of all of that has been a real joy for me. 

ACR: What do you hope to change by being a donor? 

GH: To participate in some small way in creating a community of folks engaged and inspired by conservation that spans genders and ages and geography.  

Imagine being an excited, curious, and slightly anxious teen — and finding yourself amid towering redwoods, tide pools, salt marshes, grasslands, and coastal strands with others your same age — all of whom have come together because something in them loves this world and wants to understand it better. Now add peer mentors who have experienced the program in years past and conservation professionals who were once young themselves with the same yearnings…give them a week in a serene space of astounding beauty to learn and play and grow and step into their strengths.  

It’s a gift of community that will stretch into their lives for years to come. This is why I love CSI, why I contribute to the program, and why I have participated whole-heartedly since its inception. 

Foto de Paige Green

Join Gwen in supporting CSI 

CSI is funded through support from our community. To learn how you can join Gwen in supporting this program, contact Jen Newman ([email protected]) or make a charitable gift today and note CSI.