Finangi, Protégete Community Organizer, shares her story of why she is fighting for environmental justice and community power.
To celebrate 14 years of Latino Advocacy Day, here are five stories from folks who went to LAD and are now working in political and social justice fields.
Stokes Poké partners with Conservation Colorado because we agree that the environment, economy, and social justice are inseparable.
At the intersection of nature and consumerism exists an economic opportunity. Companies can manipulate a nature lover’s identity into a costly pursuit of image. Pair that with pressure to show the most glamorous fraction of your life on social media, and the outdoor retail industry thrives. Yet, as the climate crisis continues to escalate and stolen lands receive long-overdue recognition, the once-idealized outdoor recreation industry is poised for criticism. To survive, outdoor recreation businesses and conservation organizations must reevaluate how they serve all people and the good of the planet. The question is: how do these considerations shape a new kind of Outdoor Retailer show event, and inclusive conservation?
I first commend the Outdoor Industry Alliance’s decision to move their annual trade show from Salt Lake City to Denver in 2018 to take a stand against Utah’s government officials support of the reduction of Bears Ears National Monument. This choice diverted the show’s $110 million annual economic impact to a city proud to value conservation, environmental respect, and equity.
But, even as places are selected for their environmental values, the environmental movement must look to who is uplifted and honored. Disproportionately, leadership and participation in environmental organizations and outdoor recreation has looked white and affluent. Although significant progress has been made in gender diversity in the field, the most powerful positions are scarcely held by women and people of color. In response to this historical inequity, I join many others to envision an inclusive environmental movement.
At Elevate Conservation: Outdoors for All, the tide of inclusive conservation rose at the hands of dedicated thought leaders who have created, are creating, and will continue to create new conservationist identities.
In the words of Native Women’s Wilderness founder and honoree Jaylyn Gough, “the outdoor industry is currently gleaning billions of dollars from stolen lands.” That means industry professionals and those who claim environmental identities must respect the history of the lands they occupy and enjoy. At Outdoors for All, the Denver Singers began the event with a blessing dance. They acknowledged that Denver is a meeting point for many tribal groups, and continues to be home to 60,000 indigenous people in the Denver metro area. I viewed this acknowledgement as deep recognition of relationship to place–more than a token gesture. In her speech, Gough urged attendees to ask ourselves, “whose land are you exploring?” I am searching for what is next for an environmental movement with a history of racism, eugenics, and displacement.
Speakers at the Outdoors for All event inspired the crowd with their work, action items, and callouts. In addition to Jaylyn Gough’s powerful message, Hopi Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva highlighted the collaborative work of Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, Diné, and Ute tribes in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to protect 1.3 million acres of sacred tribal lands. Yesica Chavez, Student Coordinator at Environmental Learning for Kids, called upon organizational leaders to offer paid internships and jobs to underrepresented groups and enact equitable hiring practices. Mustafa Santiago Ali, Vice President of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, outlined three ways we can win on climate: honor culture, anchor our efforts in a place of authenticity, and live up to the responsibility that comes with privilege. I walked out of the event feeling represented and inspired, but with lingering questions about next steps.
My Jodo Shinshu Buddhist community in Honolulu taught me the importance of gratitude, which is central to my identity. I am privileged to never worry about going hungry, be a college graduate, and often claim my white or multiracial identities at my convenience. Now, I add that I am grateful to have paid work at Conservation Colorado for a cause I support deeply.
While I once found comfort in simply being grateful, the Elevate Conservation event was a powerful reminder that action follows appreciation.
For inspiration, I look to leaders in the Green 2.0 movement, including the visionaries of Protégete working to empower voices of Latinx communities. For suggestions about my own actions, I find a wealth of resources online that do not demand more education and emotional labor from leaders.
Work to shape inclusive conservation is real and necessary. Leaders who carve out space in a historically exclusive movement deserve recognition not only at events like Elevate Conservation: Outdoors for All, but every single day. This fight is not the sole responsibility of groups who have been historically excluded. Instead, it is a call to every conservationist, outdoor recreationist, or nature appreciator–especially executives within the field. We can answer this call by speaking out against discrimination, supporting inclusive organizations, and listening to underrepresented voices.
Your actions may be influenced by your own sources of power, but as Mustafa Santiago Ali reminded attendees: we all have the power to make change happen.
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.
Written by Juan Gallegos
When I first learned about organizing and the potency of speaking truth to power, one person leaped to the forefront of my mind: Cesar Chavez.
This week, the famous labor organizer, Latinx leader, and environmental activist is on the mind of a lot of Coloradans. As we honor his legacy on Cesar Chavez Day on March 31, we must remember Chavez’s compassion for the workers he mobilized, his passion for the issues he addressed, and the emphasis he placed on intersectionality.
Chavez immersed himself in the communities he worked in and people he advocated for, living in the same housing and conditions as the farm laborers he was organizing. He suffered with them, working in the same contaminated environment and enduring the same health effects.
Inspiring broad and diverse communities can be difficult for any organizer, from California to Colorado. Big change comes from small, often incremental acts. The slow, complicated processes of advocacy and democracy can often be a deterrent to organizing communities, rather than a source of inspiration.
“It’s amazing how people can get so excited about a rocket to the moon and not give a damn about smog, oil leaks, the devastation of the environment with pesticides, hunger, disease,” said Chavez. Part of the problem, Chavez recognized, is that wealth and whiteness often equal power in the modern political system. “When the poor share some of the power that the affluent now monopolize, we will give a damn” about environmental hazards, Chavez concluded.
Decades later, we still see this disparity between environmental justice and our communities of color, including the Latinx community. So, we’re working to do something about it.
The Protégete program began with one goal in mind: to build power in Colorado’s diverse communities so that everyone can participate and influence the political decision-making process. Often, the interests of Colorado’s Latinx folks and communities of color are superseded by well-financed campaigns and inherent prioritization of the wants of wealthier — and often, whiter — communities.
In its five years, Protégete has graduated over 200 people from the Promotorxs leadership development training. Promotorxs, also known as community navigators, train and learn about how the power of a shared identity can spur meaningful change in the government and environmental justice space. Promotorxs are also expected to complete a project that betters the environment and their community; this can range from park cleanups to data collection on air quality and health impacts.
The program also helps mobilize hundreds of Latinx folks at the Colorado State Capitol day during the annual Latinx Advocacy Day training, which Protégete co-sponsors every year. This year, almost 300 Latinx folks attended the event and had the chance to learn what it takes to organize around diverse issues and connect with lawmakers.
One thing that we can say is that we are working to make sure that our local governments “give a damn about smog, oil leaks, and the devastation of the environment.”
It is my privilege to carry the torch in my new role as director of this wonderful program. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who together started the United Farm Workers Union, are two of my heroes. They taught me that we don’t live single issue lives. Issues like racism, a lack of education, and poor access to transportation reinforce one another — and disproportionately impact communities of color.
As our team strives to engage and empower marginalized folks in the environmental movement, we take guidance from the folks that came before us. Cesar Chavez was a great organizer, who — although he was not flawless — formed one of the most effective grassroots organizations in modern U.S. history.
“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”
As we honor Cesar Chavez and his work, we must remember that his fight encompassed the right to work and live in a healthy environment with clean air and water. No one should have to choose between a dignified wage and a safe environment. For Chavez, and for me: our future is worth the fight.
“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.”
Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized the United States’ Hispanic population by creating Hispanic Heritage Week. The week was later expanded to a month by President Reagan in 1988, and it stretches from September 15 to October 15 every year to celebrate the heritage of the diverse Hispanic populations in the U.S.
Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the Americans of Mexican, Spanish, Caribbean and Central and South American descent. Within that month, there are seven independence days for Hispanic and Latin American countries along with other important dates.
Hispanics and Latinx people make up about 17 percent of the United States and 21 percent of Colorado. Cultural influences can be seen in all aspects of society, from regional cuisine and art to political and environmental movements. In a highly divisive and partisan time, one thing is clear: Americans that identify as Hispanic and/or Latinx are vital to shaping the cultural and political future of our country.
Confused about the difference between the identifiers “Hispanic” and “Latinx?” Check out this video that explains the difference between the terms before discussing the importance of Hispanic Heritage Month.
What is your background and how do you identify?
Juan Pérez Sáez, Protégete Organizing Manager
I was born and raised in Panama. Both of my parents are school teachers, and they were both the first generation to go to school. I’m the first person who came to the U.S. and the only person in my family who has a passport.
Issamar Pichardo, Protégete Community Organizer
I identify as Mexican — even though sometimes when I go to Mexico they’re like, “You have an accent in Spanish,” and here I have an accent in English. My family has immigrated back and forth: my grandparents are from Mexico, and my mom was born in Chicago and then went back to Mexico. I was born in Chihuahua, and then we moved again, here to Colorado, when I was 8 years old.
Noé Orgaz, Protégete Community Organizer
I’m first generation Mexican-American. My mom is from Acapulco, Guerrero. We grew up in East LA, which has a majority Latino/Hispanic community that’s predominantly Mexican. I identify as Chicano, but in the context of Hispanic or Latino, I tend to lean towards Latino.
Victoria Torrez, Pueblo Community Organizer
My dad’s side of the family comes from Chihuahua, Mexico, and they came out to Pueblo, Colorado to work in the steel mill. My family still identifies as Hispanic, but personally, I like LatinX. I tried to explain to them that it’s problematic to use Hispanic because it’s “of Spanish.”
Finangi Manganez, Protégete Community Organizer
I was born in Venezuela. All my family was born in Venezuela. I came here to Colorado at 20 years old. I’m Latina and very proud of it.
Do you have a specific tradition the you connect with or that is your favorite?
The Day of the Dead, which in the US is from October 31 to November 2, is the tradition that I identify with the most. It’s an Aztec tradition where you honor the dead, and you present offerings to say, “We remember you, and you’re always going to be present with us.” It’s a tradition that was incorporated into Catholicism since the Aztecs wouldn’t give it up!
My dad wasn’t encouraged to celebrate traditions — or even speak Spanish — growing up. His parents didn’t want my dad or his siblings to draw attention to themselves; they wanted them to fit in. One of the few things that we still hang onto is that we make tamales at Christmas time. It’s still — and always has been — my favorite thing ever. I think it’s because it was something that I could identify with my LatinX roots.
New Years is big for us. Five minutes before midnight, you make wishes for the next year. We eat 12 grapes, and for every single grape, you have to make a wish. If you want to travel in the next year, you have to leave your house and take a walk. Even my daughters do it with us!
Why is conservation-focused work important to you?
I practice Native tradition. Naturally, Native tradition practitioners are protectors of the environment. You’re expected to understand that you have a sacred relationship with the land, air, water, and the elements. It’s not just a rock or a plant or a tree: those things have life in them; they have spirits — and we should acknowledge and protect that. That’s why environmental work is important to me: it’s a fundamental aspect of the tradition I practice.
After the 2013 flash floods in Weld County, I focused my undergraduate research on understanding how Latino populations respond to and recover from natural disasters. We found barriers, such as language and legal status, that prevented Latinos from accessing FEMA Funds. Overall, the government wasn’t supportive.
Why is it important to engage Latinx people in environmental work, and how can that be done successfully?
This is our way to change things, from politics to public health. Communities need to know about the policies that impact them so that when they turn on the TV with their families, they understand the process that led to that change. We need the information to be active citizens.
It should be important for everyone. When we talk about conservation, environmental justice, and natural resources, it shouldn’t instantly become a political issue. It’s a human rights issue. We all deserve the right to breathe clean air. We shouldn’t have to be wealthy or white to live in a place with clean air. The way that we make the conservation movement more diverse and inclusive is by working to improve access for everyone. Then perhaps then everyone will join the fight.
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.
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