Through education, leadership development, and skill-building, Protégete is working to fight injustices by supporting youth in becoming the next generation of community advocates and environmental leaders.
Written by: Sara Penilla Montoya, Promotora and Protégete Intern
Too often, the youngest members of our society are left without a seat at the decision-making table.
We’ve been told that we are “too young,” “not educated enough,” or “not mature enough” to understand the issues that we see everyday in our schools, our neighborhoods, and our homes. We’re discouraged from actively engaging in our communities, stifling our collective voice and the positive changes that we want to make to improve our future.
That still hasn’t stopped today’s generation from standing up together, raising our voices, and declaring how significant it is to be a part of change.
The environmental movement is the perfect example to show how children, teens, and youth — the people that will wrestle with climate impacts for generations to come — are stepping up to defend their future. The conservation movement poses an immense opportunity for young people, especially for people from frontline communities, to express the need for powerful climate leadership — and that’s why I was so excited to attend the Rising Leaders training in Washington, DC.
At the League of Conservation Voters training, students from all over the country learned more about the most pressing environmental issues affecting our communities and how storytelling can be a tool to lobby decision-makers at the state and federal levels.
Four students from the Protégete team experienced firsthand the importance and power our personal stories hold as we lobbied with members of Congress from Colorado. For some students, the trip was their first visit to our country’s capital.
We took the chance to talk to elected officials about the issues that are not only impacting our lives, but the livelihoods of millions of Americans. The stories shared a common message: it’s time for climate action, for us, our environment, and future generations.
Xioana, 16: Protecting Future Generations
“When I was 13 years old, my family and I made the move from Caracas, Venezuela, to Denver, Colorado. My country has historically been lauded the most prosperous in South America; we had a booming economy that enticed immigration from around the world, and we welcomed everyone. That is, until political corruption changed everything.
My family saw firsthand how economic unrest had unimaginable ramifications on every aspect of peoples’ lives, including great environmental justice implications. My grandfather not only struggled for financial stability, but for access to water. He can barely afford to take just a few showers a year, due to drought exacerbated by climate change.
I remember my first day of school [in the United States]. I was walking through the hallways, fascinated by the fact that I had a locker, that breakfast was free, and that people gave away pencils. I realized that the opportunities I craved for so long were finally within my reach.
Too often, we waste our potential and decrease our value in the eyes of society; but the beauty of our ephemeral existence is that if we realize it soon enough, we can learn to appreciate the little things.
I come from a place where corruption is abundant while food, water, and electricity are insufficient. While spending thirteen years of my life in this place, I never realized how much I was being deprived, because it is easy to be satisfied with what you have when you have never known any better. In my young eyes, America’s only great value was that it snowed every now and then. I never imagined this to be the place of freedom and opportunities. The place that I come from is falling apart as I write this and losing its values as you read it. The reality is that while some people can escape this fate, others cannot. I was one of the lucky ones.
Since moving to Thornton, I have felt very fortunate that these difficulties are not an everyday reality for me and my mother. It’s why I want to join the Air Force when I graduate high school; I love this country, it’s my home and I want to keep it safe. But I need my politicians to keep me safe, too. I live right on the outskirts of Commerce City, a municipality that is known for its high concentration of industries and hardworking communities of color. These factories, including a refinery located a mere five miles from my house, cause profound health impacts on the children growing up near them.
I went to Washington D.C. to tell our members of Congress that I am the future of this country and they need to protect me.”
I am young, an immigrant, Latina, and powerful. I am the face of the United States, and I believe everyone deserves a healthy environment.
Eunice, 16: Working Together to Stop Climate Change
“This past year, I’ve been a part of the Leadership Development class at The New America School in Thornton. My teacher, Zoraida Martinez, partnered with Protégete to teach us about environmental justice and civic engagement. We learned about how the impacts of climate change are made worse because of the waste that we create — a lot of which could be diverted by recycling or composting.
For example, when we throw plastic into the garbage, it can end up as harmful pollution in the ocean or contaminating the water and soil of our communities. Because plastic can’t biodegrade, it sits in landfills and contaminate the places where we live. That is why it is so important for everyone to do their part in protecting our planet.
I had never gotten involved in politics before; as an immigrant from Mexico, I didn’t think it was my place. But Ms. Martinez and Protégete helped me realize how powerful my classmates and I are.
And we were heard! I felt like I was putting my grain of sand in solving this huge problem, but I can’t do this alone.
That is why I went to DC to ask our federal representatives to hold polluting industries accountable. It is imperative for the government and factories to work together with regular people, like me, to stop climate change and keep Mother Earth safe.”
Eric, 22: An Exchange of Ideas
“Participating in the Rising Leaders training was a great experience. I had never been to Washington, D.C. before, and there were so many different things I was able to learn from that place, from how city infrastructure can impact our communities and our climate, to how important our stories truly are.
We frequently used public transportation (which I realized was cheaper and more efficient than our system in Denver) and discussed how communities and air quality can benefit from more public transit options.
The opportunity to learn about how important our voices are — and how we can use our stories to lobby our elected officials — was eye-opening. While I had visited the state Capitol in Colorado before, I didn’t fully understand the importance of personal stories and how they can illuminate why work needs to be done for everyone to live in an equitable world.
When we can tie these issues to ourselves — to real people, and even those who we are lobbying to — we better understand the gravity of the situation and know that we really do need to make changes.”
Our voices are what is going to shape how we solve the issues affecting us today. We shouldn’t be afraid to use our power to tell our elected officials to help us implement changes now.
Sara, 19: A Passion for the Future
“My passion for the environment is something that I have carried with me since I migrated to the United States from Colombia. It led me to a path of being what most people would call an “environmentalist:” recycling every piece of plastic and paper, turning off the lights in every room when they were not being used.
When I turned 15, I started volunteering with Protégete and learned that being an environmentalist meant so much more. I became aware of the environmental conditions in my community and those surrounding it were not what they needed to be: clean, healthy, and accessible. Such is the case for most communities of color and lower-income communities around our country. We have an obligation to these communities and others who are most impacted by environmental degradation to take care of our planet.
The Rising Leaders and lobbying experience was extremely empowering. It constantly feels as if my community’s voice isn’t considered or heard when it comes to issues directly affecting us. But when I visited my elected officials to tell them why I am so passionate about these issues and what actions they can take to support my community, I was reminded how strong my community’s voice is.”
Although some of us can’t go to DC to lobby every day, we still have the power to make a change for the better. I hope that with this experience, I can motivate other young people to speak up so we can use our voices together to continue to tell our elected officials to take action to save our environment and people.
Taking part in this trip, including its trainings, and lobbying helped us realize that our voice is as strong as it could ever be, no matter how old we are or what limitations others impose on us. We can make a change in this world and we are the leaders of today. Encouraging the youth to be engaged in the issues that affect our community is essential, so just like us, they realize the importance their voice holds, and the power they have to advocate for themselves, and everyone else being silenced.
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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