Dawn Chávez became the executive director of Asheville GreenWorks in the winter of 2014. But though she may be new to Asheville, the Bronx native knows her stuff when it comes to environmental education.
“Even though I was from the city, I had lot of exposure to the outdoors,” notes Chávez, whose childhood experiences in the urban parks of New York City inspired her to pursue a college career in environmental studies.
“I really liked relating [my studies] back to the city and the urban environment — teaching other people about the opportunities to enjoy nature that are right at their doorstep,” Chávez says.
Before moving to Asheville, Chávez focused on environmental education and job training for youths at both the Urban Ecology Institute in Boston and the Boston Youth Environmental Network. Much of that work tackled the barriers that keep both kids and adults from engaging with the environment.
“There isn’t always the access to green space in every community, but sometimes we’re dealing with more of a mental barrier than a physical barrier,” she says, adding that people may feel unsafe or even unwelcome in city parks and outdoor areas. “My approach to access is getting people actively involved in a space in a comfortable, low-risk way, like doing activities together.”
Chávez’s experience in youth education will inform GreenWorks programs like the youth environmental internship and education programming in schools and after-school programs. She adds that in the coming year GreenWorks will also continue its outreach to all the neighborhoods of Asheville through the Everybody’s Environment initiative (a partnership with UNC Asheville), the Food Tree Project, partnerships with greenway organizations and by supporting the work of its many volunteer groups.
In fact, Chávez says, GreenWorks’ volunteer base was one of the main things that attracted her to Asheville. “There was such an enormous outpouring of support,” she says. “I hadn’t seen anything like that in my 20 years of working in environmental nonprofits. Last year we had almost 200 projects and collected 18 tons of trash. When you look at the results, it’s just amazing, and that’s the work of our volunteers.”