Rooted in Community Wisdom
Lorena Gonzalez advocates for climate policy that advances environmental justice
In order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need bold climate action now. But we can’t address the climate crisis without addressing pollution that has disproportionately harmed Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. Climate change threatens to multiply the threats to these communities, worsening public health, economic, and racial injustices. Our climate solutions must safeguard the health and well-being of the communities who are hurting most from the impacts of environmental injustice. And our movement is stronger when we unite with activists who know these impacts from their own experience.
We are so lucky to have Lorena Gonzalez as our Climate Advocate. Lorena understands both high-level policy and grassroots perspectives, and she uses both to help Colorado fight climate change. Here’s a snapshot into why she puts equity and community wisdom front and center in our climate work, and how you can support it.
Chicago is a tale of two cities—North and South—with stark racial, socioeconomic and environmental divides. My story begins in Chicago’s southwest side. I grew up in a vibrant, working class Latinx community. All around, there are bustling Latinx-owned small businesses and colorful murals that showcase our Mexican cultural heritage, and a palpable sense of pride in place.
But there are also silent and sometimes invisible dangers. The southwest side of Chicago has some of the worst air quality in the city. It’s home to the majority of the city’s Industrial Corridor land. I grew up in the shadow of a manufacturing district, a smelter, asphalt plants, recently shuttered coal plants and more. For this reason, we referred to our neighborhood as a “sacrifice zone.”
We were forced to cope with the impacts of dirty industry so that white and affluent communities up north wouldn’t have to. To these industries and those in power, our lives were worth sacrificing in the name of profit.
Growing up, I thought pollution was normal. I thought everybody had asthma, like me. But when I started going to school on the north side, I saw that those communities in Chicago weren’t dealing with the problems we were. Instead they had plenty of well-maintained parks, trees, and other amenities that made their neighborhoods beautiful.
Later, my career in communications led to a job opportunity at a national environmental advocacy group. And that’s when I started really connecting the dots. The pollution I lived with growing up wasn’t a coincidence. It was the result of racist zoning policy and a history of excluding communities like mine from decisions that impact our health.
Back in Chicago, I was the co-chair of a grassroots group called Southwest Environmental Alliance. We used direct action to fight against environmental racism and achieve self-determination. One of our most prominent fights was against an asphalt plant that opened up right next to a school and across from the only park in the neighborhood, without any community input.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the plant kept operating and continued to pollute the air, creating additional risk in a neighborhood that was already one of the hardest hit by the virus. But the pandemic did not stop us from mobilizing to protect our asthma-ridden community from the worst impacts of COVID-19. We knew that if we didn’t speak up for ourselves, no one else would.
But there was a disconnect in how efforts like ours were perceived in traditional environmental spaces, like where I worked at the time. I began to notice that when historically excluded communities were brought up at all, they were often represented one-dimensionally—as victims of their own circumstances. But I knew that wasn’t true in my own neighborhood. In fact, there was a ton of momentum and energy to improve our communities.
These communities are not powerless. We’re not voiceless. We are actually the ones who know the solutions to our own problems, we just need support to bring them to fruition.
“These communities are not powerless. We’re not voiceless. We are actually the ones who know the solutions to our own problems, we just need support to bring them to fruition.”
Part of the problem was that we had a gap in policy expertise. To achieve our goals, we had to rely on people outside of our grassroots group who didn’t understand our experiences first-hand. So I decided to try and fill that gap. And that’s how I ended up in Colorado, to pursue a Masters degree in environmental policy at CU Boulder.
Before moving to Colorado, I stumbled across a National Geographic article where Denver came in as the fourth most sustainable destination in the world. But I started questioning who was being centered in this narrative. Who got to reap the benefits of these sustainability initiatives and natural beauty, and who was being ignored? That line of research led me to North Denver places like Commerce City and Globeville-Elyria-Swansea—working class, Latinx communities facing chronic pollution. These neighborhoods very much resemble the one I come from.
I focused my graduate research on policies that could remedy past harms and advance environmental and climate justice in communities like these. I got started with Conservation Colorado last spring as a policy intern, and saw that there is a huge appetite for environmental justice here in Colorado. It’s prioritized by the state’s decision makers in a way it isn’t back home. As an intern, I helped Conservation Colorado and its partners pass critical environmental justice and climate legislation, House Bill 1266. It filled me with hope for this movement, and it led me to becoming our Climate Advocate.
In my role, I work with our grassroots and environmental partners to hold the state accountable for meeting its climate targets and aggressively reducing emissions. An essential part of that is making sure we are addressing issues that impact communities who have long borne outsized impacts from environmental hazards. You can’t have good climate policy without environmental justice.
This work is deeply personal to me. I know from my own experience that what we’ve been doing in this field historically to engage with frontline communities hasn’t been working. We need to follow their lead, and bring their vision for the future to the table. I’m committed to seeing this through on a whole other level.
This work can also be heavy. It’s easy to fall into despair. But knowing that I am in this fight with a community of dedicated advocates and inspiring community members brings me a tremendous amount of hope.
And this is a really critical moment in this fight. We’re seeing 70-degree days in December. July of this summer was the hottest month we’ve ever experienced in Colorado. In Denver, we had some of the worst air quality in the world. We had unprecedented wildfires, and these record setting events are not going away. This summer showed us that if we don’t act on climate, we might no longer be able to enjoy the Colorado that we know and love. And we can’t let that happen.
We need folks to get together and mobilize for really aggressive climate action, and try things we haven’t before. One of the best ways you can help now is to give to Conservation Colorado. Your donation means we can focus on fighting alongside communities, and that makes all the difference.