As part of our second annual free and inclusive Waterkeeper Ride this coming Monday, August 24th (starting from 683 Northland at 6:30pm, see below for the many pandemic-induced changes to Slow Roll), we’re getting to know Helen Toledo.

Born in Buffalo, raised in Amherst, graduated from UB and now at Buff State pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science, Helen interned at Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper before becoming a GIS Specialist for D’Youville College and founding BWELL – Buffalo Women of Environmental Learning and Leadership – with a mission “to encourage women to explore the natural environment, promote sustainability, and develop leadership skills through environmental stewardship and community engagement.”

Helen took time to talk while planning a shoreline cleanup at Unity Island – one of many events on BWELL’s calendar, see below – and will join us for Monday’s ride.

What inspired you to become an activist?

I’ve always loved being in nature, but I guess what really sparked my activism was when one of my professors in college was telling us about local environmental groups to volunteer with including Waterkeeper. I volunteered with them for about a year and a half before applying for their education outreach internship, and through that solidified how much I love being involved with the community – not just writing research reports, also teaching others and having that community connection, and finding ways to make this knowledge more understandable in areas other than just the academic world.

How do you advocate for our community?

I’m really big on representation for women and minority women, particularly in STEM-related fields. There are disparities and inequity, and it’s important to not just acknowledge it, but also get more people involved in establishing that safe space, for not just women but anyone who’s interested in wanting to be more sustainable as a community.

Environmentalism and stewardship isn’t just the bees and trees – it’s your neighbors and community infrastructure. It’s not always planting a garden – bringing that togetherness is a form of advocacy, too.

What part of Waterkeeper’s mission and work resonates most with you?

Definitely educating and inspiring. I love the connection aspect, too, but I think the education comes before connection, just inspiring those who normally wouldn’t go out on the water.

Here’s a prime example – we had a kayaking event, and lot of people there had never kayaked before, so we were getting people out of their comfort zone and getting that accessibility. A lot of people didn’t know about the history of the Buffalo River, that it once caught fire.

It’s like that wonder of a walk in the woods as a child – you’re never too late to start exploring, never too old to have that childlike wonder. I know that’s kinda corny, but it’s an amazing thing to see – grown people saying, “I feel more connected, educated, inspired to do something to keep my area clean, safe and habitable.”

How did this experience lead to the creation of BWELL?

Having that internship helped me narrow down to where I thought my place was, and that was community engagement.

I was looking for professional opportunities after my first semester of grad school, but not being able to obtain a leadership position even though I had a degree and did feel capable.

That’s where the leadership aspect come in – developing those skills. I wanted to find ways to stick out myself and help others do the same. I was looking for local groups that fit in with my wants and needs, but didn’t find anything that matched up completely, so I created a group and we decided to file to become a nonprofit so we could do more in the community by applying for grants to have funds for those kinds of projects.

In your opinion, what’s Buffalo’s greatest asset and most urgent problem?

I think our greatest asset would be in the ways we are known as the City of Good Neighbors. From the outside looking in, everyone’s willing to help each other – we see those videos in the winter of people helping push out each other’s cars.

And we have that melting pot going on, but at the same time, we are so diverse yet so segregated. One of the presentations I did on environmental justice shows the census data laid out on a map, and you see how the white communities are separated from those with mostly people of color. From a mapping and data perspective, it’s cut and clear how separated everyone is.

How can people get involved in your work?

We have all types of events – I know we just started two months ago, but we have at least two events a month for community engagement and environmental stewardship, like the shoreline cleanup with the Friends of Unity Island. We’ll have more to come like a walk-n-talk to keep that environmental education focus, kayaking on the Buffalo River, and learning about invasive species. We also have a self-wellness aspect – in September we’ll have outdoor yoga. We wanna stress that while we’re advocating for our city, waterways and environment, it’s also important to internally advocate for yourself, to make sure you’re doing well.

People can check out our website and Facebook group, subscribe for updates – there’s tons of ways to be involved!