California Forward is committed to advancing policy intersections that create a more inclusive and sustainable California where all people can prosper. To move this forward, we must reimagine a state where we address the racial and geographic inequities that have been exacerbated by a public health and economic crisis, and we must answer the call to dismantle structural racism. The Voices of Shared Prosperity series amplifies the stories of Californians who are committing their time and talent to solutions that embrace equity, environmental sustainability, and economic opportunity.
“I am a nature enthusiast. I believe that everything in nature is connected. It’s important for us to manage species and habitats in the same way that it’s important for us to manage people and make sure people have what they need – because this makes the world whole.”
This was the reflection of Princess Hester, director of administration for the Riverside County Habitat Conservation Agency (RCHCA), when asked about her professional journey in land conservation. Prior to working with RCHCA, Hester worked in the social services and the behavioral health fields. In those roles, she was responsible for supporting foster care youth and helping them navigate complex educational and social support systems.
Currently, Hester leads the RCHCA’s primary effort, which is to manage the habitat for the endangered Stephen’s Kangaroo Rat. This habitat includes approximately 40,000 acres in Western Riverside County.
While at face value, Hester’s role working in social services may seem very different from her role in land conservation she never saw it that way. “I’ve always had a passion to do something for my community. I wanted to use my work to provide support for my community,” Hester said.
She decided to combine her love for the environment with her commitment to community service. This guided her transition into land conservation.
“I’m not a biologist. I got my master’s in public administration because that was the path that I was on but I educated myself about the science and the species.” This perceived pivot was an important inflection point in Hester’s career.
Her experience with the foster care system influences her work today. She highlights the importance of connecting with students who are frequently overlooked and underserved. “One of the reasons I work with kids who are not STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) kids is because the need is so great.” Creating a space of belonging and support is especially important for students who are not academically encouraged. She said “exposing these students to a world of possibilities and helping them to learn that ‘they can do it,’ pays dividends in the future of our communities. We’ve got to eliminate the haves and the have-nots and create a space where everyone can succeed.”
Hester maintains that influencing young minds is a more effective and impactful way to enact change. “We need to educate our youth about protecting the environment and at the same time encourage an affinity and an affection for nature,” she added.
Prior to the pandemic, Hester hosted RCHCA’s Celebrating Endangered Species event. It was an in-person day of activity where more than 1,000 students from nine different school districts participated in the program that introduced them to various endangered species and land conservation opportunities.
She is now exploring ways to bring the same valuable experience to the students in a virtual setting. She said, “Many of the students we want to reach don’t have computers at home or other devices that grant them access in virtual spaces.” To remedy this example of the digital divide, Hester is seeking partnerships with organizations to donate tech resources to increase accessibility for students.
As diversity and inclusion have become increasingly more prominent points of discussion in the wake of social protests, Hester expressed optimism about the dialog that is being created and the potential to see the changes taking place. She admits that people of color are underrepresented in her field and one of her goals is to inspire more diversity in environmental and conservation spaces. “I encourage young people to speak up, speak out and make the changes that will benefit everyone in the future.”
Hester created the Riverside Communities Partnership Project, which is made up of different agencies throughout Riverside County that have faced critical mandates as a result of the wildfires and floods. The Project is a collaborative effort of RCHCA, AmeriCorps, and other organizations to provide service-learning opportunities for community service volunteers to help support land needs throughout Riverside County. “In conservation there is always a need for restoration – especially because of the fires,” she explained. She spearheaded this partnership to help meet a community need while simultaneously working to educate and encourage others to explore careers in land conservation.
|The 2020 California wildfires burned more land than any other year since 2000. In fact, more acres were burned in 2020 than 2010-2016 combined.|
Hester says that more work still needs to be done to raise awareness about the careers in land conservation, including:
- Strategic Education of Traditionally Underrepresented Students. “Knowledge is power,” Hester insists. She supports working to educate students who have been historically undereducated about environmental work and opportunities. She highlighted the importance of sharing these opportunities with young people who live in cities because their lived environment might preclude them from being exposed to environmental work.
- Activate Students Early. “Start telling middle and high school students about these types of jobs and opportunities,” Hester said. She supports getting students involved in outdoor groups and nature-based programs to help foster an appreciation for nature.
- Expand Circles of Influence and Engage in Strategic Mentorship. “People in my position need to reach out to students and educate them on all the jobs that are available to them in conservation — even if those jobs are not on the science side,” Hester explained, adding that she frequently speaks to people who are unaware of the range of jobs people can have in conservation.
Hester encourages students and new professionals to find the things they are passionate about in their work telling them “If you can find what you are passionate about, you have exponentially increased your ability to really make a difference.” She is making a difference by committing her time and talent to educating communities and expanding opportunities in land conservation work.