Juan Martinez grew up in South Central Los Angeles, but the opportunity to explore the Grand Teton shaped a deep appreciation for the outdoors. Juan D. Martinez is Director of Leadership Development and Natural Leaders Network for the Children & Nature Network. In 2011, Juan was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and represents The North Face as an ambassador for outdoor exploration. In 2012 he became the youngest member in history of the Sierra Club Foundation Board. He reached the Summit of the Grand Teton in 2010 with mountaineer Conrad Anker.  Juan is now serving as Explorer In Residence at The Murie Center. He dedicates his energy to connecting all people with the outdoors.



Q: Growing up in inner-city Los Angeles how were you first inspired to get outside and start exploring? 
A:  As a young kid I had the natural rambunctiousness to get out and play outdoors. I remember once, around 8 or 9 years old, they dumped some gravel on the street in our neighborhood. I immediately grabbed my friends to go ‘climb the mountain.’ We played there for hours, I still remember pretending we were on a huge mountain, falling and saving each other.  My mom also had a garden in the backyard where she grew vegetables and herbs and I remember working on that garden with her every night, watering, trimming etc.

Q: In your presentation at National Geographic you talked about joining Eco Club in high school, how did that happen? 
A: My Freshman year of high school I got detention from my science teacher for refusing a pop-quiz. The teacher gave me two options: stay in detention for the entire semester or Eco Club.  I was a football player, and Eco Club wasn’t something I was interested in, but it was better than detention.  The first day at Eco Club Mrs. Pepin handed me a bag of seeds and I started planting in the garden.

Q: How did your experience with ECO Club lead to your involvement in the movement to get people connected to the outdoors? 
A: In high school I played into the quiet, dark, tough, intimidating type of guy, so I didn’t socialize much in Eco Club. The one thing people knew was not to mess with my jalapeños, those were my jalapenos! More so, those Jalapenos would make salsa for my Mom and I could not wait to show her what I accomplished.  Towards the end of the semester Mrs. Pepin suggested I applied for a scholarship up to Wyoming at the Teton Science Schools. During those two weeks in August, I realized that just as I was connected to the stars so to was my community back home and that people need that sense of belonging. I made a commitment that I would stay and do my part to empower communities.

Q: What is your favorite memory of connecting with the outdoors? Where were you? What were you doing? 
A: The trip to Wyoming when I was 15 was the first trip I had where I saw more stars then I could count for the first time in my life! It was a peaceful moment that enlightened me. The next day I woke up to see the Grand Tetons in all their majesty rise from the valley. I was done, hook, line and sinker! Almost ten years later I stood at the summit of The Grand Teton with Conrad Anker, to climb that mountain was a sweet joy and to do it with Conrad was just epic!

Q: What does it mean to you to be named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer? 
A: It means that there’s something out there that really justifies what I’m doing. Connecting people with nature is not a soft issue, it’s something the world needs right now.  National Geographic is a 100+ year old institution, it’s not only that I got an award from an organization, it’s like a legacy was bestowed upon me. Now the challenge is to follow the other explorers, like Bob Bollard {who found the Titanic}, and move my issue to become part of the larger movement to shape this world with a tomorrow that we all want to be a part of.

I’m looking at the internal frontier, and learning what our frontier is.  This new nature movement, it’s not just environmentalism, it’s connecting to the earth. If we’re able to do that, I think we will be able to work on a lot of other problems.

Q:  What do you plan to do with your awarded prize? 
A: To start, I am taking kids camping and working on some of the raised garden beds in and around the community.

Q: These days, what is your favorite outdoor activity? 
A: Cycling and mountain biking. Last time I was in DC in March, IMBA invited me mountain biking, and we went to Occoquan Regional Park, VA, it was so much fun. Now, I like to ride in and around LA and hit the local LA parks.

Q: What are some ways to connect with the outdoors if you live in the city? 
A: My immediate connection to the outdoors now is a little garden I have in front of the apartment, it’s calming to work in the dirt. I take off my watch and leave my cell phone behind. That’s my constant connection.  Also, LA has the largest natural urban park in the US, Griffith Park, a natural park (unlike other man-made parks), I can hike or go horseback riding. It is also home to the Zoo and miles of great trails.
And of course the beach: it’s only 30 minutes away. You can get lost, hang in the sand and hear the waves, it’s a great way to spend the day outdoors.

Q: What’s one piece of advice you’d like to share with the youth delegates across the country? 
A:  Believe in yourself, nothing is out of realm. I never thought about being here with National Geographic, but here I am. Stay true to yourself, be authentic and believe in the power of empowering others.