Net-Zero Hero: Gaby Benitez
I’m helping to make Austin Net-Zero by advocating for equitable access to and connection with nature.
In celebration of National Poetry Month, we’re excited to introduce our newest Net-Zero Hero, Gaby Benitez! Gaby is a poet, nature advocate, and born-and-bred Austinite. Nature is at the center of so much of what Gaby does. She worked for years on the education team at Keep Austin Beautiful, is currently one of the tri-chairs of Austin’s Cities Connecting Children to Nature Youth Leadership Working Group, and served as an editor of The Winter Storm Project. As a poet, Gaby writes about how we relate to others, the earth, and the cycles of life and death.
We met up with Gaby at Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park to talk about her many passions and how nature helps weave them all together.
What inspired you to take action?
I grew up with a love for being outside, and my relationship with nature has been instrumental to my mental health and overall wellbeing. But I also grew up with an understanding of the structural racism that created a multitude of barriers to accessing the outdoors, making it nearly impossible for people of marginalized backgrounds to make their way into careers in the environment.
I honestly think that the reason I do so much of the work I do today around advocating for the removal of barriers to access to nature and careers in the environment for BIPOC youth is because I could have seriously used the resources, connections, and mentorship as a young adult that I hope we’re building up in collaboration with the phenomenal youth I have the privilege to work with these days.
In addition to this, I have also always written poetry and prose as a tool to process my own understanding of the world and my emotions. Following the traumatic February 2021 Winter Storm, writing and sharing stories with friends and family was the only way to process the feelings of shock, fear, and abandonment that came with being hit by climate and infrastructural disaster. When local poet KB decided to start The Winter Storm Project, an anthology dedicated to compiling accounts of the experiences that people had in Austin during the “snowpocalypse,” I was excited to come on as an editor for the project along with some fellow friends and poets. Our whole team believes in the power of community storytelling and art. We see these practices as tools for connection, advocacy, and change.
I have a fundamental belief in power-sharing, and I actually think there’s an obligation to take action, or to share the power you may hold, if you have the opportunity to do so. My work has been guided by this idea.
How did you do it?
This is a tough question to answer, as I am always in the process of doing so many things! I am a very team-driven and collaborative person, so long story short: I would say that everything I have done on my own I owe to the support, care, and reciprocity of my loved ones and the people I have been able to work with throughout the years.
For much of the past five years, I worked at Keep Austin Beautiful, starting out as a part-time educator (my first “real job” after graduating from college in 2016). At the time, I was working seven days a week with two other jobs until I was able to take on a full-time role with KAB. First, I worked as a program coordinator teaching watershed-based education to youth throughout AISD, and then ended up as the manager of their education team. This work led me to the Youth Leadership Working Group with Austin’s Cities Connecting Children to Nature initiative. Within this group, I work with my fellow tri-chairs and collaborate with young folks to advocate for equitable pathways to employment and leadership for youth of color in the Austin area and beyond.
Above: Gaby works with students outdoors during her time with Keep Austin Beautiful.
With the Winter Storm Project, having a supportive team was integral to the project. As editors, we all spent time reviewing the submissions that came through. We also led individual workshops to facilitate writing sessions on and discussions about the anthology’s theme, climate change, and Austin’s approach to climate resilience. We were lucky enough to secure sponsorship funding from the City of Austin’s Sustainability Office, which made it possible for us to pay the folks whose submissions were selected, and for all proceeds from the anthology to go towards local organizations PODER, GAVA, and BASTA, which do incredible work around community-building and addressing local climate impacts.
What’s been most rewarding about getting involved in this way?
Working with youth is always incredibly rewarding! I learn more from listening to their experiences and perspectives than with just about anyone else. I find it incredibly rewarding to be in rooms with young people and other adults — sharing knowledge, challenging white supremacy as it shows up in the environmental field and throughout the systems we all live, work, and play in, and actively working to uncover and dismantle the many barriers that prevent BIPOC youth in particular to have equitably paid jobs and the same quality of life as their white counterparts.
The artistic involvement I have is also incredibly rewarding — firstly, just being able to share in the art of others is a joy, but also art is such a powerful tool for processing emotion, traumatic events, lived experience, and for communicating with one another. Being able to connect with other people in these ways gives me the energy I need to keep moving forward.
What’s been the toughest part?
Pandemic and snowstorm aside for a moment, the toughest part is working with people who are resistant to understanding their own complicity in these problematic systems that we are a part of. I am forever grateful for all the folks who are willing to learn, and are excited to challenge their own thinking and biases — and for those who challenge me to do and be better in all of that myself!
On a similar note, it is very tough to work against what sometimes feels like a collective surrender to climate change. When I was a child, I remember adults telling me that it was up to me and my generation to save the planet. Now I see people of my generation and above doing that to the youth of today. We all have a role in this climate movement, and it is not something that should be placed on those who were born into it to somehow fix or deal with the consequences of previous generations’ actions. I frequently go back to a quote from abolitionist Mariame Kaba, where she reminds us that “hope is a discipline” — it takes work and practice — and that’s how I try to move through the world!
Every March we celebrate World Poetry Day. As a poet yourself, what role do you think poets, authors, and other artists can play in the climate movement? How does this show up in your own work?
Poets and artists of all mediums can show up in all ways for the climate movement! There is such a long history of art — whether visual, poetry, song, or otherwise — in social justice movements across time and across the world. The Winter Storm Project Anthology is just one example of how we can grieve, celebrate, question, and share experiences through art in a way that calls for political change while also uplifting human connection and mutual aid networks.
As someone who has worked for a long time in environmental education, I can say that using art as a teaching tool and as a medium for processing information around climate change is incredibly valuable. By including different forms of art, we open up the ways in which we relate and communicate with one another. Through this practice, I think we expand the vast opportunities we have to learn from one another and the diversity of human experience.
In my own work, I use poetry to write about climate anxiety, climate change, and my relationship to nature and the more-than-human. More recently, I have been writing a lot about gentrification and my memories of Austin, which is my hometown. I draw a lot of creativity from nature and being outside. Much of my free time includes nature journaling, writing outside, reading in my hammock, and spending time in and near water when I get the chance.
What advice do you have for others?
I think most importantly, my advice is to start thinking critically about how to center Black folks, Indigenous folks, and both racial justice and disability justice in any approach to climate, sustainability, net-zero work, etc. It’s absolutely essential that we’re always centering the most marginalized, making sure that we’re paying them, and paying them equitably for their contributions. And pay youth! It’s about time we start recognizing different experiences as valuable.
Also – try to recognize when you’re hoarding power or acting as a gatekeeper, and share that power/open that gate! It’s not something that always comes naturally and can take work to recognize and act on.
Other advice I give is the reminder that anyone can create art. Coming from a background in education where there’s a fundamental understanding that multiple ways of knowing and learning are necessary, I think we forget sometimes in the “adult” world that people receive and share information in different ways. So making sure we’re being accessible and engaging folks through different mediums, whether it’s visual art, poetry, storytelling, hands-on learning, etc., is so important!
Last but not least, rest when you need to! Listen to your body, listen to your community, and take breaks. Make time for joy, fun, connection, grief, all the emotions and experiences! We forget the power and impact that slowing down has on our collective wellbeing.
Is there a book, documentary, or other piece of media you would recommend for folks wanting to learn more about these topics? What inspires you about this or why did you choose to share it?
Since I mentioned the work we’ve been doing, I would definitely recommend grabbing a copy of The Winter Storm Project’s anthology, which is now available to order. Again, the proceeds go directly to local organizations doing on-the-ground climate and social justice work, so it’s money well spent, and such a great way to hear directly from community members about their experiences.
Besides that, I’d recommend Octavia Butler’s Parables series and literally everything she’s ever written — her work is so visionary and touches on climate change and social justice issues! NK Jemisin’s books as well, I recently read The City We Became, and was blown away. I frequently go back to Natalie Diaz’s poems The First Water is the Body and The American Museum of Water. I also recommend following “Intersectional Environmentalist” on social media and learning from their work. And watch Hayao Miyazaki’s films too — they have such a beautiful reverence for nature and humanity that certainly influenced me as a kid!
I could go on and on but I’ll stop there. 😊
To learn more about Austin's net-zero goal and explore actions you can take to support a greener community, view the Austin Climate Equity Plan.
Share your Net-Zero contributions with us on Twitter or Facebook and use #NetZeroHero. If you know a Net-Zero Hero (or heroes!) who should be recognized for their efforts, send your nomination to firstname.lastname@example.org.