Protégete joined students and faculty at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD) to investigate microscale particulate pollution in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea—two communities with a long history of environmental injustice.
We sat down with Promotorxs instructors and students to learn more about how the program helps Colorado’s communities, environment, and our future.
Our state and national parks are a shared playground where our communities can recreate and connect with nature — and with each another.
Written by Jenny Gaeng
Saturday, May 18 is Colorado Public Lands Day. Like the best holidays, it’s not just a day; it’s a mission.
Eight years ago, I lay in a meadow under the stars, sea-level lungs aching after the climb, and gazed at the unimpeded Milky Way. At the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, the galaxy smeared across the sky as if someone dipped their finger in chalk and trailed the color through space and time. For the first time, I saw myself in the context of everything, thanks to our public lands.
Year after year, I returned to the Sangre de Cristos. I canoed to a waterfall in a glacial lake, learned to spot wild raspberries, climbed a fourteener and tearfully spat that I would never do it again (then I did it again). I brought guest after guest to the meadow of my metaphysical baptism: my mom, my friends, a once-true love, a random Tinder date. I presented the land and the lake as if I owned them, chatting proudly about weather and geology. Yes, the Sangre de Cristos were mine; they belonged to all of us, as public lands do. It seemed uncomplicated.
My story isn’t unique, nor is the fact that it’s one colored by privilege.
I started to research the history of the area. I learned that the Southern Ute camped and traveled in the Sangres, hunting elk and gathering roots and seeds for medicine. I read the dramatic crest of the mountains served as a fortress against invasions — before the Spanish found their way in from the south. I found out that “Blanca Peak” is another name for Sisnaajiní, the sacred eastern boundary of the Navajo homeland; today, the tribe still fights to protect this area from oil and gas drilling operations.
Millions of people visit Colorado’s public lands every year to hike, climb, ski, hunt, fish, and maybe have a life-changing experience as I did. And like me, the vast majority of visitors are white — nearly 95% of visitors to Forest Service lands self-identified that way during monitoring from 2010-2014. The disparity between racial demographics and National Forest visitors in Colorado ranges from 30-70%.
The roots of this fact are not a mystery. The United States has an established history of white supremacy that is set up, protected, and perpetuated by racist policies across our economy, government, and the systems these institutions create.
“Public lands for all,” we say. But you can’t just tell someone they own a locked building and expect them to find a way inside; everyone needs a key. I was lucky enough to be handed one.
Representation, marketing, and centers of outdoor recreation help cultivate a homogenous outdoor culture. It’s personified by being thin, fit, and clad in expensive gear; it’s predominantly male, cis, heterosexual, and hinges on the knowledge to survive and thrive in the wilderness. It’s what we see on the cover of Outside Magazine and it’s what we see on trails throughout Colorado. Coloradans that identify as nonwhite can hike for days in the Colorado backcountry without seeing a face that looks like theirs.
And that brings me to my mission — to our mission.
Outdoor adventurers and activists of all races, genders, and backgrounds are upping the representation game and inspiring new generations. You should pay more attention to their words and ideas than mine, and Conservation Colorado will be featuring their voices in the lead-up to Public Lands Day. Let’s talk about it. Let’s raise their stories as high as Mt. Elbert!
We love our public lands in Colorado. We love them enough to fight for them, which is the reason Colorado Public Lands Day exists. We love them enough that we’ll never stop trying to make them the best they can be — which means looking critically at our history, and shaping our future to be more inclusive and representative of all Coloradans.
We have to work together. I’m never sure of the way forward, and I’m bound to say the wrong thing or screw up at some point — we all are.
As Teresa Baker said in a recent episode of the Safety Third podcast, “Rebranding the Outdoors: “This is going to feel inauthentic as hell — because it hasn’t been done…push your fears aside about it not feeling authentic because that’s just where we are.”
If I can climb Crestone Needle and cross the Conejos River in the spring snowmelt, I think I can learn more about what it takes to make public lands truly representative and open to all people. I think you can, too.
“I want to [see] more respect for the environment and the communities that are living in that environment. People are being taken advantage of. We have to try to change. Going out and canvassing and talking to politicians, that’s a solution.”
– Dominique Lemus, Youth Promotora
Colorado’s Latinx community—comprising about 21 percent of the state’s total population—is one of the largest in the nation. Latinxs have historically been underrepresented in politics and too often overlooked, if not unintentionally harmed, by the conservation movement. This historical injustice inspired the development of the Promotorxs program in 2014, which recognizes the importance of Latinx involvement in civic engagement by working with communities to provide the resources, knowledge, and leadership skills needed to create sustainable community solutions.
To date, Protégete has graduated over 150 Promotorxs. We sat down with Promotorxs instructors and students to learn more about how the program helps Colorado’s communities, environment, and our future.
Cultivating Advocacy and Activism Skills in Latinx Communities
Noe Orgaz and Patricia Ferrero are two of Protégete’s youth Promotorxs instructors. Each week, the Protégete organizers meet with about 20 students to discuss the current issues impacting their communities and collaboratively craft solutions.
“Our goal is to get students to talk about environmental issues and to tell their stories effectively,” said Orgaz.
As facilitator, Orgaz’s goal encompasses more than reaching out to the community: it’s about “not only training the young people, but actually getting them to mobilize.”
Helping the students mobilize their communities is especially important, considering the fact that Latinx communities – who suffer disproportionate impacts from pollution – are most often underrepresented in policymaking.
“Many feel disenfranchised because resources aren’t provided in their language or by the history of systemic marginalization,” said Ferrero. She explained that “having a program that is intentionally centered around the cultural aspects of the community ensures that community members feel confident and welcome in traditionally unwelcoming spaces.”
Tying the Health of our Environment to the Health or Our Families
When asked why they decided to get involved with Protégete, current Promotorxs listed their families as their primary concern.
“Conservation means preserving and maintaining what’s most important to you. And that’s family,” said Alexsandra Ruiz-Ortiz. “Air quality is an environmental issue that is really important to me. My nephew and I have asthma because of the bad air quality. Before I do any exercise…I have to take my inhaler. For my nephew, when he gets tickled for a long time, he starts wheezing.”
Latinxs suffer from asthma — which is worsened by air pollution — at much higher rates than people from other demographic groups. A Latinx child is 40 percent more likely to die from asthma than non-Latinx white children.
At the same time, 66 percent of Latinxs in the U.S. live in areas that
fall below EPA’s air quality standards.
Jordi Hernandez added, “Whether people realize it or not, they’re going to be breathing [polluted air] and it’s going to cause some health disruptions. We need to learn how to do something about the issues that we care about. Promotorxs is helping us do that.”
Elevating Latinx Voices
Along with becoming informed about local environmental justice issues, Promotorxs supports students in becoming the next generation of leaders.
“[Promotorxs] allows a person to be active.” said Orgaz. “These are people who can continuously talk to the media about issues that they’re facing, that can continuously educate others. Then when [their community needs them] to come out to testify or take an action, they’ll be ready.”
By giving students a platform, hands-on experience, and the resources to succeed, the Promotorxs program helps to elevate Latinx voices. Through these opportunities–be it testifying at the Air Quality Control Commission on behalf of clean car rules or knocking doors for pro-conservation leaders–Promotorxs prepares its students to become influential community advocates.
“Seeing how motivated and excited [our Promotorxs] were about [testifying] made me really proud of how much students and Latinxs can get done when they’re given the opportunity,” said Ferrero.
Elva Parga shared that the Promotorxs program helped her find a way to help her broader community. “I’ve always helped a little here and there, but I’ve never been this involved,” she said. “I’ve always been the person to [watch others] and cheer them on, but now I’m the one sitting at the microphone speaking to representatives, telling them what I want them to do. That’s something that I didn’t think I would ever do.”
Looking to the Future
Though still relatively new, the Promotorxs program is continuing to evolve in its capacity and potential.
“We still don’t know the full potential of this program. It’s definitely always growing and we’re going to continue to expand,” said Orgaz. “My vision for Promotorxs is that once a person has graduated, they’re the ones teaching the class.”
“We can start with Promotorxs at a high school and end up helping someone get elected as a city council member or work at the state Capitol and realize the [full] potential that they have,” said Ferrero. She aims to give those opportunities “because a lot of students don’t realize that’s something that they can achieve.”
Students agree. Concluded Parga,“I feel like [Protégete’s Promotorxs program] is preparing me to fight bigger battles in the future.”
For some, it’s a hard truth to grasp; for others, it’s an everyday reality.
Latinx communities are disproportionately impacted by the negative effects of climate change, air pollution, and environmental hazards. They’re more likely to get asthma and to live near industrial activity that causes smog. That’s why Latinx communities are more likely to be concerned about environmental threats and are, in fact, leading the charge to advance conservation.
At Conservation Colorado, our Protégete program helps Latinx communities and leaders to build a more powerful, influential voice in the fight against climate change in hopes of a healthy future. We sat down with Noe Orgaz, the Protégete community organizer for Denver, to talk about his experiences growing up in Los Angeles and to explore what inspired him to professionally engage with Latinx communities through conservation advocacy.
What is Latinx Conservation Week? Why is this celebration important?
Latinx Conservation Week is an opportunity for the Latinx community to address conservation issues and bring awareness to the environmental issues that impact the Latinx community. We talk about how we can conserve, work toward a future that thrives, and possibly mitigate a lot of the effects of climate change we’re dealing with today.
Where did you grow up, and what was the environment like there? How did you interact with the resources around you?
I grew up in Los Angeles, California. The environment that I grew up in was a lot of asphalt and concrete. The area that I remember most is my grandmother’s house. Her backyard was adjacent to the LA River, with huge trees that I remember climbing on.
My parents didn’t feel safe drinking water out of the faucet so we always had to boil it in order to cook with it or simply drink it. We were worried it would be contaminated and make us sick. That’s one of the reasons I’m passionate about conservation today. Through my own life and the lives of other people experiencing oppression, I’ve seen the impact of environmental injustice.
In your work, in your professional experience, what are the most pressing conservation issues that face Colorado’s Latinx community?
One of the more prevalent issues right now that Latinxs are dealing with is the air quality in their communities. A lot of folks live near highways or near areas where there is construction. We’re seeing a lot of children get asthma from breathing polluted air in their homes, schools, and neighborhoods.
One of the bills we worked on this legislative session — the school setbacks bill — really got me thinking about the air pollution that kids like mine are experiencing. The bill was trying to increase the distance between schools and oil and gas drilling. It’s really troubling to know that there are communities that have oil rigs right by their football fields or playgrounds.
The idea of young people getting an education and breathing in the pollution from drilling and fracking — not to mention the risks of spills, explosions, and fires — it just doesn’t sit right by me. It’s definitely something that should be addressed — we need to make it safer for people to get a basic education.
When I think about my own children, I think about how many oil companies are drilling next to schools serving low-income families and Latinx youth, and that makes me want to work hard to change it.
Why is this celebration of Latinx Conservation Week important?
Latinx Conservation Week is important because it is an opportunity and a timeframe for people to be able to address the issues that most impact the Latinx community — but this should be something that goes on on a regular basis, an everyday basis. Every day should be like Latinx Conservation Week.
You might’ve seen the phrase “clean car standards” popping up in your Facebook and Twitter feeds this week. While your local environmental and public health organizations celebrated the new standards, you might’ve felt a bit out of the loop. Let’s break down what the clean car standards are, why Coloradans pushed for them, and what we can expect from them.
First, what are the clean car standards?
These standards regulate the emissions and pollutants from car tailpipes and are based on the “fleet average” (or all of the cars in the state by a given manufacturer). With transportation as the biggest source of pollution in the U.S., lower emissions and less pollutants from tailpipes is always better.
The “cleaner” our cars are (i.e., the less they pollute), the better we are able to protect our environment, our communities, and our economy. As we increase the market share of “clean cars,” which include hybrids and electric vehicles, we are spurring innovation, offering consumers cheaper, more fuel-efficient cars, and helping improve the air we breathe.
Why Colorado needed to act? The Trump Administration is undoing a rule that promoted clean cars.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken major steps (and there are more to come) toward weakening a 2012 rule that set fuel efficiency standards to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions from cars and help Americans save money at the gas pump. These federal standards have already saved $550 million in car costs for Coloradans. But with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt at the helm, it’s an industry-wants-industry-gets world, with little concern that the agency’s rollback announcement could splinter a burgeoning electric-gasoline auto industry.
Rolling back the fuel-efficiency standards will add 4.5 million tons of carbon pollution to our skies every year and increase smog-causing air pollutants that cause asthma and make it harder to breathe.
Dirty air is unhealthy for all of us, but children, the elderly, and people suffering from lung disease or asthma — including 343,000 Coloradans — are the most negatively impacted. Communities of color and working families are also disproportionately impacted by these health effects. More air pollution means more coughing and wheezing, increased risk of infection, and permanent damage to lung tissue.
But there’s good news, even with the federal rollbacks. Governor Hickenlooper took action to make sure we keep seeing the benefits of vehicle emission standards! He just announced that Colorado will adopt new standards that reduce pollution from vehicles.
Governor Hickenlooper’s leadership comes at a critical time for Colorado. Denver was ranked the 11th most polluted city in the nation for ozone levels — and vehicle emissions are one of the largest contributors. Adopting the clean car standards will protect the clean air and clear blue skies we all cherish.
Clean Car Standards are a great move for our economy AND environment!
According to a recently released report, with the clean car standards in place, Colorado would save roughly $16 to $37 million in health care costs by 2040; reduce the number of work days lost due to illness from air pollutant emissions; and save $260 million per year in social costs from long-term damage caused by carbon pollution. Cheaper costs, lower emissions, and cleaner air: it’s not hard to see why we’re so excited.
Share this video if you’re glad Colorado is moving in the right direction.
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