“Investing in women’s leadership is investing in entire communities” — Food Sovereignty Leader joins WEA to Lead North America/Pacific Program

Daniela Perez_garden

Daniela Perez is passionate about gardens, the food they grow and stories that food will uncover, and creating powerful learning experiences for women environmental leaders. As a transborder Mexican-America who grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, her passions were shaped by her surrounding environment, the changing landscape (both political and physical), and the powerful women in her family who taught her that her own leadership and healing could and would have a positive impact on the leadership and healing of others—including the earth.

Daniela’s dedication to this ripple effect led her to a career in higher education, educational farming and ensuring food sovereignty in the Latinx community. She has a wealth of knowledge in leadership development, sustainability and agriculture, and a deep commitment to meaningful diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. She joined Women’s Earth Alliance in May 2022 as the North America/Pacific Program Director, where she’ll lead the U.S. Grassroots Accelerator and the growth of our programming across the region and the Pacific.

“Investing in women’s leadership is investing in entire communities, and it will ensure that we are creating a more equitable and livable future for all,” Daniela says, and we couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Please join us in welcoming Daniela to the WEA team and our global alliance of women leaders creating powerful transformation for our communities, our climate and the earth.

Q: What drew you toward working at the nexus of gender + climate at Women’s Earth Alliance?

I first heard about WEA when I was doing research for a workshop on consent, through an intersectional lens, that included diverse perspectives and considered not only how we relate to one another, but also how we relate to the earth. I was able to find WEA’s Violence on the Land, Violence on our Bodies report and toolkit, and I was very impressed with how comprehensive it was. I also found the practicality and usefulness of the toolkit to be very relevant to the work I was doing. It was a resource that I kept going back to over and over again!

I have been working at the intersection of gender and climate for the last ten years, and I believe that women’s leadership is key to solving many of the most pressing social issues our communities are facing today. Before joining WEA, I worked at the intersection of regenerative agriculture, gender and economic justice. I joined WEA to continue empowering women’s environmental leadership at a larger scale, and to produce resources that can be utilized by other leaders that are also working at these intersections. Investing in women’s leadership is investing in entire communities, and it will ensure that we are creating a more equitable and livable future for all.

Q: Can you explain intersectional climate justice and share why it’s so important to you, and to the work you’re doing with WEA?

Unfortunately, I have seen how well-intentioned people and organizations have failed at their mission by neglecting to practice intersectional environmentalism. Far too often this leads to replicating systems of power and inequality, even within movements and with strategies that are intended to create sustainable change.

For example, sustainable, organic, regenerative, permaculture and other ecosystem design perspectives have been laid out as solutions to our current food and climate crisis—but as movements, they continue to lack true inclusion, and the consequence is that instead of creating solutions, those movements have only created separate systems: a system that serves white and affluent communities, and an industrial model that continues to harm most marginalized communities. If our movements want to achieve meaningful and sustainable change, then we must practice intersectional environmentalism.

I believe that the liberation, empowerment, and healing of women is intrinsically tied to the liberation of the land from violent forms of industrialized and destructive industries. When addressed simultaneously, these interconnected efforts have the potential to change the way we relate to our environment for future generations. As a Latina leader, I care about the future of our planet, the soil, butterflies, insects, and other animals that inhabit it. I grieve for the loss that has been created by our industrialized systems of production. I feel nostalgic for a past that never was, where I grew up intimately knowing the traditions in my culture that tended soil. I yearn for a future that produces food in ways that honor life. I am in search of a present that can hold the possibility of all these dreams being realities and I am filled with hope that I will be able to achieve these dreams as the new North America/Pacific Program Director at WEA, and make space for other women in their journey of empowerment.

Q: What experiences have shaped your passion for caring for the Earth and our communities?

Daniela Perez_honoring earth
Daniela Perez_prayer

From a young age, I was called to the land; I see the land as an extension of my family. When I was young, I remember listening to frogs croaking at night, driving to nearby ranchos, and local produce vendors. My family also enjoyed going fishing and preparing traditional ceviches with our catch. But as I grew up, my access to land and nature grew increasingly limited due to the rapid urbanization of the border region. In Tijuana/San Diego, the chaparral ecosystems and coastal wetlands, along with all their native flora and fauna, have all been reduced to a small fraction of their former land cover—it was as if overnight most of it disappeared, and was replaced by the violent sounds of jackhammers, military tanks, sirens, and the endless blankets of cement covering the landscape. The border region became increasingly politicized, and my access to land decreased as rapidly as the city around me grew. The impact that the disappearing landscape had on me was furthered by my experience growing up as a woman in Mexico.

My cross-border experience and the way it intersects with my identity as a Latina are an essential component of who I am as a leader. Unfortunately, I grew up witnessing how women in Tijuana are often treated with the same disregard and violence as the land surrounding the region. Machismo culture, patriarchal supremacy, and gender-based violence dominate Mexican society and culture. At one point, Mexico ranked as the 16th country in the world with the highest rates of femicides, and in 2016, Tijuana was in the top three municipalities with female homicides, with numbers steadily increasing. In Mexico, violence towards women and the culture of machismo is systemic, present across various institutions, internalized in families, weaponized, and used to keep women from achieving personal empowerment. These experiences have shaped my interests, and guided my pedagogical practices, my relationship to nature, and how I see the future of our climate as being intrinsically linked to social justice and women’s leadership.

Q: Celebrate a woman leader — Tell us about a woman in your life that has helped you become the leader that you are.

Today I’m celebrating my aunt Rosana, my mom’s sister. She is a total powerhouse and she was my biggest inspiration when I was young. She was the first woman in my family to go to college, and when I was growing up I witnessed her give so much to the people in her life. She set-up the first community support center for people living with HIV/AIDS that offered culturally sensitive medical, social and quality care in our community. She has always been a role model for me; she was one of the only women in my life that I saw build a career and home for herself, despite facing many barriers. She gave me my first summer job as an intern in the center, where I got to witness her leadership, authenticity and brilliance. It was an amazing experience that transformed my life!

When it came to choosing a major in college, I decided to follow in her footsteps and studied Sociology just like she did. It was a path that eventually led me to understand and practice intersectional environmentalism, and empowered me with the tools to engage in food sovereignty work in my community. Among the many things that my aunt Rosana taught me, one of the most valuable lessons I learned from her is: It is possible to transform your own difficult experiences into healing, not only for yourself, but for your friends, family and community as well.

Q: What are you most looking forward to working on and accomplishing at WEA?

More than anything, I am excited to get to know WEA Leaders like those in the U.S. Accelerator, and to design and lead programs that meet their needs and uplift their efforts in their own communities.

I am also excited about furthering the inclusiveness of our programs, to be able to offer bilingual and multilingual programing, and to expand our program’s capacity to include more regions in North America that have not been activated by our current networks.

Together, we are going to continue to create meaningful learning experiences and exchanges for the women in our programs, that can meet them where they are, and create safer spaces for them to explore their inner wisdom and brilliance, get resourced and networked, and support them to grow the climate solutions they know will work for our communities.

Q: What’s your best advice for a first step everyone can take to heal our relationship with the earth?

Daniela Perez_teaching youth
Daniela Perez_food basket

Grow something! Even if you don’t have a lot of space or land. You can grow flowers and herbs in a little pot and create deep relationships with them. The garden was one of the first places I ever connected with the earth in a way that felt reciprocal. Tijuana, the city I grew up in, is a giant concrete jungle, so when I started growing food I had no idea what I was doing. At one point, I even tried growing pumpkins in a small pot on my apartment balcony. No, it did not work, but I still enjoyed it so much!

I eventually learned traditional ways to tend soil, to keep seeds, nurture flowers and herbal remedies, and to celebrate the harvest season. Gardening and growing food has taught me so much about the cycles of life in nature, and it inspires my work all the time. It keeps me grounded and allows me to reflect in a different way, with my body and the earth working as one. The garden is where I often have my best ideas.

I also believe we cannot create change without food. Food will be served—and hopefully enjoyed—every day, along every step of the way, as we create positive social change. So why not recognize it as an integral part of the change we are creating?

It gives me hope to think that some of you will be inspired to grow some food today!

Q: What are the best lessons or key takeaways you’ve learned so far in your life experiences and career caring for our environment?

To slow down. Slowness is medicine for me. I grew up too fast, and it felt like there was never a second to stop and just be. I was always working two jobs, and doing some sort of professional development training, college program, certificates, etc. Not only was I navigating through immense career growth, trying to achieve personal goals, and create positive change for my community— but I was also living life, experiencing difficulties, grief, trauma, and health issues. It was very easy for me to get caught-up and move on to the next thing, neglecting myself in the process.

I have learned to recognize this desire to “go-go” all the time as a form of insecurity, of not feeling enough, or feeling like no matter how hard I worked it would never be enough. This message was often perpetuated by working in the environmental field, where there is a very real and imminent urgency around the state of our climate. In addition, westernized environmentalism, as I experience it, is not an inclusive space. Throughout my career I often found myself in rooms and groups where I was one of the only women of color. The combination of the urgent nature of environmental work and the internal racist and sexist underpinnings of the movement often activated this feeling of “not-enoughness” within me.

Unfortunately, I have learned that my story is not unique. Many women in the environmental field struggle with this inner landscape that pushes us a little too hard sometimes. I have found that for many of us, it is easy to get activated when we are looking at environmental data, and hearing stories of the ways the changing climate is impacting our lives. It’s natural for this voice to demand it be heard, because sometimes it's the only appropriate response to the state of our relationship with the environment and those most affected by it. It is completely justifiable to feel insecure in the face of everything we are experiencing. After all, insecurity comes from not feeling safe, and the environmental crisis is a direct threat to our safety. I know so many other women who feel this way, and this calling to create safer spaces for themselves and their communities is what drives their work.

But I have also learned that I cannot create safer spaces for others, while creating conflict in my own mind and body. If I allow insecurity to take over, control, overwork, overplan, etc. I will not be creating safety for myself and others. So I slow down, I process, I regulate, and when I feel nourished I show-up. This is why slowness is medicine for me in this work. It is a way for me to recognize that I am interconnected with the earth, and as I seek to create safer spaces in our environment and communities, I will also create safety in my inner landscape, as much as I can, in each moment.

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