Bringing Nature to Neighborhoods: Meet Josh Lankford, Save The Bay Volunteer

Josh Lankford knows numbers. A mechanical engineering student at the University of Rochester, this Oakland native estimates he travels by bike about 90% of the time when he visits the Bay Area. But digits can’t describe what he senses each ride.

“On a bike, I don’t block out the world listening to music. So, I really feel like part of the ecosystem, going through neighborhoods — seeing how people interact, taking in smells, breathing in air, I experience all of that, everything around me.”

Josh grew up in East Oakland, and as a kid, he “never really had the opportunity to see the ‘grandeur’ of California.” He didn’t go “snowboarding in Tahoe” or “hiking in the Santa Cruz Mountains.” Yet, he never felt deprived of nature. “I was around green spaces every day living in Oakland. So, though I didn’t see the grandest places, I was still exposed to the idea of what it’s like to be in a foreign land. Being in [Redwood Regional Park] is like living in another world.”

Indeed, Josh developed his fondness for the outdoors at a young age, flying kites along the MLK Shoreline. It’s why he now bristles at the assumption that cities inherently spell problems for the environment. “[Many think] of the city as the heart of the battle for conservation. But people who grew up in suburbs, sometimes all they know is development and they never question it. Whereas in cities, it’s about efficiency, it’s about using spaces wisely.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that public transit is near and dear to Josh’s heart. “Having AC Transit, BART, allowed me to access parts of the city with more opportunities.” Buses and trains enabled him to intern at Kaiser; they brought him right to UC Berkeley for the university’s Upward Bound program.

One of his most formative experiences growing up? Volunteering with Save The Bay during high school. “I did my senior project on mental health, about green spaces in the city and volunteering. I thought Save The Bay would be a good [aspect to include] – connecting environmental preservation and mental health.”

Having pulled weeds and installed plants with us a few more times since then, Josh now feels strongly about the power of our programs. “I think Save The Bay can play an important role in people’s lives – not just by making a difference physically [in the wetlands]. It causes us to question the impact of our lives on land.”

Still an undergrad, Josh has already decided: “Save The Bay is one of my favorite organizations. Once I get a job, I’m going to donate every year.” For now, he’s hoping to secure a summer internship with BART to help people get where they need to go.

There’s also something simmering on the back burner for Josh: “My hope is that we transform our perception of wilderness. We need to stop designating things as ‘wilderness.’ We need to incorporate greenery into our neighborhoods.”

This weighty goal keeps him recalling his childhood and high school years exploring the outdoors right from Oakland. “I think the most powerful thing of all for me was hiking in my own backyard in the Redwood Regional Park – it made me see nature on a regular basis. Now, it’s something I want to see everywhere because I saw it in my own backyard.”

Reading in the Fog, Sailing in the Wind: Introducing Wai Leng Baker

Fog over San Francisco Bay, photo by Kathryn Barnhart

Foggy days never dampen the mood for Wai Leng Baker. “I read, I have a cup of tea and a couple cookies, and… it’s great!” Occasionally, Wai Leng introduces a bit of sound into her peaceful pastime: “Sometimes, I play music too in the background – Mozart or Vivaldi – nothing too terribly intrusive.”

Our recent Alaska Airlines ticket winner has lived in the Bay Area for more than 40 years, and even in its coldest weather, she finds contentment. “Even if I don’t want to go out, I look at the trees and I feel it’s beautiful. It’s uplifting, even when it’s foggy and rainy.”

A long-time donor to Save The Bay, Wai Leng admits she and her husband aren’t too active outdoors anymore. But her memories of their sailing trips around San Francisco Bay have inspired a firm commitment to protect this “treasure” for generations. “We used to see seals, then there’d be birds – just a wonderful sense that there’s something really fresh out there. I’m hoping Save The Bay will keep it really clean and nice.”

Wai Leng says she donates to Save The Bay because the gift always “goes to something concrete. It’s spending money on the Bay itself – saving it.” Our emphasis on education is the biggest reason why Wai Leng writes checks. She says it’s critical that we: “spread the word among the little ones, because the children are going to conserve the Bay in the future.”

Indeed, she’s seen firsthand how exposure to the outdoors at a young age can fundamentally shape a person’s appreciation for nature. Her niece was a little girl during the family’s sailing trips years ago, and she was always thrilled to “scatter popcorn around for the seagulls, who would follow in a big group.” As a grownup, this relative “now runs short marathons [around the Bay Area]. She got involved in the outdoors because of that.”

Wai Leng admits she’s still pretty amazed her recent $250+ gift to Save The Bay scored her four tickets to anywhere Alaska Airlines flies. Our prize winner stressed: “I was really surprised! I have never won anything in my life! I was so shocked! I said, ‘are you sure? You’re really from Save The Bay?’”

As she charts out her travel plans, Wai Leng is glad to know her gift will help protect the place she’s called home for decades. “I live here. I want to keep my whole environment as beautiful as possible. I am a strong believer that when I finally do pass through the Earth, I should leave it better or at least as good as how I found it.”

Saving the Bay Takes Tools: Step Inside our “Roving Office”

A peek inside Save The Bay’s roving office

When your work is restoring wetlands, a desktop computer and a trusty stack of post-its just won’t do. Our Restoration staffers install plants. They pull weeds. They teach thousands of students about the salt marsh harvest mouse and its favorite snack: pickleweed.

What’s required for every one of these tasks? Tools. And….

“Everything that we need is in the truck.”

Habitat Restoration Manager Donna Ball in the field

Donna Ball, our Habitat Restoration Director, really enjoys talking about her team’s “roving office.”

Plastic bins? “We have one for gloves, one for picks, one for trowels.”

An Igloo cooler? “Our volunteers work really hard. There’s a chance to get dehydrated, so we want to make sure they take time to have a break and drink water.”

The auger that changed the game? “We used to dig all our plant holes by hand, but the [auger] makes it easier for volunteers to install the plants with less work. So, they actually enjoy it more!”

Donna admits she has a soft spot not for the tools themselves, but the experiences they make possible for our volunteers. “I think the interaction is more with a plant – when they gently fill in ground with soil. People really do ask: ‘are my plants going to live?’ Will they be here when I come back and visit?’”

Rachelle Cardona, our Restoration Education Program Manager, believes a “roving office” inspires a spirit of innovation, the kind of resourcefulness that might be stifled in a traditional work space.

Rachelle’s illustration

An Igloo cooler showcases healthy habits: “We always offer water and sunscreen. But we use this moment to talk about self-care and instruct kids to be mindful of their wellness in the outdoors.”

Macleod with a wetlands twist: “It’s a broad-edged rake that fire crews carry. But our teams use Macleods to scrape weed seedlings off the shoreline.”

Yet, it was actually a missing tool that inspired her most rewarding memory of all in the wetlands. (Rachelle took a moment to illustrate her handiwork, and then she shared this story – and post-it – with me!).

“We had already installed hundreds of plants that day, but the hose wasn’t in the trailer when it came time to water them. So, I took folded-up trash bags and made handles out of duct tape – basically created a chute. Then, I asked volunteers to line up with buckets so we could get water to the plants. It was a proud MacGyver moment in my life!’”

Listening as the Clock Ticks: Mitchell Oster on Political Organizing

Traveling by water taxi: Mitchell takes a scenic ride to San Francisco!

“There’s an old adage that, around election time, voters behave stupidly. That’s wrong. Voters are treated like they’re stupid. It’s not the same thing.”

Mitchell Oster doesn’t mince words. In fact, as Save The Bay’s new Regional Political Organizer, he finds there’s much to be gained by avoiding them altogether.

“The most important thing you can give of yourself [as an organizer] is the openness to listen to the other person. An exchange of ideas is how you unlock an unexpected opportunity.”

Interestingly, Mitchell made this connection in public schools – not political circles. Save The Bay’s newest Policy staffer spent six years working as a paraprofessional. Mitchell says his experience in a special education setting taught him that “different people come with different gifts. You have to be willing to meet them where they are.”

One summer, he decided to spend his free time volunteering for a “young candidate’s” campaign. Mitchell worked tirelessly calling voters, planning events, and entering data. The candidate lost.

From his defeat, Mitchell learned something powerful: “even when you lose, you can still bring people together around a cause.” The candidate’s field offices covered an expansive area, but the political hopeful still “drove to every one with a six-pack and pizza and spoke to all of the reps” on election night.

Mitchell brought this model of empowerment to his role as Field Organizer for Measure AA, and ultimately, to Save The Bay. “I’m building the number of people who support us. I’m working to maximize the positive impact we can all make on our Bay.”

As a Californian who loves the outdoors, Mitchell wants to make sure nobody takes San Francisco Bay’s beauty for granted. “Part of what I want to do [at Save The Bay] is raise an alarm to people who do care but perhaps don’t know how much there is left to be done – or how to do it effectively.”

Mitchell is sounding that alarm right now – on several fronts – with state and local elections coming up in both June and November 2018. A top priority? Empowering Save The Bay’s wide range of supporters to win additional state money for wetlands restoration. But Mitchell is also helping his Policy colleagues fundamentally expand their scope. He’s fighting for sustainable development measures that center on housing and transportation. The vision: pass equitable laws, ones that protect the environment while benefiting our diverse community.

Even as these elections grow closer and closer, Mitchell remains unfazed by the ticking clock. Our Regional Political Organizer thrives under pressure, and finds: “in a strange way, the urgency and stress is calming. There’s certainly an adrenaline rush. Getting into the cycle is when things start to feel normal.”