Local environmental groups slowly expand reach to Latino community

Jun 24, 2015

Credit Facebook/Protegete:Nuestro Aire, Nuestra Salud

The number of ethnic minorities involved in environmental organizations across the country is dismally low and it’s the same in the Roaring Fork Valley. Some statewide groups have noticed the problem and are creating programs for the Latino community. They say reaching this population is an important step toward reducing carbon emissions. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

Dulce Saenz immigrated with her family to Colorado from Mexico when she was a toddler. She says she heard the term “carbon footprint” for the first time last year.

"That was never a conversation that my mom or grandparents or anybody ever had with me about carbon footprint."

Still, she says Latinos have always been natural conservationists.

"Our families, Latino families, and certainly my family has forever been talking about conservation measures from an economic, or lack of an economic opportunity, perspective. So, turn off the lights because if you’re not using them you’re wasting money."

Saenz now leads a new program aimed at elevating the voices of Latino environmentalists. She works in four Front Range counties for Conservation Colorado.

It’s an important group to reach. Twenty-one percent of Colorado’s population is Latino or Hispanic. It’s even higher in Garfield and Eagle counties, where 30 percent of the population is Latino or Hispanic.

At the Wilderness Workshop based in Carbondale, staff has been working to diversify its membership since the late 1990s. The public lands conservation group has done a good job of attracting young people and those who live outside of Aspen, says Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker:

"What we haven’t done as well at - at this point - is the ethnic diversification. In this area, the ethnic diversity is represented by the Hispanic population and we haven’t been able to, yet, focus on outreach into that community."

But it’s on their “to-do” list, he says. An outside analysis of Wilderness Workshop last year recommended the creation of a targeted diversification outreach program. Shoemaker says, right now, they don’t have the money.

"I’m anxious to deploy that, to get that together and get it out there, but at this point we’re focused on some short-term and immediate needs."

The Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE, has offices in Aspen and Carbondale. They promote renewable energy, energy efficiency and green building. Mona Newton is director.

"We reach out to the Latino community particularly with our income qualified program, where we translate our materials into Spanish and our website into Spanish," she says.

Still, participation from the Latino community isn’t great. Newton, who’s half Latina, says she knows CORE needs to do more.

"It’s an important issue to me because I feel like it’s not just an Anglo issue, it’s an everybody issue, no matter what ethnic background or race you are, you should be able to take advantage and understand preserving our environment because we all live and breathe here."

A national study done in 2014 called “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations” looked at mainstream NGOs, foundations and government agencies. It found the members and volunteers of environmental organizations are predominantly white. And, despite growth in the country’s ethnic minority population, the percentage of minorities on boards or staff is only 16 percent. In May, the Sierra Club made history when it chose its first African American board president ever.

Dulce Saenz who organizes the Protegete: Nuestro Aire, Nuestra Salud program for Conservation Colorado says messaging around environmental problems needs to change.

"We’re always talking about the glaciers, the polar bears and the bees and how we need to save them, but for a long time, people have not been at the core of the environmental movement."

Communities of color and low income neighborhoods often feel the greatest effects of climate change, she says.

"(We should) be making it more about the people and starting to shape that visceral connection with the environment and the environmental movement. It’s key to making space for the people who are at the frontlines of these consequences who should better understand the impacts and have a voice at the table."

Her program, which translates to “Our Air, Our Health,” may eventually expand to other parts of Colorado. She says it’s too soon to know how effective it has been.