A Q&A with New Mexico’s deputy director of The Wilderness Society

Kay Bounkeua discusses growing up Lao-Chinese in the state, her connection to landscape and what’s next for the conservation movement.

 

In the mid-1980s, when Kay Bounkeua was a toddler, her family moved to Northeast Heights, a historically white-only neighborhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her parents had relocated to the city from a refugee camp in Thailand more than a decade previously, after war inundated Laos, their landlocked home country. When the neighbors learned that a Lao-Chinese family was moving in, they signed a petition warning that the immigrants would bring crime with them and devalue local real estate. It was one of the many incidents of racial harassment that peppered Bounkeua’s childhood. 

Growing up as she did, worried about discrimination, financial difficulties and the sense that she didn’t belong, Bounkeua enjoyed biking and hiking in the Sandia Mountains with her family. There, they could just be themselves. She fondly recalls talking with her parents in both Lao and Mandarin while gazing out across the high desert landscape. They all found comfort in the outdoors, she said. They didn’t worry about “speaking the wrong languages” and “eating the wrong food.”

In 2010, Bounkeua joined New Mexico’s Asian Family Center, later serving as its executive director. She led initiatives to provide language access to newcomers and advocated for the community’s concerns in local and state politics. But over a year ago, she made a career change: She became the New Mexico deputy director of The Wilderness Society, shifting her focus to working with underrepresented communities in the outdoors and in conservation.

Heidrich Photography
Recently, High Country News spoke with Bounkeua about her transition from social work to conservation, and what’s it’s like being one of the few Asians in the conservation field in the Southwest. Now that the Biden administration has committed to the “30x30” plan and an inclusive and sustainable future, she believes it’s an ideal time to bring diverse community perspectives into the conservation mainstream. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: Can you tell me a little about your past work with the Asian community in New Mexico? 

Kay Bounkeua: In 2010, I came to the Asian Family Center as a program coordinator. At the time, they were primarily a direct service provider, doing intervention services for those who experienced domestic violence. Four years later, I became the executive director. As the organization grew and I processed what my family had been through, we created culturally tailored programs. Just think about those going from displacement to resettlement and trying to figure everything out as you’re building a new home.

I also thought about the future of the organization more from a social justice standpoint. As young people who felt, saw and experienced oppressive actions against our community became more politically engaged, the center did more organizing work and civic engagement to help folks in the Asian community realize their voting rights. We also started to address language access in New Mexico. In that way, the Asian Family Center not only provided service for individuals in the community but also implemented systemic level change.

HCN: Why did you join The Wilderness Society?

KB: Because I had my daughter, who’s now 2 1/2 years old. That shift into parenthood made me think about what kind of life I want her to have, and what kind of world we are leaving for our children. And I think that this connection to land and place is critical.

As for my connection to land and what that means, I think very much about Laos. When I visited Laos as a little kid, before we even drove up a mountain road, we visited a shrine that people created at the bottom of the mountain, where you pray for the spirits of the mountain to ask for permission to go through the land and guide you through your journey. That kind of spiritual connection reminded me that so many people do have that spiritual connection with places here in New Mexico.

My father always told me that the landscape of New Mexico is similar to Laos in that it is landlocked and hot. That living landscape made me feel connected to my parent’s homeland when I was young — but I worry it will disappear, and the ways I connected through the land in New Mexico will no longer be available for me to share with my daughter. 

Kay Bounkeua and her young daughter hike in the Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque, New Mexico, this past winter.
Courtesy Kay Bounkeua

HCN: How has your past community work inspired your conservation efforts at The Wilderness Society?

KB: To do conservation work, you can’t have it separate from community work. We should be looking at the environment and its health impacts on the communities as an ecosystem. For example, neighborhoods that have been redlined have fewer trees and are more impacted by heat waves. A higher urban heat index is correlated to higher rates of violence as well. All of these contribute to adverse health impacts on our communities. 

HCN: What would you like to see change at The Wilderness Society under your leadership to address the history of exclusion and discrimination in the mainstream conservation movement?

KB: I hope we continue to acknowledge the deep trauma done to communities while lifting up solutions found within those communities. How can we look at environmental racism, environmental degradation and the root causes of those issues in our community? How are we placing money into Indigenous, Asian, Latinx and other people-of-color communities? For those who continue to be the most impacted by the climate and extinction crises, I think that’s where the magic will happen. And so much of that work is building trust and relationships, which takes a lot of time.

There’s a lot of harm when we don’t include people of color into the decision-making process. So we started to conduct a series of 25 different hearing sessions with Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx and other people-of-color leaders and organizations to understand what “conservation” means to them and how mainstream conservation in New Mexico could be in respectful relationship with them.

To do conservation work, you can’t have it separate from community work. We should be looking at the environment and its health impacts on the communities as an ecosystem. 

HCN: To achieve an equitable and sustainable future under “30x30,” what should policymakers and environmental organizations in the West do to get more people of color involved in the movement?

KB: It’s important to note that traditional knowledge and science can live together. But so many times, it feels like you can only do one or the other. If we are creating policies by only looking at the Eurocentric science, it’s a huge disservice for things that people have known for generations that could potentially supports something we are working on. And we need to welcome in people who have been historically pushed out of the environmental conservation movement so that they can give their genuine opinions. 

There are so many amazing Native-led organizations across the state and across the country that we should just follow the lead of, as they were the original and continued stewards of this land. We can also learn from groups that are popping up, such as Outdoor Afro, Outdoor Asian and Latino Outdoor. They are so culturally based and understand these issues from a race-equity lens and can provide many solutions to the problems we’re all trying to figure out.

Wufei Yu is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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