What We Can All Learn from Alfredo Gonzalez Velez
By Lisa Jhung • August 5, 2022
Alfredo Gonzalez Velez may be just 24 years old, but he’s quickly making his mark on the world of environmental stewardship. He’s doing what he can to encourage people, specifically members of the LatinX community, to have access to and take advantage of natural spaces for recreation and mental health.
For the past year, he’s volunteered with Latino Outdoors, an organization with the mission of inspiring, connecting, and engaging Latino communities in the outdoors and embracing the Latino culture and family narratives within the outdoors. He’s also wrapping up a [paid] internship with Grassroots Ecology where he works as an open space technician at East Palo Alto’s first nature preserve, Cooley Landing.
After attending Baylor University for a year, Gonzalez Velez realized he “was just not happy at all.” He moved home, attended community college, worked at Whole Foods and got into mountain biking and backpacking, which led him to a job at Patagonia. “That jump was really what let me flourish,” he says. Gonzalez Velez managed a sports retail shop in Humboldt County as a 22-year-old during the pandemic, then worked at Sports Basement in San Francisco. He still leads bike packing trips for Sports Basement once a month. Working in retail exposed the barrier to entry to outdoor recreation sports, as the gear is expensive, he explains.
Gonzalez Velez continues to volunteer for Latino Outdoors and is on the steering committee of Trails are Common Ground. He’s shifted from retail to working with companies doing good things in the nonprofit sector.
We caught up with him to learn more about his thoughts on environmentalism, improving outdoor access for the LatinX community and for people in general, and what we can all learn from Gen Z.
Trails are Common Ground: How did you Get Involved with Latino Outdoors?
Alfredo Gonzalez Velez: I went through the process of reading every single bio of every volunteer for Latino Outdoors and noticed that 90 percent of them mentioned some sort of college education or some degree they had already gotten. I explained to the Executive Director that it doesn’t really reflect the actual Latino population of the United States. I believe the makeup is 30 percent college graduates; the majority of us are working, blue-collar people. I’ve been volunteering as an outings leader and represent Latino Outdoors on the Trails are Common Ground steering committee. I do a lot of mountain biking.
I’ve also initiated a Strava club (Latino Outdoors SF Bay Area Strava Club) in the Bay Area to create more of a community amongst those who might already be involved with outdoor recreation.
TaCG: What else are you up to/where do you work?
AGV: I currently work for Grassroots Ecology doing restoration work in the Bay Area, pulling invasive species and planting native plants.
My [paid] internship ends soon, so I’m looking for a job that’s bike commutable. I’m trying to stop driving. I heard something recently saying so many Americans look back on their college years fondly because it’s the only time in their life they lived in a walkable community. But yes, I’m focusing on things I care about and not chasing traditional success.
TaCG: How did you get involved in environmentalism and ecology?
AGV: My dad’s an arborist. That’s the trade he picked up he moved to this country. As a kid I was always brought to work days with him just to kind of clean up job sites, nothing serious, until the time I got my own job as a lifeguard at 16.
Growing up, it was something I never wanted to do. Here in Palo Alto, the high schools push you to go to college, get this office job, be a tech CEO, be a doctor. I wasn’t told directly to not look up to my dad but it was kind of implied that I didn’t want to be like my father.
Ever since I dropped out of college, I’ve found more and more that just doing what I know has brought so much more happiness and brought me a lot more success in my career. I’m the first employee that the nonprofit has worked for that doesn’t have a college degree. They liked my interview and I already have real-world experience working in the field. If you study environmental science in college, it doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to cut a tree down or plant a plant.
TaCG: Why is it important to you to encourage LatinX people to enjoy the outdoors?
AGV: Growing up I had always felt I was different from other Latino kids, but I also wasn’t like the white kids that grew up here in Palo Alto. I had a lot of access to open space preserves. The neighboring town, East Palo Alto, is completely different. All the workers who work here live in East Palo Alto. All the faculty, smart people who work at Stanford, work in Palo Alto. Back in the ’90s, East Palo Alto was the murder capital of the U.S. per capita. It’s historically a very dangerous town.
I have a lot of family in East Palo Alto. Growing up I felt very different from them. They didn’t have the same access to outdoor spaces, summer camps that I did. My mom was a nanny. I was fortunate that every time the family went skiing, they took me. I feel like Latino Outdoors helps me give back to that and hopefully find more kids who were like me and help them get into the space.
Latino Outdoor’s goals really align with mine: It’s a community first and an organization second. It’s more of a celebration of people of color outdoors and we serve that by providing outdoor opportunities for everybody. We want to get everybody outside with an emphasis and spotlight on the LatinX experience.
TaCG: Why do you feel natural spaces are important?
AGV: Trails can be multi-use bike pathways, multi-use recreational trails. I don’t think they necessarily have to be in open spaces. Urban usage is important.
There is tree cover in Palo Alto, not in East Palo Alto, where it’s 10 degrees hotter. These poorer communities feel climate change a lot harder than people who are more affluent, just due to resources. East Palo Alto has the worst statistics for childhood asthma than any other city in the Bay Area. People just commute through it to Apple, Google, Facebook…. They all go through East Palo Alto and the Dumbarton Bridge. There’s a ton of smog. East Palo Alto is this little poor enclave amidst the rich tycoons.
I try to be as informed as I can on local news. East Palo Alto is currently in the process of creating their first parks master plan. All recreation has been covered under a city master plan. Bigger cities have one for parks alone, but small East Palo Alto is now developing one.
TaCG: Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years? Career goals, life goals?
AGV: Probably further up the chain in park management—a park, or college campus, or something like that. I think land management is where I want to go. That can mean building trails for people to recreate on. That can also be removing fields of invasive species. I like that. It’s good in a make-people-happy sort of way. It’s also good for a preserve-what-we-have-for-the-future sort of way.
I think I’ll still be volunteering a lot for the nonprofit I currently work for because I have developed a large connection. The specific nature preserve I work for with Grassroots Ecology is in East Palo Alto. It’s Cooley Landing, which historically has been the San Mateo County dump. In the last 10 years they turned it into a nature preserve, the first nature preserve in East Palo Alto, which is just insane. Just going back to my cousins growing up in East Palo Alto not having access to these things, I am now directly involved with maintaining the first nature preserve in East Palo Alto.
I think one reason Grassroots brought me on is because I speak Spanish, I grew up in East Palo Alto.
TaCG: Why do you think people of all ages should care about what they believe in, and then do something about it like you have?
AGV: I think it’s every generation thinks of themselves as revolutionary. A lot of our society is based on an old status quo. I think Gen Z is shifting the narrative there.
We’re very active in marches. There’s a lot of people below the voting ages at marches. The school shooting marches are very active among people my age. Directly, we’re the ones getting shot at.
I think mental health…Gen Z are putting their foot down, like, we’re not going to come in when we’re not feeling well. Older generations seem like they’re more the “suck it up” generation. Here in Palo Alto, we have a high suicide rate amongst teens. The CDC has come to study the cluster suicides in the area. It’s not normal.
Political advocacy is pretty high amongst Gen Z. David Hogg, the guy who survived Parkland. Greta Thurnberg, with climate change. I feel like there’s a big wave that Gen Z’s coming with.
TaCG: What advice do you have for anyone who believes in something?
AGV: I would say find an organization or group that believes in the same thing and start at the bottom. Start showing up to their volunteer events. Go to any talks they might have. Shake peoples’ hands. Meet whoever you can. They will find a place for you. If you make yourself as useful as possible to whatever you believe in, those who have already paved the way will find a place for you. I’ve found that to be true for myself. If you make yourself helpful, people will help you.
TaCG: Why is it important to do that, and believe in something in the first place?
AGV: It’s fulfilling. If you’re doing something because you believe it’s the path you’re supposed to take—go to school, find the job, buy the house—you’re not really doing things that are for you. If you find something you care about and start at the bottom, I think you’ll truly find happiness.
Lisa Jhung is a writer, editor and author who thrives on bringing to life the sports that she loves. Lisa has written two books: “Running That Doesn’t Suck: How To Love Running (Even If You Think You Hate It)” (Running Press, 2019), and “Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running,” (VeloPress, 2015). Learn more at lisajhung.com.