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2019 EB Alumni Spotlight Award Recipient

Eli Marienthal, class of 2000



Eli Marienthal, class of 2000, was chosen as EB’s second recipient of this award for his impact connecting Bay Area youth with nature and guiding them through the transition to adulthood, and his desire to be a positive force for good in the world.

Eli is the co-founder and co-leader of Back to Earth, a wilderness guiding and outdoor education organization based in Oakland, California. This organization works with young people to develop practices of personal development and self care through a culture of peacemaking and thanksgiving, using nature as a transformative environment.

Eli is a lifelong learner and educator and has received training in peacemaking, nature awareness and cross cultural respect. Eli is a certified First Responder and a poet, dancer, songwriter and spoken-word performer. He was a first generation Youth Speaks poet, and was the youngest member of a winning Brave New Voices National Slam Team, as well as the youngest to win the Bay Area Slam. He continues to perform original work, sharing with audiences his distinctive voice of gratitude. Eli sat down with EB to answer a few questions.


What did you enjoy most about your time at EB and why?

My tenure at EB was long and happy, from pre-K through 8th grade, so there were many phases and many favorites. What stands out to me now is how serious my education felt to me in middle school. I had always been taken by the idea of a certain kind of old world rigor, an emphasis, not exclusive but pronounced, on the lost arts of form, presentation, memorization, accuracy. I recall that as a theme throughout my studies at EB that gave me an early sense of scholarship as a calling.

Please describe your current work/studies.

I am a co-director and co-founder of a wilderness guiding and outdoor education company called Back to Earth, based here in the East Bay. We offer ceremony-based, skill-building backpacking adventures in the Yosemite wilderness for teenage boys, and design nature connection programming for schools and organizations. I was previously a doctoral candidate in geography at UC Berkeley, where my love of this planet and my vocation as an educator were nurtured.

How do you feel EB has influenced you or led you towards your choice of profession?

While it’s not exactly a straight shot from the good study habits of middle school to my life as a wilderness guide and outdoor educator, I feel in my being the connective threads of my early education and how I show up for the young people I work with now. As an EB student I was encouraged in my curiosity, and was given good tools of inquiry. And whether one is teaching medieval history in a classroom or plant identification in the backcountry, these same principles apply.

Describe your favorite memory from EB.

When I was in sixth grade, my English teacher, Doctor Hecht, saw something in me, the way my mind worked, my appetite for connecting the details and the grand sweep of history, that prompted her to gift me a copy of Willem Hendrick van Loon’s Story of Mankind. I devoured it then, and several more times through high school. And well into my education at Brown and my post-graduate studies at UC Berkeley, I realized that I still hung a great deal of what I read on the conceptual backdrop provided by that one book, and the formative ways in which it trained me to see historical continuity and rupture. So the book itself was a big deal. But so was being recognized by a teacher at that age and encouraged in my love of learning.

Do you feel that EB adequately prepared you for life after EB? Do you feel you are a citizen of the world?

I feel that I was prepared by whatever the circumstances of my creation were, my karma, my genes, to love EB, and to love all that’s come since. In some very practical ways, having grown up bilingual has changed the course of my life. I’ve been able to work and study across the world in French, from Montreal to Dakar to Port-au-Prince. That I have had the experience of thinking, singing, and dreaming in more than one language, has moulded my mind in ways I cannot define precisely but is no doubt of considerable import.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m grateful after so many years to have been woven back into the EB fold through my participation in TedX and receipt of the Alumni Spotlight Award. Last summer I had a first EB student join me in the backcountry, which was another connection I always hoped for and a milestone in reconnecting with the EB community. And this Fall, I’m looking forward to collaborating with Richard Lyon to see about deepening my work with EB middle schoolers in and out of the classroom.


Eli participated in EB's annual TEDx Youth event in 2018. You can watch his talk "Everything is a ripple" below.