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In 2015, when Stephanie Maez was serving in the New Mexico state legislature, her 18-year-old son was wrongfully convicted of murder and sent to an adult jail. The murder conviction was overturned, but the resulting post-traumatic stress disorder led to a substance addiction and another stint in jail.
Maez says that nature—and being able to seek comfort, peace, and solace in the outdoors—is what saved her life through these traumatic events. And with her now 24-year-old son soon to be released, she’s counting on nature to saving him, too.
Watch the edited video interview here.
Read the transcript
Note: Straight Talk is produced as a video and podcast and is designed to be watched or heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page. Transcripts are generated with speech recognition software and may contain errors.
Kristin Hostetter: Hey everybody. I’m Kristin Hostetter and you’re listening to the Straight Talk podcast by Outside Business Journal. We’ve got a really special episode today, and I want to start off by thanking my amazing guest, Stephanie Maya, for her incredible courage and vulnerability and sharing her very personal story about the healing power of nature.
Stephanie is the managing director of outdoor foundation. She came to this role recently after serving as a state legislator in New Mexico. This is our first job in the outdoor industry, but since she was a little girl growing up in Albuquerque, she has felt the power and POL of being outside. And when her life and the life of her son took some traumatic turns in 2015, it was nature that kept her afloat and allowed her to persevere.
Her lived experience has given her the perspective that has led her to this role leading the outdoor foundation. And it’s hard to imagine anyone being better suited to do the work that she’s doing, but let’s let Stephanie share her own powerful story. Stephanie, how are you? Thanks for being here.
Stephanie Maez: I’m well, I’m so happy to be here.
Kristin Hostetter: Let’s get right into it. You are fairly new into the, in this role. Yes. I’d love to hear more about your journey into this role, how you got here, where you’ve been before, before you took the role.
Stephanie Maez: Absolutely you are right on. I am not only new to this role, but I’m new to the outdoor industry. I come to this role from a primarily a public policy civic engagement, political background.
I’m a former state legislator out of Albuquerque New Mexico and have had the pleasure of running several state based nonprofits. With policy focused, some of which was on the environment and on outdoor recreation, but really around mobilizing voters for systems change. And so, you know, one might ask, well, why the outdoor foundation, you know, and so for me, this role really, and this job is so much more than just a job.
I come to this position from a very personal experience while I was serving in the state legislature, my son was wrongfully accused of murder and he was not aware of the crime, had no participation, let alone commit a murder. He was 18 years old. And I was, I was young when I had him and I was serving in the legislature and as a mother, it was devastating and we’re still healing from it.
He spent a year in jail for this. And during that year, Kristin, I think it’s fair to say that I truly almost lost myself. And it was through the outdoors that I was able to really cope, to heal, to be strong. I also have a 13 year old daughter and this was several years ago. So she was younger at the time.
And experiencing firsthand, the transformative benefits of the outdoors has just been a life-changing experience. And now I’ve been just really, I really feel driven. I feel like this is my purpose. This is my life’s work. And so I can use the skills and the experience that I have in the policy space and the program in non-profit space, in fundraising and philanthropy to really continue to be an evangelist for this work.
And I think it’s also important to know growing up in Albuquerque, I grew up in a really poor neighborhood and access to the outdoors was not really an option for us and so on my myself and my little brother. And so I can really identify with many of the folks that participate in our thrive programs, our youth.
And so it was through actually being able to go to my grandparents’ cabin as a young person, once, twice, maybe three times a year, depending on the year, up in the San Juan mountains in Southern Colorado. It planted that seed for me. And when that seed was planted and all of the traumatic events unfolded with my son there was no place like the outdoors and the mountains that was able to really calm me down and to bring me back and to give me the strength to persevere through such a traumatic situation. So now I feel like sharing my story is important, but I recognize that it can also be somewhat traumatizing for the people that I’m telling and often don’t know how to respond. So you know that this may be a little deep, but it’s Straight Talk. So I’m giving it to you Straight. You know, this is what brought me here and I just, I pinch myself. I tell my board that my dirty little not so secret secret is that I would actually pay to do this work.
I feel so privileged to be able to get up every morning and do the work that we’re doing.
Kristin Hostetter: Oh, my word. Well, there’s a lot to unpack there. First of all, I’m so sorry that you went through that I can’t even imagine how traumatic that must be. And I’m really grateful that you’re sharing that with me now. I have a lot of questions about that. How long ago, when did that traumatic situation kind of resolve itself, your son is not in jail anymore, it sounds like?
Stephanie Maez: That’s actually a different story. He is currently in jail. He was 18 years old. When this happened. He was arrested in August of 2015 and then released in June of 2016.
And he, after his release, developed, and I don’t want to get too much into it, cause it really is his story. But you know, 18 years old in an adult jail created a severe case of PTSD and developed an addiction. And so several months after his release, he got pretty deep into his addiction. He was in recovery for some time, but then on an unrelated non-violent offense, related to his addiction, unrelated to the murder charge, but related to his addiction was arrested. And he’s had some struggles since then as our whole family has. And he’s in jail right now. And, and again, it’s, you know, addiction and the criminal justice system and the lack of options and the punitive nature and the stigmatisms around addiction have sort of contributed to the cyclical experience that we’ve had with the criminal justice system in the last few years. And so I am so grateful. I have this beautiful mountain. I live in a townhouse at the base of the Sandia mountains and to this day, every morning, getting up and being able to go and take my dog for a hike in the mountains, it provides that sanctuary, that solace because yeah, having your.
Your oldest child in jail is just it’s, he’ll be out soon and it’s not it’s, you know, it’s yeah, it’s hard.
Kristin Hostetter: Oh my gosh. Well, I was, I really was not expecting this story, I guess I wasn’t very prepared for this. And as a mother of two boys, it’s incredibly moving and I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through.
So I kind of need a moment here to process. And then we can move on.
Stephanie Maez: Well, thank you for sharing and for allowing me to share my story. And I, you know, I really wasn’t sure how much detail I wanted to go into on this particular forum, but I feel like it’s so important to talk about these things because families, everybody has something, you know, and I think oftentimes with social media and the need to just put on this everything is perfect, white picket facade is just, it’s not real. And I want to be real and it’s painful and it sucks. And there’s healing and resiliency and faith that I tap into that I wouldn’t have. If I didn’t have the opportunity to experience this adversity, you know, and as a mom, you know, you just want to fix it and you want it to go away and you want to protect your kids.
He’s 24 years old now, while he’ll be 24 on April 9th. And he has to make some choices, you know, and I’ll love him unconditionally and be here for him. And, you know, he actually loves the outdoors. He used to tie his own flies and he used to, you know, we’d go fishing and float trips. And we, you know, we talk about it when he gets out, which will be soon, we’re going to spend a week in the mountains and.
Kristin Hostetter: Well, thank you so much for sharing that. I think a lot of people can relate in some capacity to some of the things that you’ve just shared with us. I’m really grateful that you feel safe enough to do that. And thank you for that. Thank you. Can you tell us a little bit about your first introduction as you remember it to the outdoors?
Because I think nature and the outdoors is a way of healing for so many people. It’s true. Big traumas, little traumas. You have a crappy day. You feel better when you go outside. You know, I think any, anyone that’s listening to this in our audience can relate to that in some degree. Can you take us back a little bit and remember, you know, maybe some of the first times that you’ve felt that healing, when you went outside and experienced outdoors and nature.
Stephanie Maez: Sure.
Absolutely. So I think my most vivid memories as a young, as a child, probably my, actually my earliest memories have been from being in outdoor spaces with, you know, as I, as I mentioned, we grew up, I grew up really. Poor. And we didn’t, you know, it wasn’t like going to, you know, the ski slope or the rock climbing gym or the, you know, so my mom would take us to this duck pond over at the university of New Mexico.
And so, you know, she worked her butt off and on. And so when we were able to really spend quality time together outside, it just felt so. Expansive and free and healing. And at that time, you know, when you’re five and six years old, you’re just enjoying and just wanting, you know, just, just experiencing and soaking it all in.
I remember the ducks would chase me because we would take stale bread or stale tortillas and feed the ducks when they would chase me. And then I also remember her parents, my grandparents, had a cabin out in Southern Colorado, and I’d go out and spend, you know, spring break their summertime there.
And I remember feeling like at that point, as I was getting older and into middle school, it just, it really felt like the Twilight zone, you know, I felt like I was in just this completely different like space, which I was, but it really truly felt as we would drive out of the city, it just felt like I was, I was going into like a whole new world.
And so I feel so grateful that I had those memories and those seeds were planted at such a young age. So when I became pregnant with my son I was 15. And I had him when I was 16. You know, thank God for my family. And I was able to, they helped me through high school and college, and I was able to get my master’s degree and be able to provide for my son.
Although my mom always said, she’s like, I will help you, but I will not be a built in babysitter. So there was none of that going on, but I say all that to say, having the seeds of the outdoors truly planted at an early age for me while I didn’t get those repeat experiences throughout the year, because we did live in much more of an urban area where green spaces and access to the outdoors isn’t as feasible, which is a real barrier I suspect we’ll talk about further in the conversation, but I was able to take my son out to the cabin, to my grandparents’ cabin and it planted that seed with him. And so now, you know, when he calls me, we talk almost every day, if not every day, every other day, And, you know, he still suffers with the PTSD and anxiety and panic.
And so if he’s like on the verge of having a panic attack, we’ll go through and we’ll walk through some visualizations of being in the outdoors and breathing. And really, so, you know, I think I over answered your question, but it’s been, I mean, you can see just the richness that the outdoors brings and I dunno, I just, I can’t shout it from the rooftops loud enough.
Kristin Hostetter: That’s amazing. And I think you bring up a really good point about the fact that you don’t need to hike down into the Grand Canyon or climb Mount Rainier or hike the Appalachian Trail in order to experience the benefits of being outdoors. You just don’t, you know, you can get it when you walk out your front door, it’s there for you.
Yes, we do need to reduce barriers so that people can, you know, expand those, those horizons and get deeper into the outdoor experience, I think. But, but I think you bring up such a great point that, that we have to embrace, you know, we have to expand sort of coming from the outdoor industry. We have to expand what we think of as getting outdoors.
Cause it’s not just hiking the Pacific crest trail.
Stephanie Maez: Right. Yep. That’s exactly right. It’s redefining. And you hit the nail on the head with the word and, you know, expanding our definition. And then that creates a culture of inclusivity because we know diversity doesn’t mean inclusivity.
And if we truly want to create a welcome and inclusive space, outdoor spaces that we have to redefine, because it, I mean, I guess everybody has their own experience. And for those that have the opportunity to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, like go for it. I’d love to do Kilimanjaro at some point. And that’s on my list.
If I could show you my refrigerator, it’s full of pictures , but that’s not happening. And the next, you know, near-term, so the Lulus trail up here at San DIA is an and hiking around the park and, you know, going to the duck pond and doing yoga. You can experience the transformative benefits without having to go do Everest.
Kristin Hostetter: For sure.
Stephanie Maez: To anybody who’s climbing Everest. Like that’s great.
Kristin Hostetter: More power to them. Right?
Let’s talk about Thrive Outside. Your favorite topic, probably, right? So tell us what thrive Outside is and how the program works.
Stephanie Maez: Absolutely. So Thrive Outside was started about a year and a half, almost two years ago by my predecessor, Lisa,Aangeenbrug and it is the outdoor foundation’s primary grant making vehicle. And what we’re doing is we’re investing in a collective impact model where we’re funding through multi-year capacity, building grants, networks of organizations in regions throughout the country. Currently we’re in four regions. We’re in San Diego, Atlanta, Grand Rapids and Oklahoma city.
And the structure is that there is a backbone organization that sort of serves as the kind of hub. And then they are convening coalitions of partner organizations that are specifically dedicated to increasing youth participation in outdoor spaces, primarily from communities of color. And other BiPAP communities.
And so it’s just really exciting to see the learning that’s taking place. That’s the other sort of key component of the Thrive Outside model is that our networks are learning from each other. We have a very robust, qualitative and quantitative evaluation program where we’re able to measure. Our impact on both increasing, you know, participation in the outdoors, but also what does that actually mean for the kids that are participating?
How is this impacting around metrics around, you know, positive youth development, grit, confidence, sense of place, sense of space, you know, add or navigating adversity. And then we’re also measuring other metrics in the sort of environmental stewardship. What does it mean to be a conservationist? What, what are public lands?
Those learnings are then able to be shared between networks on what’s working, what’s not working. And then also within the context of the larger sort of collective impact learning community, we’re able to build on that body of knowledge.
Kristin Hostetter: Wow. Well, it’s an amazing program for sure. I’d love it if you could give us, and I don’t mean to put you on the spot here, but can you give me an example, maybe a snapshot of a kid who’s had an experience in one of your Thrive Outside communities and in how that’s gone down and what he or she has learned and how that’s impacted his or her life.
Stephanie Maez: Sure. First one key variable to consider is that when Thrive was launched, it was right before COVID. And so going into COVID, many of our programs faced a tremendous level of restrictions for the health and safety of communities, particularly because to run program, there were transportation variables and of course, being in such close proximity, wasn’t safe.
So, you know the scale of the programs and the participant numbers that we saw in 2020 are not what they’re going to be in 2021 and moving forward outside of a less COVID restricted environment. That being said that the participants that were able to enjoy the experiences through our programs in 2020, I would say one example maybe is in San Diego, there are some great programs running through the San Diego Outdoor Outreach, which is one of the key partner organizations of the Thrive Outside San Diego. And we’ll see youth from, you know, eight years old up through, into their early twenties. And what we’ve learned within those 1) the other key variable is that these are about repeat experiences. So these kids are coming to programs, you know, multiple times. And really the theory is that after experiencing a certain number of repeat experiences outside, you know, it becomes a habit and that’s what we want to do is we want to inspire the outdoor habit with these kids.
And so, you know, they’ll go kayaking or they’ll go for a hike with their counselors or the volunteer staff. And what we’re finding is that kids, when have an opportunity to complete a survey or go through an interview or tell their story, and what we’re finding is as they have multiple repeat experiences that their confidence level increases their sort of approach to adversity and being able to take on challenges becomes stronger, that they have a more of a sense of what does it mean again to be, you know, to be sort of a conservationist.
We don’t necessarily use that language, but, so the data is new, given that the program is new, the data is new, but the theory then too is with all of this, how is that going to impact from a longitudinal standpoint, graduation rates for youth participants, four years down the road, if they’re starting in ninth grade, In one of our programs, one of the Thrive programs.
So it’s really robust and I would encourage your audience to check out our website. We have our 2020 impact report that really outlines a lot of that. And there’s actually some links to videos that really tell the story much in much more of a direct on the ground way from the participants themselves.
Kristin Hostetter: Oh, great. I’m going to check those out for sure. I read that. Thrive Outside has some pretty ambitious goals for the next three to four years. Is it true that you’re going to be expanding into 16 cities over the next three years? And if so, how on earth do you do create a rollout of that scale and size?
Stephanie Maez: Yeah. Yes. Excellent question. And it is exciting and it is ambitious and I’m also very confident that we’re going to meet those goals given, especially given the impact that we’re seeing in communities and the level of interest. So yes, 16 cities in three years, 32 cities in five to seven years and beyond.
So the cadence would be four cities per year for five years would get us to that 30 to 32 cities. To your question about the how. So in order to go into a city, as I said, our theory is that we really need to make investments that are specifically capacity building and about strengthening the infrastructure and in doing so, you know, we’re supporting serving as a catalyst to help these networks of organizations become fully self-sustaining after their three-year grant cycle is up with the Outdoor Foundation. And so, as we’re bringing on new cohorts, you know, old cohorts are sort of cycling off from a grant receiving standpoint. However, what we do want to continue to do is fully resource those cohorts that are post their three year grant cycle to be able to continue to participate in the Thrive learning community and to, to continue with the evaluation and data collection. How that happens is through generous support from both industry partners, partners, non-industry partners.
So non-endemic corporations, foundations, um, we’re actively and aggressively pursuing a very diverse fundraising strategy and portfolio and the interest, especially given the pandemic has just been really phenomenal. People are really interested in really engaged because this is a new and innovative model.
You know, there are other organizations that are doing similar programming work, but not necessarily on the scale and definitely not through a collective impact model.
Kristin Hostetter: Yeah. You bring up a good point. There’s so much competition out there right now. Right? For funding among nonprofits and foundations and affiliate groups, affinity groups, advocacy groups, all looking for funding and resources.
So what’s your strategy for competing in that really competitive landscape for that crucial funding that you need to make this program successful?
Stephanie Maez: You know, it’s interesting Kristin, that you brought this up and I think that it really, it goes back to my approach to both fundraising and life in general.
I think that if we have a competitive scarcity mindset, there are finite resources. If we are working together and those other organizations, foundations, programs that are running really great program, if we’re able to come together and collaborate and figure out where we can reduce that duplication and increase efficiencies, then we can maximize the dollar that exists for funding programs like these.
So figuring out that collaboration, I think as well as looking at how we can make the pie bigger and how we can move away from that sort of competitive scarcity mindset or approach and really operate from more of an abundance perspective will help us think and be more creative and identifying revenue streams that are recurring and that can actually grow the pie.
So, yes, it’s competitive. And I think that if we are able to sort of shift how we approach from collectively in the sector, organizations doing this work, I think that sky’s the limit and I think there’s enough resources to fund all of our great work.
Kristin Hostetter: I love that. Partnerships are key. We’re stronger together . Together We Are a Force.
Stephanie Maez: Lise will love that. And I love that.
Kristin Hostetter: I love that too. The best tagline ever.
Stephanie Maez: It’s yes. And it’s so true. And not just in the outdoor industry, I, you can tell I’ve been, I don’t want to go off on too much of a tangent, but I’ve been studying Eastern philosophy and religion and like it’s, it’s true. Together we are a force across the board.
Kristin Hostetter: For sure. All right. Let’s switch gears a little bit here. I’ve spoken to so many people on this topic and opinions vary a lot. Some people see really positive change in terms of diversity, equity inclusion in our industry. And others feel like we’re just not making the progress that we need.
We’ve covered diversity equity inclusion in our brand and our titles on our site, on our website, in our stories a lot, we will continue to do that. It’s really important that we elevate voices and keep pushing our industry on these fronts. I’m just curious, what’s your opinion on the state of diversity in the outdoor industry. And in your, in your specific role, which I think gives you the opportunity to really touch these communities that we’re talking about. What can people watching here really do to move the needle and quickly get more people of color, not only outside and experiencing nature, but working in leadership roles in our industry.
Stephanie Maez: Yes. See, that’s critical Kristin. I think that systems change and who sits in what seats and what seats of power matter. And I think to your question about where are we in terms of our work on diversity, equity and inclusion. Absolutely. We have a lot of work to do, but guess what? So does, you know, X industry and the other side on the other side of the spectrum.
And so does, you know, in my former political life, so does the public administrative and the bureaucratic side and the public sector side, you know, we have a lot of work to do. I think I’m inspired and encouraged by how far we have come as a non outdoor industry insider. I will say I felt when I came into this role and having seen the work that was done specifically around creating a DEI task force, looking at operationally, how are we getting our own organizations in order, in terms of OIA and the Outdoor Foundation, before we seek to prescribe anything to anybody in any industry is huge. We have to be willing to have those uncomfortable conversations and look in. And even, you know, as a woman of color, I personally have a lot of work to do. You know, racial identity is only one piece of what inclusivity means. And so, you know, in learning and growing and being okay with being like, I don’t know what to do on this issue, or I don’t know how what I’m saying might potentially be harmful to somebody who doesn’t identify in the same way that I do, whether it’s on gender or race. So I think we have come a long way and we have a long way to go. But I feel great.
And I think that, I feel great about where we’re at today, I mean, you might ask me after a meeting with some folks that I feel like maybe how, you know, like where the conversation isn’t like this and maybe I would be less feeling great about it, but you know, it ebbs and flows. And, and I think that it’s just about being comfortable with having those uncomfortable conversations.
And to your point about the leadership piece systems change happens when we’re able to have power in places where there is an opportunity for leadership, and that happens. Through pipeline development and through inclusivity from the ground up from, increasing access to state parks through, free admission or providing free transportation for folks in historically underrepresented communities to be able to go 30 miles to the state part, and to invest in public infrastructure that are real urban green spaces that don’t exist in many urban communities. So starting there. And then how are we being intentional about cultivating leaders in community that are actually like community led?
That’s the thing is we have to be willing, I think, in the industry. To step out and allow others to have power and not step out in a way that decreases our power because there’s enough of it to go around. But that is about listening to community and putting community in a place of leadership.
Kristin Hostetter: Yeah, I love what you said about pipeline and developing that pipeline of talent in bringing people up through the ranks, because that is truly the way we’re going to make that change at leadership level for sure. I also love what you said about having uncomfortable conversations. And we were so thrilled to partner with OIA last week to host that webinar on the N word, which I think was a very uncomfortable conversation that actually turned out to be a fabulous conversation, I think. And if you haven’t watched that webinar, everybody tune in and check it out because it was really, really, really insightful.
So thank you to you, Stephanie and OIA for supporting that and partnering with us on that. Let’s see, let’s switch gears here for a minute. We’re both women, we’re both in leadership positions in the outdoor industry. I know OIA has a lot of women leaders in its structure as well. How do you think the industry is doing in terms of elevating women in, in leadership roles and closing that gender gap?
Stephanie Maez: Well, I think so, you know, again, being an outdoor industry non insider, I don’t have a lot of the historical context necessarily, but as I’m getting up to speed and really getting a sense of the lay of the land, it seems to me that women are becoming more and more represented in leadership positions.
When you look, as you said, at the OIA board, at our board at the Outdoor Foundation, The, uh, sort of leadership executive level positions within the organizations are occupied by women. And I think that’s great. And I think that we’re just a small segment of the outdoor industry. And so when I look across the board at some of the larger industry companies, and you look at, you know, the C-suite, and you look at who is in those positions. I think we still have some work to do on what women in those positions of power look like. And I think that it can’t just be counting the number of women executives. I think that we also have to look at what sort of roles and positions those executives are.
Are they truly positions of influence? Or is it, you know, we talk about this in other areas of diversity, equity and inclusion, particularly around race and ethnicity. Is it more of a performative approach or are these roles actually shifting the culture and making it even more inclusive for young girls to really see themselves in those positions of power?
Because that’s where I think it starts is that real culture shift. It’s like the old saying, or I guess it’s not an old saying, but you often hear, women are assertive and they come across as the B word, which I almost just said, and I’m pretty proud of myself, but I didn’t actually say the word because I don’t know what your policies are, but, but men are assertive and they’re leaders.
And that’s crap. That’s absolutely crap. I love the fact that my 13 year old daughter is not afraid to speak her mind, say her opinion and take a leadership role and be assertive. And I think that I’m trying to model that behavior and not be afraid of being called the B word, you know? And I think that we’ve come a long, long way since the Dawn of time, and we have a long way to go. And it’s also about creating allyships and really seeking and having an expectation that men in positions of power are being allies and supportive of both policies that lift up women in leadership and actually having women in leadership and the way that they interact with women in leadership.
Kristin Hostetter: Well, I’m just going to say it right now. The word, the B word. Bitches unite. Let’s be bitches. Let’s embrace it.
Stephanie Maez: That’s right. Kristin bitches unite!
Kristin Hostetter: Right? We’re going to make up bumper stickers.
Well, Stephanie, it’s been wonderful talking with you. Thank you so much for spending time with me. I’m really happy to have the opportunity to introduce you to our audience who may not have gotten to know you since you started in the middle of this crazy COVID pandemic and we haven’t had face-to-face time, we haven’t had big gatherings. So I feel really honored that you’ve spent some time with us today. Thank you so much for being here.
Stephanie Maez: Thank you for the opportunity and thank you so much for your commitment to these issues and engaging and having hard and uncomfortable conversations and you all are at the forefront of that. So thank you sure.
Kristin Hostetter: And thank you everybody for tuning into this episode of Straight Talk. We’ve got lots more conversations like this on our websites of please check us out.
The outdoor industry is full of fascinating people doing bold things, whether it’s in sustainability, diversity, equity, and inclusion, specialty retail, activism, marketing, or brand building. And here at Straight Talk, we dive straight in.
This episode was produced by me. Kristin Hostetter. Our executive producer is Jeff Moore. Our executive audio engineer is John Barcklay. Our associate producer is a sheesh thrust. Our production assistant is Louisa Albany’s. Please subscribe today to the Straight Talk podcast, write us a review, and of course stay up on the latest outdoor industry news at outsidebusinessjournal.com.