Juan Martinez: Spirit of Conservation Award Recipient & Founder of Fresh Tracks

Juan Martinez received the 2022 Rising Leader Award given to outstanding young professionals in the field of conservation. He received his award alongside famed ethologist and global conservation icon Dr. Jane Goodall whose life work demonstrates a commitment to conservation, civility and community. Presented by Teton Science Schools, The Murie Spirit of Conservation Awards is a celebration of conservation leadership and honors individuals who have demonstrated an exemplary commitment to the protection of wildlife and wild places. Previous Murie Spirit awardees include Rose Marcario, Robert Stanton, Jimmy Chin, Bert Raynes, Sally Jewell, Harrison Ford, John Turner, Addie Donnan, Luther Propst, George Schaller, Robert Krear, and Gretchen Long.

Juan D. Martinez-Pineda is the Senior Manager at The Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions.

He is the founder of Fresh Tracks, a community-led cross-cultural revolution, rooted in the healing power of the outdoors. His work has helped to grow the silo-breaking strategy for systems change and youth power building while also lifting up successful stories of civic engagement and community organizing. Prior to Fresh Tracks, he served as Vice President at the Children & Nature Networkand co-founded the Natural Leaders Network.  

Juan was named a National Geographic Explorer in 2011 and a member of the inaugural class of The Explorers Club 50in 2021, for his work to engage the rising generation of youth to the healing power of the outdoors and culture.  

Juan is a proud product of South Central Los Angeles. A descendant of the Tehuano community of the Zapoteca people from Oaxaca, MX. He is a TED Speaker, community organizer, author, and is dedicated to bringing the power of equity and justice to life through youth and community-driven solutions. Juan has committed to help empower the next generation of leaders dedicated to addressing systems of inequity and access to opportunities by working with community leaders, non-profits, and businesses across the country. He serves on the boards of Mountainfilm, Texas Children in Nature Network, and the Governing Council of The Wilderness Society. Juan resides in Hillcountry Texas, with his wife, Vanessa and newborn son, Alexandro.

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Emy Romero (00:00):

Hello, my name is Emy diGrappa. Each week, we bring you stories, asking our guests the question why. We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation. This is What's your Why?

(00:38):

Today, we are talking to Juan Martinez Pineda. He is a senior manager at the Aspen Institute. Juan is also considered a community organizer and author, and he is dedicated to bringing the power of equity and justice to life. Welcome, Juan.

Juan Martinez (00:56):

Hello, everyone, and thanks Emmy for having me.

Emy Romero (00:59):

Absolutely. I love the part about being a community organizer because that is pretty broad, and so, tell us what that means to you.

Juan Martinez (01:10):

Being a community organizer, I think, is just running in my blood. My parents were always people who loved people, and loved helping people, and loved being a key part of that community. And so, growing up, I saw them do this day in and day out. Now, we don't call it community organizing. We call it helping families organize their quinceañeras and [foreign language 00:01:35] on the weekend, or encouraging us to bring other kids who may not have access to some of opportunities that we did to be able to expand those. And it was always a weird feeling growing up having to share a lot of what we were able to have, but looking back at it now, I realize that there were instilling in me this sense of community, and this sense of love, and the sense of being able to share what little and whatever we had with everyone. And so, I credit them with instilling that community organizing mentality to me and that community organizer heart.

Emy Romero (02:18):

And I think that that is a beautiful explanation. That's really true when you are part of a community. It's almost like an extension of being part of a big, big family. And I come from a big Hispanic family, so I can definitely relate to that. Why did your parents migrate from Oaxaca, Mexico to South Central LA?

Juan Martinez (02:39):

Yeah. So, my mom is actually from Oaxaca, from rural Oaxaca, up in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and my dad is from Izúcar de Matamoros, Puebla, and they both migrated from their rural towns to Mexico City, which is where I was born, and they both did so to seek out career pathways for themselves early in those days. I like to tell that story about how my parents both came from different towns and they met while they were working at a cookie factory in Mexico City, and I was the perfect cookie that they baked together. So from there, my parents kept looking at opportunities for their children and what many of those opportunities were up north, here in the United States. And that's why we came up here, too. That's why they make the trek out here; for my sisters and I to have a better opportunity at our goals and dreams.

Emy Romero (03:37):

How many children are in your family?

Juan Martinez (03:39):

Two sisters. I have two younger sisters. I'm the eldest. Hara Jessica, who lives in Houston, Texas now with her two daughters, Isabelle and Sophia. And my youngest sister, Nayeli, which in my mom's native tongue of Zapotec means I love you, she is out in LA in California as well, too.

Emy Romero (04:00):

Wonderful. So, tell me about your journey because your journey is very interesting and unique in many ways. In your bio, it says you're the founder of Fresh Tracks. Sorry, I almost said Fast Tracks. Fresh Tracks. And it's a community-led cross-cultural revolution rooted in the healing power of the outdoors. First, tell me how nature became basically your passion and love in your life.

Juan Martinez (04:31):

Yeah. I think, nature was always a part of me. Now that I look back in retrospect, my mom and dad always had a love for the land, and the way the land takes care of us and we're able to take care of the land. Even some of my earliest memories, I remember my dad and mom taking me to the parks in Mexico City to have a weekend there. And those are some of my most vivid memories of growing up in Mexico, is being able to go to Chapultepec, which is the biggest park in Mexico City, and hiking with my dad there. So, the love for nature, the love for that connection was always a part of my family. I think, growing up in the city, I didn't know what wilderness or an open air, untouched land would look like. And so, the best case scenarios that I had around my connection with nature were growing in our garden in the backyards in LA, or going for a weekend expedition to the local beach or the local parks in LA and exploring our city that way.

(05:41):

It wasn't until I made the trek to Jackson Hole to attend the Teton Science Schools that I really saw that dramatic experience of what you get when you come to a national park like the Grand Teton. Those jagged peaks are rising up from the plateaus, from the fields, and seeing a free-flowing river and seeing more stars than I could count for the first time, it just felt like a moment in my life when things made a lot of sense and I was able to make a lot of connections between myself, nature and the universe, that I wanted a lot more people to have that experience and that opportunity. And I made that commitment early on to myself, and so far, it's turned out to a beautiful career path for me.

Emy Romero (06:26):

It is a beautiful career path to think that your whole goal is to empower youth to experience the outdoors. And what kinds of ways do you help the kids in the inner city? How do you create opportunities for them?

Juan Martinez (06:43):

Yeah. I think first and foremost is the evolution of my connection to the outdoors in nature is this primary outcome which is healing. There's a lot of pain and trauma in everyone's life regardless of where you come from, or what background we are. There's sometimes a lot of pain, and not everyone has the opportunity to have outlets or have opportunities to heal. There's very few accelerators of trust, few accelerators of healing like the outdoors in nature and time spent together in those spaces that means so much to all of us. And so, that, I think, has rooted my belief in why this work matters and why I do what I do.

(07:29):

Fresh Tracks is an example of that where we're able to bring together young people from different cultures, and different backgrounds, and different walks of life to really break down a lot of those silos and those shields that we may create amongst each other, and start to talk about that pain that is being caused across all our communities that may sometimes feel different, but it is very systemic in the way that it is impacting all of us.

(07:54):

And so, whether that's poverty, whether that's inequitable access to healthcare, inequitable access to educational pathways, workforce, whatever those systems are that are out there, we want to create solutions and connections across different differences so that we can start to really work together. So, whether you're a young white woman in rural Appalachia who is dealing with the digital divide and can't apply for jobs because internet access is either very, very slow or non-existent, or whether you're a young person in South Central LA who can't afford a computer to connect with those places, we want to talk about those things. And one of the ways that we're able to bridge the divides between a young leader in Compton and a young leader in Appalachia is by bringing able to bring them together and saying, "Hey, we all care about each other. We're all one big community at the end of the day, and we are all have this pain or these challenges in front of us. How can we overcome them together?"

Emy Romero (08:57):

Was Fresh Tracks a name that you came up with, and it is an organization that you founded?

Juan Martinez (09:03):

Yes. Fresh Tracks is a play on words. It means different things to different people. So, there's the very much musical, hip-hop beat to it, which is laying down some fresh tracks for music, or there's the indigenous and native definition of it, which you look at fresh tracks and it means hunting, and sustenance, and being able to feed your family. And so we wanted to play with those words about what it means to different people in different ways. It can also mean new ventures and new pathways forward. So, there's a lot of definitions and we leave it up to interpretation for many people about what the name it means itself. The organization was founded by myself, Martin LeBlanc, CJ Goulding, Thatcher [inaudible 00:09:53], and a couple other people who were key in those early days of making it happen.

(09:59):

I was able to really dedicate a lot of time to it, and so therefore, I've been able to carry it forward, but they were very much a part of those early days in helping me build this organization to what it is, and many of them are still a part of it. So, that's a little bit about the history of Fresh Tracks.

Emy Romero (10:17):

And really interesting and so true that you chose that name because it does symbolize all of those things. How does Fresh Tracks work with your work at the Aspen Institute? How do those work together?

Juan Martinez (10:30):

Yeah. So, within the Aspen Institute, it is, as you can imagine, a big universe of good work that is happening there. I sit under the Forum for Community Solutions, which focuses on community solutions across the board, and we explore innovative solutions and creative and community and [inaudible 00:10:52] based solutions to challenges in today's communities.

(10:55):

Within that environment, there's a couple of different ways that we approach it. Our approach is one of those many approaches where we're also able to measure wellbeing. And so, one of the things that we're really excited about launching into the next couple of years is a partnership that we've developed with young leaders about how do we define wellbeing, how do they define wellbeing, because so much of what is out there has been defined for them, that very few people ever stopped to ask how young people are defining wellbeing in today's language, and how can we start to then measure it. And then, in turn, turn it into an advocacy agenda that they can apply moving forward so that they have the resources to create healthy and wellbeing outcomes in their own lives.

(11:39):

So, those are some of the ways that we connect it within the Aspen Institute environment and universe and I'm excited to be in that community of leaders.

Emy Romero (11:48):

Not to put you on the spot, but how do you define your wellbeing? What is your definition?

Juan Martinez (11:54):

Yeah. I define my wellbeing by how many times I can make my son laugh today. So, I am looking forward to picking him up from daycare and counting how many of those days. I define it by how many times I'm able to get out on a trail, or a walk, in my neighborhood. So, that is very much it. And then, by how many times we're able to cook food in our home, home-cooked meal that we're able to do, and even better if we can pick it up for our garden. So, those are some of the ways that I've defined wellbeing for myself, and that's the beauty about the diversity of how we define wellbeing. My definition of wellbeing could very well be different than yours, but under that, there's some common values. Like, time spent with family, time spent cooking, time spent in nature. And so, we are on the way to trying to figure out what are some common denominators that we can attach to and help people measure that.

Emy Romero (12:58):

Well, I'm just going to take a little step back in time in your life, Juan, and before we started recording, I asked you what you got your degree in and you said History, and I thought that was really interesting. And do you think History connects to what you're doing right now?

Juan Martinez (13:14):

Absolutely. I think, one of the things that we practice a lot in Fresh Tracks is the narrative or the storytelling; who gets to tell the stories, what are the stories that are being told, and what are the lessons from those stories. And I think that there's a lot of history that is often written about people who may have not had the chance to be their own voice in their own storytelling. And I think that that's one of the key components of what we do through Fresh Tracks, is being able to build a platform, build a space where those stories and those voices can be uplifted and honored so that we're able to hear everyone, and see everyone, and feel everyone. It's one of the beauties about understanding this concept of history that while many of what we're able to digest or read is often times written from one perspective, but there's different perspectives to all of history. And being able to be open to that, I think, is certainly one of the benefits of being able to have that background in myself of understanding that concept.

Emy Romero (14:24):

How old are the young people that you work with? Are they high school? Are they college?

Juan Martinez (14:29):

Yeah. They are anywhere between the ages of 16 and 25.

Emy Romero (14:33):

And how do they find out about you?

Juan Martinez (14:35):

It's a hybrid model. We have a lot of good partners out there, Native Americans in Philanthropy, the Opportunity Youth Forum, the Natural Leaders Network, the YMCA's Bowling Gold program, just to mention a few. So, we put out the word through them and ask them to nominate some young people who they feel are ready to take the next step in their leadership development. And then, we also open it up for applications when our training opportunities come up because we want to be able to reach those young leaders who may not be connected to an organization, or maybe looking for that opportunity and randomly Google something along the lines of what we're promoting and they find their way to us. And so, that's usually how we connect with young people and also through our social media.

Emy Romero (15:23):

So, Juan, what was the most recent award that you received? And I believe it was right in Jackson Hole that you received this award. What was the name of it and why did you receive it?

Juan Martinez (15:32):

Yeah. I received the Murie Center's Rising Leader Award for Conservation, and I think that that award was bestowed upon me because my other awardee that I received with that night is Dr. Jane Goodall, and there's a lot of similarities in her message and mine. I think, a lot of it has to deal with hope. A lot of it has to deal with youth and being able to use our platforms to encourage not just hope, but also the action to make hope a reality. I was able to sit down with her and talk in depth about some of these things, and just hearing her energy towards not just wishing for hope or wishing for things, but actually equipping people with the tools, the voice, the platform, and the resources to be able to take action to address those things that may not seem right to them, is something that she and I share a lot.

(16:34):

And so, when it comes to conservation, I think, a lot of what I am doing through Fresh Tracks is really centering what these natural landscapes mean to all of us. We can conserve as much land as we want and potentially even build fences around it, but what's the point of that if people aren't being able to benefit from that, and heal from it, and restore some of the ancestral sovereignty and land rights that belong to the people and the original stewards of these lands, to be able to have those connections with their own communities as well, too.

Emy Romero (17:13):

What do you think was... Since you had the opportunity to sit and talk with Jane Goodall, what was your favorite piece of wisdom that she shared with you?

Juan Martinez (17:22):

We thanked each other for everything that we had done, and I think, as she and I walked away from each other, we both looked at each other and touched our hearts, and we just said to each other, "It's all of us together." And I think that's the most beautiful message that I could have received from her; that it is all of us together. That, I think, at the end of the day, I am a strong believer that there is good in all of us, and that each one of us wants to do something to help each other out and to benefit ourselves as well, too, to have a good, good life. And so, I want to help people reach that milestone as best I can while helping each other out, kind of going back to what my parents taught me as a community organizer.

Emy Romero (18:11):

Are your parents still living in South Central LA?

Juan Martinez (18:14):

They are. They're creatures of habit. They love their community and they are well-known in the community as well, too. Everybody knows where Dona Alicia and Don Juan live. They have a garden in the back where they also feed families from, and families know that they can go to my parents' home and ask for nopales, and apples, and chamomile tea, and other herbs and medicines and food if they need to. So, they are staples of that community.

Emy Romero (18:52):

Aw, that's beautiful.

Juan Martinez (18:54):

Yeah.

Emy Romero (18:54):

I think, that's probably the greatest gift, is the one that they gave you, handing down those traditions to you.

Juan Martinez (19:00):

I would say so. After everything is done in said, I think, what I will continue taking forward is that intergenerational cultural knowledge that has been passed on to me, and it's taken me this long to understand that when I was little and when I was a teenager, what they were teaching me when they would make me do my chores at the garden, or helping my dad on the weekends, it's that sense of community, it's that sense of bonding, it's that ancestral knowledge of harvesting seeds and planting new life, and being able to have sustenance whenever we needed it.

Emy Romero (19:38):

I think, one of the biggest heartbreaks I feel for kids who grew up in the inner city and they grew up in the cement jungle, they might never meet a Juan Martinez, or they might never have the opportunity, and that is like an empty space in their hearts as I see it. And so, do you spend a lot of time going into the inner cities and talking to the youth? And even if they're not involved in your program, how can you get them interested, or open those doors?

Juan Martinez (20:14):

Yeah. I think, early on, I felt a lot of that weight in being able to reach everyone that I wanted to reach and share this great opportunity. And what I've come to realize is that I will never be able to reach everyone, not by myself. And being able to have some friends and have some young leaders go through the program and be able to share those opportunities with them so that they can go back to their communities and share them, so that way that there's not just Juan Martinez, that there's like Devin Netwerz, and Kimberly P. Cook, and Vanessa Torres is out there who are amazing leaders and leading the way in their own special way, in a way that makes sense for their community. That's the ripple effect that I want to have through this kind of programming and projects. And that's the way I think that we are best situated, especially leaders like myself who are able to get this attention and these awards, to be able to create those ripple effect impact moments.

(21:16):

And then, also realizing that not everyone is going to love nature as I do, or understand that moment right now. Maybe later on my hope is that they would, but for some of these young leaders, the outlet might be sports, and the outlet might be art, and that is just as fine too, as long as they're finding that moment of healing within themselves in that outlet.

Emy Romero (21:41):

Yeah, that's a good way to put it; that everybody needs an outlet of expression. So, how do people find you online, on Facebook? Let us know if there's a website where people can connect with you.

Juan Martinez (21:57):

Yeah. I would say the easiest way to follow along in our journey is to follow our social media on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Fresh Tracks. You can find us through that. It's a little green circle with the letters F and T built into it. It's an awesome little logo if I do say myself. But that is where you'll get our latest details, information, invitations to join up, and that's where you can find all the info.

Emy Romero (22:26):

Okay. Perfect. Congratulations on your Murie Center Spirit of Conservation Leadership Award, and congratulations on having a little one in your house. That's a lot of fun. How old is your son?

Juan Martinez (22:46):

Eight months. Alexandro.

Emy Romero (22:46):

Alexandro is eight months. That is so beautiful. So, you're just starting your journey?

Juan Martinez (22:51):

I am, yeah. It is a beautiful one.

Emy Romero (22:54):

Yep. And I wish you much love and health in that journey.

Juan Martinez (22:58):

Thank you, Emy.

Emy Romero (23:00):

And we will talk soon. And thank you so much for talking to me today.

Juan Martinez (23:04):

Always.

Emy Romero (23:18):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why? Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with support for Wyoming Community Foundation, and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwy.org. Subscribe and never miss a show.