It’s hard to pinpoint the moment a movement begins – that instant when the push ceases, momentum takes hold, and a political campaign cascades onward by its own force. With each minor success or major victory, participants pause and ask themselves, “Is this the moment?” One such pause occurred within the mahogany walls of a US Senate committee chamber on a balmy March morning. Senator Barbara Boxer, along with the Speaker of the California Assembly and several influential members of Congress, sat among the heads of 10 national Latino-issue organizations. Instead of pressing the elected officials for support, the representatives of the leading organizations working on behalf of America’s 40 million Latinos were being recruited to propel an emerging Latino environmentalism to critical mass.
“We’re going to speak for ourselves and do for ourselves, and we need to be at the table. We want to make sure our environmental destiny is in our own hands,” says Roger Rivera, president of the National Hispanic Environmental Council (NHEC), which organized the event, called the “Latino Leadership Briefing on Global Warming.” Minorities, and especially Latinos, may be hardest hit by the effects of global warming. The only national Latino environmental and natural resource organization, NHEC plans to hold similar briefings across the country throughout 2007. NHEC’s briefings are the first efforts to organize Latinos to be part of solutions related to global warming, and to ensure that those solutions are equitable to all members of society.
Policy initiatives such as these complement other NHEC programs to support and encourage the next generation of Latino environmental leaders. NHEC’s diversity internships provide paid summer positions with the National Park Service, while several Minority Youth Environmental Institutes around the country send high-school students on 10-day science-based field trips, where they learn about environmental concepts, interact with Latino environmental professionals, and conduct field tests. “One approach has been outreach to and working with Latino families, and especially trying to reach families through youth,” Rivera says. In March, NHEC organized a “Career Day” in a Southern California elementary school (an offshoot to their Environmental Career Awareness Program) where more than 1,000 children were inspired to become the next eco-superheros. A front-page article about the career event in the Santa Clarita Signal helped build support for a wilderness bill sponsored by Congressman Buck McKeon (R-CA).
Since its founding in 1996, NHEC has encouraged Latinos and others to work actively to preserve and protect the environment. “The notion of a Latino environmental movement may seem sudden to some folks and it may seem spontaneous. But this has been a long time coming and now it’s here,” Rivera says. With nearly 7,000 members (including both advocates and professionals), NHEC connects to and supports Latino environmental organizations in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago.
“There is a wonderful Latino environmental movement that is emerging, in some cases organically, led by local leaders,” Rivera says. For example, in Houston, the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services addresses toxics in minority communities. Currently the group is leading a campaign to relocate Cesar Chavez High School from its site next to three chemical plants spewing thousands of pounds of carcinogens into the air each year. Mujeres de la Tierra in Los Angeles organizes and trains women in several neighborhoods to identify and confront environmental problems in their communities. One chapter drives development of a new nature park while another engages their neighbors in revitalizing the Los Angeles River. The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization in the largest Latino neighborhood of Chicago grew out of a campaign to build a proposed school on a toxic-free site. Today they train youth in geographic information systems to perform community mapping and partner with organizations to reduce asthma and obesity in Latino schools.
Linking multiple issues and sectors is common to many Latino environmental organizations and epitomizes what one leader from New York calls “the holistic approach to the environment.”
“What I do is a process of linking different social justice movements,” says self-described eco-feminist Norma Ramos. “My premise is that we have to change everything about what we do on this planet,” . She was inspired by Rachel Carson to become a lawyer, devoted the first five years of her career to representing poor people, and eventually worked for the EPA. Before she assumed her current position as co-executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, she was a founding member or head of several organizations. “I do believe the destruction of women is related to the destruction of the ecosystem,” she says of her guiding philosophy.
Ramos’s work through West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. (WE-ACT) connects health, safety, land use, and jobs. One of WE-ACT’s current campaigns advocates greening the expansion of Columbia University, the biggest development on the edge of the Ramos’ neighborhood. “The work I’m doing on the Columbia University expansion plan covers all the social issues: that it be green, that it not displace poor people.”
A sophisticated Latino network connects leaders confronting local issues to national advocacy, organizing, and leadership development. Voter registration, grassroots organizing, leadership development, research, and policy analysis support thousands of Latino leaders and organizations. The machinery that organized millions of people during the historic 2006 immigration-rights marches produces results on other issues significant to Latinos, such as public health, jobs, and now, the environment.
Antonio González is another Latino who takes the environmental message to heart. “We’re an emerging leadership group,” he says. “How should we lead? How do we realize that through greening strategies?” These are some of the questions facing the fastest-growing population in America. As leader of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), González became known as the charismatic figurehead of Latino voter registration. Through his association with the William C. Velasquez Institute (WCVI), which works to promote Latino electoral and policy participation, González was one of the first leaders of a national Latino-issues organization to address environment concerns directly.
The Velasquez Institute co-ordinates several environmental initiatives aimed at Latinos. Their Solar Azteca program informs Latino communities about subsidies for solar energy. Together with two other groups, they formed a grassroots organization to ensure participation and equitable planning to revitalize the Los Angeles River. “We’re at the stage where we’re carrying on activities, figuring out how our community understands the issue, and we’re explaining the issue because the old language of explaining conservation doesn’t work for Latinos,” he says of pioneering work to make environmentalism accessible to Latinos.
González and his peers share these lessons by collaborating on national projects. He helped plan the first comprehensive gathering of Latino leaders in 29 years, held in Los Angeles last September. Called the Latino Congreso, it brought together 1,200 people to discuss and plan a national agenda, including a full day of environmental workshops organized in part by Roger Rivera of the NHEC. Members of the Congreso approved resolutions on global warming, environmental health, and wilderness heritage.
Through the policy arm of WCVI, the groups apply the tools honed in voter analysis – surveys, demographic trending, and exit polls – to build data on Latinos and the environment. “It’s sort of our job to think out of the box. We’re trying to understand Latino leadership in the context of American and global politics,” González says of his organization’s work on environmental issues. Research by the Institute helps debunk the myth that Latinos do not care about the environment: a recent survey revealed that 80 percent of Latino voters supported last November’s $5.4 billion California conservation bond.
These trends are critical because Latinos are so much more than a swing vote in states such as Florida, Texas, and California: increasingly they are the center on which politics swings. “This is where the environment is moving, from a peripheral issue to a priority. It’s moving from local groups, small groups, activist groups, to major leaders like the California Speaker [of the Assembly],” González says of the movements’ rise. In 2006, California State Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez championed California’s landmark global warming bill that aims to reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2015.
When Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-CA) was appointed to a special committee to find solutions to global warming, Latinos scored another victory for the environment. “The action that we take in the next two years has the possibility of moving our nation light-years forward in terms of protecting public health and ensuring economic and energy security for all,” she says in a statement on her appointment to the elite team that will propose federal solutions to global warming.
Solis sets environmental priorities with health concerns guiding her. The four-term Congresswoman represents an East Los Angeles district with three Superfund sites contaminated by highly toxic perchlorate, an ingredient found in rocket fuel. The district, which sprawls into the suburbs beyond LA, is one of the worst air-quality basins in the world. “The environment and health are closely linked. Communities across America continue to struggle with health problems associated with their environment,” she says. Solis has introduced legislation to increase toxic reporting requirements, and to protect 2.5 million acres of wilderness in California. She is involved in hearingson a requirement for the EPA to establish a national standard for perchlorate.
Solis’s advocacy on health and environmental issues, combined with her role on the climate change committee, reveal the growing influence Latinos have on green topics. “Global warming is about health care, job security, and the environment,” Solis said in her opening remarks during the NHEC briefings with Latino organizations. Her eyes projecting compassion, she outlines for the gathering of Latino leaders the health, employment, economic, and social justice impacts to Latinos that could result from global warming. Seated around her, Rivera and Nuñez listen, perhaps wondering if this is the moment that launches a movement.
It is this confluence of environmentalism, defined and promoted by Latinos, and the maturation of a nation-wide Latino political movement that send Latino environmentalism rushing toward the tipping point. In her final statements to the gathering of elected officials and leaders of national Latino organizations, Solis synthesizes the philosophy of the movement: “We can end environmental injustice, protect our environment, and improve public health if we work together.” Z
Nate Springer is a Fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program and co-founder of several community projects in southern California. He writes about the environment, public involvement, and planning.
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