The civic agency project: Latinxs and the Environment

San Francisco, October 2020

A recent survey by Yale’s program on Climate Change Communication, reports that Latinx communities are more likely to be alarmed or concerned about the impact of climate change compared to other groups in the United States. Research suggests that this awareness in driven by the inequitable exposure to environmental problems and climate impacts. However, this perspective overlooks the environmental stewardship values embedded in Latinx indigenous cultures, and the interconnections of social and environmental dynamics. The impacts of climate change that disproportionately affect communities of color are exacerbated by the underrepresentation of these communities in the academic and policy forums where decisions related to climate change mitigation and adaptation are made. Against this backdrop and rising from within brown and black communities, environmental justice activism builds momentum through initiatives that foreground equity and social justice in the environmental agenda.

From student movement to initiative

I remember coming across Latinxs and the Environment, and immediately recognizing the institutional gap that this initiative could activate. Latinxs and the Environment (L&E) is a University of California (UC), Berkeley initiative, guided by Lupe Gallegos-Diaz, Director of Chicanx Latinx Academic Student Development Center, and Federico Castillo, a Specialist at the College of Natural Resources (CNR) and Deputy Director of the UCPlanetary Health Center of Expertise. Their converging perspectives and distinct backgrounds have fostered a genuinely interdisciplinary project.

Over the years, Lupe and Federico have noticed a growing level of environmental awareness from Latinxs students majoring in social work, public health and sociology. This trend contrasts with the number of Latinxs students that enroll in the majors related to the Environment at the different colleges in campus. And while the reasons for this disparity are nuanced and require deeper study, Latinxs students have mentioned a lack of diversity in the academic units including faculty and students, as well as support specific to the needs of students of color as major barriers. Lupe and Federico launched L&E seminars to support the interdisciplinary research interests of students, and create connections to CNR and other academic units. Three years later, the impact of L&E extends beyond the halls of UC Berkeley, cultivating life-long environmental and social agency in students, championing the work of Latinx researchers, and creating a much needed punto de encuentro for policy-makers, community-based organizations, and the academic community.

Institutional visibility

In his book, Being Brown, Lazaro Lima brilliantly exposes the invisibility of Latinos in American civic life. He investigates “why Latinos – at 57.5 million strong – are still the most underrepresented group in American institutions”. Speaking to Lupe and Federico, I realize that the institutional and cultural invisibility that Lima examines extends to the environmental issues disproportionately affecting Latinx communities.

In these communities, environmental issues such as access to clean drinking water, heat exposure, and air pollution, intersect with farming and food distribution systems, immigration, language, and culture. Students and researchers engaged with L&E bring a sense of urgency to the exploration of these problems and are uniquely positioned to highlight blind spots in the research agenda. Through targeted advocacy, L&E gives visibility to Latinxs researchers and empowers students to take part in transforming their communities. Clearly aligned with Lima’s analysis, this initiative is actively seeking to increase Latinx participation in academic, policy and civic spaces, enhance decision-making, and generate positive environmental and social outcomes for everyone.

Evolving institutions

At an institutional level, L&E embodies UC’s renewed support of affirmative action, focus on STEM fields, and Berkeley’s goal to become a Hispanic Serving Institution. L&E’s long-term vision “to become an interdisciplinary center advancing research into environmental challenges disproportionately affecting Latinxs in the U.S. and abroad” could advance UC’s equity and educational goals, building broader coalitions, and revitalizing institutional culture from the inside out.

Today, L&E is energized by partnerships within and outside of UC’s ecosystem, including students, researchers, academics, policy-makers, private and community-based organizations. This gravitational pull is no small achievement for an initiative of this size, and reflects an institutional gap that extends to civic spaces beyond academia. Could a new institution be taking shape?

Institutions for a shared future

A few days before the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order, I meet with Lupe and Federico at Cafe Milano in Berkeley. We discuss the challenges ahead for L&E, fundraising, and outreach. While I do not have a background in research, academia, or policy, I am convinced that L&E’s mission is timely and important. Working at the intersection of culture and environment, my tools are imagination, words, and drawings. Over the ensuing months I work with Lupe, Federico, and the Community Board, developing a narrative that communicates why Latinxs and the Environment matters. Lupe calls our meetings branding and strategy, I think of this as civic story-telling.

As social and environmental movements converge, we are reaching a galvanizing breakpoint that can inspire profound institutional change. Student and youth-led initiatives need our commitment and sustained efforts to transform institutional gaps into initiatives, and to re-imagine institutions that reflect and equitably serve our communities. In the spaces where power, environment, and equity intertwine, the institutions of our shared future are taking shape.