At Conservation Colorado, we approach elections holistically. Of course, we aim to gain and protect pro-conservation majorities at the federal, state and local levels, but we also want to support grassroots activists to become long-term leaders in their communities. We look for candidates who share our values, who prioritize equity and justice, and who will do the work to reach voters. 

That’s why we were so excited to endorse Roberta Ayala for Thornton City Council Ward 2 as part of our fall 2021 electoral work. Roberta understands the intersections of economic, social, racial, and environmental justice and works to help others in her community recognize the connections, too. While Roberta didn’t win a seat on city council, she continues to fight for a better future for Thornton, where everyone has access to clean air and water, public transportation, and open spaces. 

We need leaders like Roberta in Thornton more than ever. A large and rapidly growing suburb north of Denver, Thornton is confronting environmental threats from all sides: oil and gas extraction encroaching closer and closer to homes, toxic chemical waste pollution, and inequities that disproportionately impact Latino community members. Roberta shares why she’s motivated to fight for her community, and how she’s using the momentum of her run for office to carry forward the fight for change. 

The local leaders we invest in now can make an impact for decades to come. Learn more about our elections work here!

I decided to run for Thornton City Council because we need leaders in Thornton who put people over profit. I saw the impacts all around me: Thornton has been tearing up open space for sprawling suburban development and oil and gas, failing to clean up toxic chemicals, and making decisions without listening to community members. I ran to be the progressive voice for working-class people and people of color that we didn’t have. 

I grew up in Thornton in the late ’80s and early ’90s. When my family moved here, we were one of the only Latino families on the block. Thornton was built in the late ’50s, and for a long time, it was very homogeneous. Our suburb was founded off the “white flight” mentality of that time. We still live with that today—I often see it here in Ward 2. When things aren’t going well, people just decide to move further north. 

But moving away doesn’t solve the problems. Instead, it’s created some pretty tough economic disparities. The south part of Thornton now has a much larger Latino population, and the rest of the city often ignores our concerns. Our elected leaders have put all their attention on making the northern suburbs more desirable, which makes them less attainable for working people.

“I ran to be the progressive voice for working-class people and people of color that we didn’t have.”

One example of our concerns being ignored is the EPA brownfield site at the Thornton Shopping Center, an old mall in South Thornton. It’s Thornton’s oldest shopping center, and it used to be a nice place. When I was growing up, we would walk there from my house in the summertime. It had a fabric store, a grocery store, a bunch of little shops, and the coolest vintage record store—my son would have loved it if it was still around. But over the years, the businesses closed down. Now it’s in full-blown blight, with a mess of toxic pollution underneath. 

When it was purchased for redevelopment in 2005, environmental inspectors found that one of the old dry cleaning businesses had been leaking the chemical tetrachloroethene (also known as “perc”) into the soil. Now the toxic plume is seeping underground into nearby neighborhoods, risking serious health issues. It’s taken 15 years of the community complaining and a lawsuit from the health department for the owner to make any real steps toward cleaning it up. The fact that the city didn’t handle this years ago, to me, is an example of environmental racism. What could have been a hub of local Latino-owned businesses is now deteriorating, and instead we’re faced with the threat of a hazardous chemical.

And the shopping mall isn’t the only environmental disparity in Thornton. The wealthier, whiter suburbs in North Thornton have much more access to open space, whereas in South Thornton we have to fight to even get a pocket park built. Public transportation has gotten worse over the years, with bus driver shortages and service cuts even before the pandemic. The city doesn’t do a great job of getting information out to working-class people, so even when there are new programs or services, they often don’t know about the options. 

And instead of sustainable, smart development, we’re seeing gas station after gas station in the south, box store after box store in the north. The whole city is getting built up, in this mismanaged way that doesn’t help people or the environment. 

Roberta, supporters, and friends organize for her Thornton City Council Ward 2 campaign in the fall of 2021.

But Thornton has had few city council members who stand up for these values, and for gender equity and working-class issues as well. Despite the fact that the population of Thornton is over one-third Hispanic and Latino, we have a completely white city council right now. 

The challenges of running for office as a woman of color are hard enough, but what I realized is that even with the support of organizations like Conservation Colorado, progressive candidates are being outspent ten to one. The union-busting companies and the oil and gas industry are pouring money into candidates who just aren’t very well-connected to the community. That’s why I’m working with Kate Miya, another Thornton City Council candidate Conservation Colorado endorsed, to run a ballot initiative in Thornton to get corruption out of politics and implement campaign finance reform.

“I’m trying to help working people see the connections between these decisions the city council is making and the change they really want to see in their own lives.”

The reality is, the suburbs can be a sleepy place. You go to work somewhere else, you come home to eat dinner and sleep, and then go to work again the next day. That’s what Thornton has been for a long time. But I think people in Thornton are waking up a bit to what’s going on. People know that there are big issues here that need to be solved, but they just don’t understand how. 

I’m trying to help working people see the connections between these decisions the city council is making and the change they really want to see in their own lives. I’ve become a sort of informal source of information about the community. People come to me with questions, and I’ve created lots of online forums where people can share news and topics for discussion.

And I care about this community as much as they do. This is where I grew up, and where I raised my own kids. If you can’t change your own neighborhood, what else can you change?