The Verde Paper

From ActCoastal

By Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš | Published 2016/01/14

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Commentary is provided by ActCoastal partners.

This blog represents the views of the authors, and does not necessarily reflect the positions of ActCoastal and its partner organizations.

“I think Latinos are very much misunderstood because there are a lot of stereotypes and perceptions about who we are what we believe in, what we do and what we don’t do when it comes to the healing of la Madre Tierra.” – Irma Muñoz, Mujeres de la Tierra

Latino Perspectives on Conservation Leadership

I like to say that I used to sell the fish, and now I save them.

Growing up blocks from the US-Mexico border AND the Pacific Ocean has a way of staying with you. Looking back on this, it’s no surprise that I ended up working for an international seafood company at the start of my career. Despite not having grown up with specific dreams of becoming a fishmonger, this job farming Bluefin tuna in the open ocean offered exciting professional oppor-tunities. Also on offer? A front row seat to the growing problem of overfishing. Scrambling daily to come up with hundreds of tons of fresh sardines to feed a dwindling number of Bluefin tuna tends to make a person ques-tion business as usual. When a study came out in 2006 predicting an almost empty ocean by the year 2048, I realized I needed to change course.

Long months of soul searching and research brought me over to marine conservation. What I didn’t expect, as a first-timer in the nonprofit sector, was to step in to a field where I was often the only person of color at the table, and where the groups working to protect the environ-ment often struggled to engage the communities on the front lines of environmental challenges. Demographic changes in California have provided the imperative for change, but the predominantly white conservation movement seems unsure how to create a more inclusive culture.

In 2008, I was appointed to a citizen advisory group convened to help map out underwater parks off the coast of Southern California. This group was meant to represent the region’s diverse population, but I was the only Spanish-speaking stakeholder. And, while the statewide planning process was designed to facilitate broad public participation, there were no Spanish lan-guage materials. I undertook the task of translation. My work trying to bridge the gap between the environmental movement and Latino community started there, but it quickly became evident the issue was much bigger than simply needing to translate informational materials. New to the field of conservation advocacy, and yet thrown in way over my depth, I frequently dealt with what I now recognize as symptoms of inequality, privilege and even in some cases, racism.

“Mexicans are too poor to care about the environment,” “Go find some Mexicans to help diversify this photo/video/public comment section,” and actual racial slurs are just some of the things I heard on a regular basis from partners, decision makers, colleagues and the public. People of color in NGOs are often placed in situations with vague or insurmountable goals, scant resources and little leverage. They are asked to speak for their community, mobilize their community, and assimilate seamlessly into the dominant culture all at the same time. The pressure is tremendous. Often, these pioneers burn out and leave.

“We see a built-in bias in money going to main-stream organizations versus going to a community of color led organization: foundations point out that traditional organizations have contacts in Washington and Sacramento, that they have media departments and development specialists, so ac-cording to this they will be able to put the money to better use. If we had the same level of funding, we could hire more people to do that same thing! It is a circular problem, a form of displacement and gentrification.” – Robert Garcia, The City Project

In 2011, I started a project called Azul, to focus on empowering Latinos as marine conservation leaders in order to continue this work without the baggage that large organiza-tions had brought before. I later teamed up with Resource Media to amplify and leverage my efforts through our joint project, La Madre Tierra. I stepped into an exciting and challenging time at an organization in the middle of its own learning journey around equity and inclusion.

Over the past two years, I have been traveling the West to meet Latino conservationists creating parks, fighting for clean air and water, and battling fracking and natural gas plants. We have lifted up these stories on a web platform called La Madre Tierra, which aims to bring Latino representation to discussions about climate policy in California, funding for out-door access in Congress, and leadership development. My experience working with people of color focused on environ-mental justice activism while housed within a predominantly white organization has been challenging.

I want to share what we have learned and heard over the past two years to help spare the next generation of Latino ac-tivists some of challenges we have encountered. At the same time, I hope that those leading established foundations and nonprofit organizations will work to evolve their institutions to be more equitable and inclusive. In the end, cultural compe-tency and welcoming spaces will only make our conservation campaigns more effective, and that, we can all agree on.

Continue to the full Verde Paper here.