Friends of the LA River: “We have to make radical change now so that the next generation has a fighting chance.”

FOLAR’s executive director Marissa Christiansen gets real about transforming the LA River and making a difference wherever you live

When most people think of LA, they think movie stars, traffic and the Pacific Ocean. But what many of us seem to forget is that LA has a 51-mile river that runs directly through the city.

How could such a spectacular part of nature be so out of sight and out of mind? Well, you can blame the concrete. Most of the LA River flows through concrete channels that don’t exactly beckon passersby or exude a sense of serenity.

However, there’s a new dawn steadily shedding light on this urban blight. At the forefront is Friends of the LA River (FOLAR), a non-profit founded in 1986. This organization aims to “crack the concrete” and ensure a healthy river that everyone can enjoy for generations to come.

To that end, FOLAR is hosting its 30th Anniversary LA River CleanUp, the largest such urban river cleanup in America. What started out as 10 volunteers has since grown to thousands of individual volunteers and volunteer groups who want to create a swimmable, boatable and bikeable river where people, wildlife and the natural environment thrive.

I asked FOLAR’s executive director Marissa Christiansen about the future (and current state) of the LA River, how it impacts people beyond Southern California and what each of us can do to create a greener, healthier and happier future for all.

Photo by Jamie McInall

Hi Marissa. I’m a native Angeleno who grew up seeing the LA River only in concrete-covered riverbeds. It was never something my family visited the way we would a “real river” that you can boat, fish or swim in. What’s the state of the LA River today?

The River was once a meeting place for people and wildlife, and it’s the reason the city of LA was founded where it is. Thirty-two years ago, Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR) was founded and so too was the river movement.

Today, with FOLAR at the helm of that movement, public agencies and Angelenos alike are shifting their attentions to the River and realizing its potential! In recent years we’ve helped establish the River’s two recreations zones—where you can now actually kayak, fish and birdwatch.

We’ve also helped gain approval for some major public funding at the state, local and federal levels—all with the vision of one day returning our concrete river to a wild, natural one that is accessible for people and wildlife alike.

Friends of the LA River cleanup

You’re the Executive Director of FOLAR. Tell us about the organization, its mission and the work you do.

FOLAR is a grassroots river advocacy organization with the simple mission to ensure a publicly accessible and ecologically sustainable Los Angeles River, by inspiring River stewardship through community engagement, education, advocacy, and thought leadership.

We do this by bringing the River to the people and the people to the River. We educate 3,000 students a year, mobilize 10,000 volunteers and stand with thousands of advocates who are all working towards an accessible and environmentally-healed River of the future.

For me, every single day I am proud of our work as the pioneers of the River movement and as the River advocacy organization with the biggest tangible impact and furthest reach. I am also constantly humbled by the passion, dedication, intellect and sheer willpower of our team, our board, and our volunteers.

As I set out in my career to make a positive change in Los Angeles, I never imagined I would end up with such a passionate organization positioned at the center of one of our region’s most exciting debates.

FOLAR has thousands of volunteers to clean up the LA River

Although you work at a non-profit, you’re also a high-level executive. Many women I talk to are looking for ways to make a meaningful impact while still making a living. Talk a little about your career path and how you’ve been able to merge the two.

It’s true. Though I feel fairly compensated in my role here at FOLAR, there’s no doubt I’d be making more as an executive at a for-profit. That said, I’ve done it all—I’ve worked for public agencies, well-funded globally-focused nonprofits, start-ups, grassroots nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies. They all have their benefits and drawbacks.

I spent a long time in my younger years thinking that a job is a job and as long as you earn enough to spend your “downtime” doing what is most important to you, then it’s all worth it. But in American culture that really doesn’t translate.

We all spend so much time working in the office, away from whatever else it is that drives us. And as you ascend in the ranks of your career, your “downtime” becomes non-existent. So, if you aren’t using your working hours to satiate either your true passion or your desire to effect positive change, then you are likely out of time and energy to do either.

And that’s where I am—I’m a mother, a partner, an Executive Director and someone who wants to be able to show my daughter how I’ve bettered the world in some small way.

Filling all those roles means my job can’t just be a job. The way I feel is if I’m going to be spending time away from my daughter, it better be worth it and there’s probably not a paycheck big enough to make me feel differently.

That said, if I didn’t have a partner that had a different earning potential than I do, maybe I’d be making a different sacrifice. I’m lucky enough to have had the opportunity to forge the career of my choosing.

Friends of the LA River volunteers pick up trash

What is most impactful or special for you about the LA River?

I’m a native Californian and grew up enamored with and inspired by our beautiful natural landscapes. For me, the River is an unexpected respite in a city that has a reputation for concrete-clad sprawl. The visual and mental relief that I personally get from seeing this slice of water, greenery, wildlife and community gathering is truly awe-inspiring.

April 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the LA River CleanUp. Tell us about why this is important to you and the residents of Los Angeles.

The Great LA River CleanUp is a marquee volunteer event in LA. Every year we mobilize thousands to participate, and cumulatively over 30 years we’ve brought 70,000 people to our cleanups to remove 700 tons of trash from the River!

The CleanUp is, for many Angelenos, their first experience with the River, and facilitates our mission of bringing the River to the people and the people to the River. Conducting this event and partnering with community organizations has created a constituency for change and enabled FoLAR to pressure public offices to participate in the River Movement.

FOLAR gets many volunteers to clean up the LA River

How do you get people to think differently about the river now vs. 30 years ago?

FoLAR’s first cleanup 30 years ago drew ten volunteers to tidy up one stretch of the River. This year we’ll host thousands of volunteers at 11 sites up and down the River. Not only has our cleanup grown tremendously in the past three decades, the trash in the River has also changed.

It was not uncommon during early cleanups for our teams to pull appliances from the River. Today the most common trash is single-use plastics. In part because of cleanups like ours and coastal cleanup efforts, bans and surcharges on plastics have gained traction and are being implemented at city, county and state levels.

Since enthusiasm for the River has grown, many volunteers who participate with us will bring their perspective and interest in seeing further improvements to the River. We’ve passed the initial phase of getting LA to recognize it has a River, and the following chapter of getting public participation in numerous planning efforts to demand ecological restoration on the River.

Now we need to harness the energy of our volunteers into participating in community input hearings on site-specific opportunities to deliver ecological restoration and park development on the River.

Kids help clean up the LA River

As a new mom, how has your perspective changed about the work you do?

This is a great question. To be totally honest, I had become a bit fatalistic about our planet’s climate-change-driven future and had hoped the River would be a shining beacon of hope in a world that was otherwise lost. As a mother, I have the new fire of hope, fight and terror. This isn’t over and we have to make radical change now so that the next generation has a fighting chance.

Cleaning up the LA River is such an enormous task and one that will continue perhaps for perpetuity. How do you stay motivated in the midst of challenges?

It’s easy! This is the most inspiring and impactful event happening on any river in the country! Seeing thousands of Angelenos spend their Saturday morning with us to make a tangible difference in their community is my absolute favorite thing we do all year.

FOLAR volunteers clean up the LA River

Even if someone doesn’t live in Los Angeles or can’t make it to the LA River CleanUp, what are some ways each of us can help the environment?

Don’t litter! It all ends up in our ocean. Take public transport, walk, bike, carpool or live closer to where you work—anything that decreases your fossil fuel consumption. Avoid single-serving disposable packaging and demand that your local government institute policies around each of these areas. The time has come that we all start taking a stand for the policies and changes that will truly save our planet, even if it causes discomfort. It’s worth it.

What’s the most important message you want to share with those who might not see the value or importance of cleaning a local river in light of so many other issues?

The way we treat our River is a reflection how we treat ourselves and our natural environment. Furthermore, LA is a park-poor city, with over half of our residents living beyond walking distance to open space. Open space and parks have been proved to increase quality of life with positive impacts extending even to mental health.

Our LA River, which courses 51 miles through the heart of our city, is the primary opportunity to develop park space for community and deliver a new legacy to future generations.

We have taken tremendous strides as a community and city to turn our collective attention to the River. And as Californians we’re proud of leading the nation on climate change issues. But our work is not done.

We have a river to restore, wildlife to protect, and millions of Angelenos to reconnect to nature! Our CleanUp is an important tool and organizing opportunity for us to continue to build the river movement and mint new river stewards.

Learn more about Friends of the LA River and spread the love by following them on Instagram!

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Written by Mar Yvette

Mar Yvette is an on-air host, lifestyle expert, writer and editor with 10+ years of experience working with some of the world’s most recognized media companies.