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Voices of L.A. Nature: Interview with Helen Leung

Welcome to our new series, Voices of L.A. Nature, where we'll hear stories from a diverse range of Angelenos about their relationships with nature in L.A.

Helen's first backpacking trip, before she knew cotton was a bad idea!
Helen's first backpacking trip, before she knew cotton was a bad idea! Photo by Russell Horning.

Welcome to our new series, "Voices of L.A. Nature," where we'll hear stories from a diverse range of Angelenos about their relationships with nature in L.A. This month we're celebrating Asian Pacific Heritage month, with two interviews from the community. Stay tuned throughout the year, for more Voices of L.A. Nature!

Helen Leung is the Co-executive Director of LA-Más, an urban design non-profit that works with lower income communities to shape their growth. She rates herself a 9/10 on the, "I love nature scale," downgrading herself a point because mosquitoes love her and she is allergic to grass! She has lived in Los Angeles for most of her life, with Frogtown being her family's long-time base. She works to incorporate nature into her daily life whether it is morning hammock and tea time, or running around Silverlake reservoir once a week. She is also part of a group of intrepid adventurers, The Adventure Scouts. Keep reading to find out more about Helen's relationship to, and adventures through L.A.'s amazing nature!

You rate yourself highly on the "I love nature scale," has this rating changed over time for you? 

Yes! When I left L.A. for the east coast during college, I was exposed to a different type of nature. Besides seasons, which were novel and mesmerizing, I participated in trips planned by school or friends. I went to the Pocanos to ski for the first time. I spent time in Philly’s and NYC’s largest parks, which inspired me to explore Griffith Park. Later on, I would enjoy weekly trail runs along the Charles River in Boston and Rock Creek Park in D.C.

When I moved back to L.A. six years ago, my appreciation for the outdoors grew for two reasons. First, I started dating my partner Russell Horning who with his Subaru and decade plus experience of camping and backpacking meant I had my very own guide -  equipment included. He took me on my first backpacking trip to Little Jimmy, which is just 1.5 hours from L.A. in the Angeles National Forest. That was the beginning of dozens of adventures since, the latest being my desire to catch endless trout in the alpine lakes in the eastern Sierras.

Secondly, I joined an informal group of outdoor explorers called the Adventure Scouts, led by the fearless Ashley Atkinson. I joined an incredibly friendly and welcoming group of people who planned regular outdoor excursions. These people were also nerdy urban planners, planning wonks, and urbanists - so the many hours on the trail could result in both soul sharing and policy debates. Over the past few years, I’ve been on numerous outdoor adventures that continue to fuel my passion for nature.

Can you tell us a little bit about your job?

I work in community development as the Co-Executive Director of LA-Más. Our office is in Frogtown, where I grew up, and a block from the L.A. River. We work throughout the city and right now, we’re helping average homeowners become providers of affordable housing through backyard homes! We also work with small businesses owners and community members to transform the pedestrian experience. This is the longest job I’ve had - probably because I’m my own boss and I love my team! Although my work seems hip and our social media presence is strong, I am just the opposite. Friends who know me will assume I missed all the activity online and will have to reach out because most definitely I will have missed that Facebook invite or Instagram photo.

Helen's first backpacking trip up to Little Jimmy.
Helen's first backpacking trip up to Little Jimmy.
Russell Horning

How do you incorporate nature into your daily life? 

I have a little seating area outside my apartment that has been especially beautiful this spring because of the rains. I often sit outside in the hammock in the morning with a cup of tea and watch the birds, bees, and flowers. I monitor the grapes growing in our neighbor’s yard. I hope Gizmo the cat stops by to visit - I pet her despite being allergic. As the days get longer, I can enjoy this space after work, but only before the onslaught of mosquitos. I also love trails for hiking or jogging and can be found in Elysian Park or Griffith Park a few times each month. To maintain my energy levels, I run around the Silver Lake reservoir every Wednesday morning at 6:30 a.m. and will catch sight of a coyote every now and then.

Can you share a memory of where and how you played as a kid?

My younger sister Linda and I treated Frogtown as our playground. We spent many hours playing in and on the banks of the L.A. River. We splashed around, hunted for treasures, and created a magical world. Despite the gang presence, we navigated the streets on our own as little kids and came home before dark. Often times, we would bring home our finds and make things!

Helen enjoying a walk along the L.A. River in Frogtown.
Helen enjoying a walk along the L.A. River in Frogtown.
Rudy Espinoza

What nature places did you experience as a kid in L.A.?

As a child of working class Chinese immigrants, nature was not a place that was celebrated. Rather, given my parent’s upbringing, they would avoid nature. Nature represented toiling away on communal farms or hiding in the mountains to avoid persecution. The beauty of nature was something my parents were never exposed to and thus something I had to discover on my own. In fact, I didn’t know Griffith Park was a mile from my house until I was in college. That being said, besides the L.A. River that I visited regularly with my sister when we were bored, my father encouraged us to test our sense of direction. He would drop my sister and I off in Elysian Park near Grace E. Simon lodge. An hour or so later, he would be at the other end of Elysian Park near Chinatown waiting for us. We were 7 or 8 yrs old!

What is your favorite nature space to visit in L.A.? What do you do there, and why do you go?

The L.A. River. Before you roll your eyes, let me share with you why. Before the river was so cool, it was my childhood playground. We didn't have toys at home, so my entertainment was what I could find in my neighborhood and the river provided me with endless exploration, adventure, and travel. As a kid, I looked for frogs, skipped rocks, built mini ponds, made up games, and used the previously unpaved path as a way to get from park side (named for the recreation center) where I lived to church side (named for St. Ann’s Church) to visit my best friend on Elmgrove Street. As an adult and young professional who lived and worked in Frogtown for five plus years, I now enjoy all the new, hip amenities - walking along the river to get chai at Cafecito Organico or having a breakfast sandwich at Spoke Bicycle Cafe. Sandwiches at Wax Paper are a special treat. I jog in the morning or evening, smiling at all the familiar faces. I especially enjoy the easy access to solitude with birds, fish, and the sound of rushing water along the banks.

Last summer, I moved out of my little apartment a block from the L.A. River. It was bittersweet. I moved in with my partner of 5 years - hooray for cohabitation. But I wasn’t able to call Frogtown and the familiar river my home anymore. Luckily, my office and my parent’s home is a 15 minute walk along the L.A. River, so I take that walk often.

What is your favorite plant/animal/fungus/slime mold/other organism in Los Angeles?

Our state flower - the golden poppy. My love for poppies is recent. After driving hours to catch a superbloom earlier this spring, I realize that I could have just sat in my yard. It’s great to watch them open and close with the sunlight. The pop of orange also reminds me about my partner, a double delight.

Do you have a funny story about a nature experience you had in L.A.?

One summer day, my family and I were headed to El Sereno to visit family. My sister and I begged my parent’s to stop at a glistening lake full of ducks. My parents obliged and my sister and I ran quickly and excitedly to the ducks at Lincoln Park. I was so excited one of my shoes slipped loose. In a few seconds, a duck picked up my shoe and waddled back into the pond. As an adult, I wonder if my shoe is still in the bottom of the pond.

Helen on her first trail half marathon in the Santa Monica Mountains with running buddy Angelika Frias.
Helen on her first trail half marathon in the Santa Monica Mountains with running buddy Angelika Frias.
Russell Horning

The recent Atlantic article, Five Ways to Make the Outdoors More Inclusive, laid out some concrete steps that National Parks and public lands can employ to become more inclusive. What do you think about the process, the team, and the recommendations?

Although I greatly appreciate the exploration of how to make our outdoors more inclusive, I found the process underwhelming because it assumes that a one time gathering of a diverse set of people will result in compelling solutions. I was excited to see some many outdoor advocates at the table, but who was missing were those who have yet be convinced - the people who have always felt the outdoors was not for them. The recommendations are a mixed bag, some of them transactional with questionable outcomes (like hire a historian or update ranger uniforms), but some have great potential to change the system (like increase paid internships or provide free transportation).

Helen and friend Ashley Atkinson reading a topo map during a training hike.
Helen and Ashley Atkinson of the Adventure Scouts backpacking in Mineral Kings.
Collin Peppard

How do you think we can make access to nature in L.A. more accessible for everyone? What are some of the biggest barriers?

Access to nature has long been a privilege for people of certain socio-economic levels. As a poor kid and as an American-born Chinese (ABC), access to nature was not relevant to me from not just a class level, but also a cultural perspective.

My solution! Let’s integrate outdoor learning in our school system early. I sometimes wonder how I would have turned out if I were a Boy Scouts and taught how to appreciate and survive in the woods. That wasn’t an option for me, neither were sleepovers (my Chinese parents felt it was ridiculous to sleep on the floor when I had my own bed at home), or outdoor excursions (that we could not afford). Instead, I learned about the Sierra Club’s four month Wilderness Training Course in 2017 as a 30 year old. It was like I joined the Boy Scouts as an adult!! We had class every week, homework, tests, field trips, and hands on experiences to help us understand nature. Imagine if this was an option in school and everyone graduating from LAUSD understood the basics of nature - and had the support to experience the best of nature L.A. has to offer.

Follow Helen and her work on social media:
LA-Más Twitter: @Mas4LA
LA-Más Instagram: @Mas4LA
LA-Más Facebook: @Mas4LA 
Facebook: Helen Leung