Anne Marie Santos uplifts her community by meeting people where they’re at.
By Dez Ramirez
On any given Saturday you can find Friends of Trees’ Anne Marie Santos outside—rain or shine—planting trees, educating, and bringing people together with a shared love of nature. Santos learned at a young age that nature can be found in many places, from her childhood home of urban Chicago, to running a farm in rural Vermont, Santos developed her own sense of stewardship and understanding of the environment as she grew up. This has shaped a successful career in environmental work and led her to Portland, Oregon, where she now teaches people of all ages how to take care of the earth, and each other.
As a senior greenspace specialist, Santos’s work isn’t centralized in Portland neighborhoods but reaches into larger natural areas, like the Sandy River Delta, Columbia Slough, Forest Grove, and Salem, where she educates larger groups and local schools on tree planting, ecological restoration, and environmental leadership development. An avid rock climber, Santos devotes her remaining free time to PDX Climbers of Color, an inclusive climbing group that focuses on breaking down social and economic barriers to climbing for people of color.
It’s easy to see Santos is a powerhouse and a true embodiment of what the outdoor industry would call a #forceofnature.
What do you love about your work?
I love that we are expanding access to healthier environments for people as well as creating healthier habitats for fish and wildlife. It’s incredible to have a job that allows me to get to know the environment that I get to exist in! FOT is focused on helping create connections between people as they plant trees, so I get to witness a lot of people with different backgrounds coming together. During these events, we spend a lot of time thanking people for coming out to volunteer, and it’s amazing to be in this constant state of gratitude.
How did you get involved with Friends of Trees?
I started as a canvasser for the Neighborhood Trees program, which allowed me to get to know Portland in a really intimate way and walk through neighborhoods that I wouldn’t normally be called to walk in. It was a really cool introduction to Portland upon moving here three years ago. Prior to that, I studied environmental science, sustainable agriculture, and farm–based education. I’m originally from Chicago, lived in Burlington, Vermont, and used to run a farm there, had a brief stint in Berkeley, California, and then came up to Portland. My experience around agriculture has lent itself well to my work with FOT.
How did growing up in an urban city like Chicago influence your desire to do environmental work?
My first recollection of nature was being in the garden with my mom. One of my favorite memories is of her putting cantaloupe seeds and rind directly into the garden bed, and months later, cantaloupes were in the garden. Nature for us was this small patch of backyard in the city. As I got older, my friends and I used to play at a creek by my house and started doing creek cleanups. We’d wear dishwashing gloves, bring garbage bags, and clean up the trash. There was a strong sense of taking care of the places that we played in. At 16, I went to the Philippines, was exposed to extreme poverty, pollution, and I saw people living amongst all that. It was the first time I really started to think about environmental justice. I became aware of how the environment was an extension of how we treat people, and where people are allowed to live.
What makes Portland feel like home?
The relationships I’ve created and have gotten to be a part of at FOT and within the POC community. There’s also something about the vibrant green moss on everything that makes me feel comfortable! Especially against the gray skies. The vibrancy of the moss and the plants in the middle of winter makes me feel really connected, alive, and awake here.
What do you love about climbing? Any favorite spots?
Climbing allows me to be in places I would never otherwise be in. Grasping onto this rock face, sometimes your face is right up against it, and you get to know this place in nature very intimately. I have a lot of energy and love to move around a lot and dance. Climbing has a lot of these elementsit’s a different type of self-expression. As intimate as it can be, there’s opportunity to build community. There’s a lot of encouragement you need in certain moments because you’re scared, and it’s hard. I have a love–hate relationship with Smith Rock, but it’s a classic. The rock is painful, but the area is just so beautiful. A dream of mine is to check out what climbing is like in the Philippines, where my family is from.
What does PDX Climbers of Color hope to achieve or provide for people?
We create an environment that welcomes POC climbers that are already in the climbing community, but we also create a space for people of color who want to try this sport out. As an organizer, I’ve been working with people in our community to establish and run POC–focused climb nights at Portland Rock Gym, Planet Granite, and The Circuit. There’s a lot of emphasis on being welcoming, meeting people where they’re at, and giving people opportunities to help mentor each other. We are taking up space in gyms where people of color have not felt as welcome. When I first started climbing, I received off handed comments and stares that made me feel really uncomfortable. It’s a sport in which a lot of eyes are on you when you’re on the wall. To add the kind of visibility that makes you feel more othered, it can make it that much more uncomfortable. We’re working to change that.
What do you think is next for people of color in the conservation and outdoor–recreation movements?
Our role shouldn’t end at representation. Representation is important, but if POC aren’t in decision–making roles in these industries, the quest for diversity and equity falls flat. The successes we see with groups like Melanin Base Camp, NativesOutdoors, Brothers of Climbing, are due to a lot of hard work that POC have done organizing within their own communities. They’re creating more access for each other. This work is not only keeping POC and marginalized folks inspired but instilling more confidence to keep creating a space that wasn’t there for them before. That’s really powerful.
Follow @pdxclimbersofcolor for climb–night dates, times, and locations.