By Layla Khaled Nasser, CWC Intern
During the summer of 2023, I had the wonderful opportunity and honor to participate in the Coastal Watershed Council’s River Ecology Internship. Fate happened to bring me all the way from Egypt, where I am originally from and have lived for 10 years, to Santa Cruz. I currently study Biology with a concentration in Marine Biology, and my exposure to conservation efforts in the Red Sea and Nile River left me longing to further explore conservation biology. When looking for opportunities in Santa Cruz, the Coastal Watershed Council truly stood out to me because of its community-based approach to conservation. While we are all aware of the impact of humans on the natural habitats that surround us, I had never once thought of us to be integrated members of the ecological community ourselves. I know from living in Cairo along the Nile the importance and deep generational connection between a water source and the people who live on its banks, and who rely on it to sustain life. While such a necessity-based relationship inspires respect for the river, I had never considered a relationship that could also inspire love, wonder, and enthusiasm. I was fascinated by the way CWC aims to build this relationship, establishing the San Lorenzo River as a part of the community’s lives in different ways to ultimately create organic, sustainable change.
During my time with CWC, I had the honor of learning from Kaiya Giuliano-Monroy, CWC’s inspiring River Ecologist. Kaiya introduced me to all the native and invasive plant species that live by the river, which over time came to feel like new friends I was meeting and bumping into. I was given resources to understand the history of the river and the communities that have historically occupied its banks, leading up to its main inhabitants today. Both of these experiences gave me the opportunity to connect with the San Lorenzo River personally and understand its current context.
One of the experiences I am most grateful for of was helping out with the weekly Downtown Streets Team river management programs. There, it was clear how simply giving members the space to touch the earth, hear the birds, and care for the plants nurtures a deep love and curiosity, which has the power to heal both the river and the people caring for it. Ultimately, the goal of the project was to – like Kaiya always said to me – “Just get people excited about the river!” As an outsider, I noticed that many people experiencing homelessness tend to spend their time around the river. I also came to realize that is part of the reason many other people avoid this area. The Downtown Streets Team members are individuals who have experienced the river in ways that most people never will. I felt that their voices would not only offer a raw, honest reflection of the river, but also a way to destigmatize the connection between the river and people experiencing homelessness.
Inspired by this, I used my internship to produce a video of Downtown Streets Team members talking about their connection to the San Lorenzo River. With Kaiya’s guidance, I felt that combining auditory and visual elements would be the perfect way to draw a connection between the seen, the felt, and the spoken, which all make up the fundamental emotional experience of the river. For the visuals, my idea was to capture the beautiful small gems and details of the river that people may not see without getting really close. In the same way, I wanted the interviews to capture a closer view both of the people experiencing homelessness and the experience of the river that many may not see from afar.
In the video, I incorporated five different voices from members of the Downtown Streets Program who volunteered to be interviewed by me. When I explained that I wanted to ask about the river because they know it best, and they’ve seen, touched, and felt it the most, their faces lit up and I was able to get the beautiful responses you can hear in the video. While editing, I actually had to cut out a lot of the initial content to remove the sound of my own voice being so engaged and cooing “mhms” and “yeahs” in between sentences. They each had such inspiring perspectives on the river and their place within its ecosystem based on their unique experiences of it. What inspired me the most as they spoke was the simplicity and purity of the vision they have for the river, and the steps needed to care for it that many experts who study conservation their whole life seem to lose somewhere along the line.
Just as expressive as the voices of the people I interviewed, I believe the river creatures that I filmed speak in their own ways too. In the video you’ll see the ducklings, the birds, and even the blue heron that all made an appearance and show that they are here, they are living, and they are our neighbors in this home. The evening primrose, the gumweed, and all the little bushes that Kaiya and the DST members lovingly tend to help quiet your thoughts and soothe your soul as they show off in the wind. You’ll also see the shopping cart, some of the trash, and the concrete. These are all loud reminders of our challenging experiences of the river. Like many of the DST members mention, there is so much value in just taking the time to experience the river, if even just to think about it. Only then can caring for our environment become less of a daunting task and more of the natural process of being a part of the ecosystem, falling naturally into our place on this earth.
CWC’s Environmental Stewardship Program with the Santa Cruz Downtown Streets Team is funded by the California Coastal Commission’s WHALE TAIL® Grants Program.