Is the environmental community ready to embrace our Latino culture, our community, and our heritage?

When asked about my career path and trajectory as the only third Executive Director of local Denver nonprofit, Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK), I would love to weave a tale about an inherent thirst to conserve the environment, or a deeply rooted calling to inspiring young people. But alas, my path began with a free t-shirt.

The place? An organization focused on the conservation of our environment. The t-shirt? No, it wasn’t the most flashy or comfortable t-shirt I’d ever own. But to me, it represented that this was a space for me.

The novelty of a t-shirt sparked my interest but seeing leaders that looked like me sparked so much more. We need more Latinos in leadership positions in the conservation and nonprofit fields. As the effects of climate change become more and more of a reality, it’s important that all young people believe that these topics are theirs to learn about, engage in, and take ownership in solving.

According to the Colorado Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Latinos in the state of Colorado represent 21% of the population, counting over one million people.

When we talk about the United States as a whole, one in six people identify as Latino. The history of Latino heritage and culture across the U.S. is broad, as reflected in the fact that the U.S. has the third largest Spanish speaking population in the world, just below Mexico and Colombia, according to Rosetta Stone.

Despite having a significant presence in the state of Colorado and nationwide, we aren’t reflected in leadership positions within the environmental nonprofit sector and the conservation movement as a whole. We far too often confuse apathy with exclusion. According to the Pew Research Center, “there were nearly 60 million Latinos in the United States in 2017, accounting for approximately 18% of the total U.S. population.” Despite making up 18% of the population, Latinos hold just 5.3% of executive positions (PennState Extension). The small number of Latinos in leadership positions highlights the exclusionary tactics that have stifled the Latino community from being part of the decision-making process, impacting each and every one of us.

In contrast, we are a community that holds the key to addressing some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time.

According to the 2022 Conservation in the West Poll, by the Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project; 87% of Latinos in the Rocky Mountain region have concerns about drought and snowpack. Similarly, 64 % of them visit national public land twice a year, when this research was conducted.

Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK) has spent the last 26 years inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards in Colorado. Currently, we serve on average more than 5,000 students a year. 46% of our youth identify as Latino or Hispanic, while 26% are African American, 20% are multi racial, 3% are Native American, and 1% identify as Asian/Pacific Islander. Meaning that our community is largely youth of color, in majority, Latinos and Hispanics.

Then, you may wonder, if our organization is able to do this, why aren’t there more leaders of color in the environmental movement? Why, even though Latinos have such a strong, rooted history in Colorado and according to the findings from research like the 2022 Conservation in the West Poll, we aren’t driving the solutions to address critical environmental challenges such as drought and wildfires?

As a locally rooted and nationally known organization, we have been introducing multi-generations to the environmental issues that impact our own community, and furthermore, enabling them to take on some of the most pressing challenges of their lifetime. Notwithstanding, it seems the environmental community isn’t ready to embrace our culture, our community, and our heritage.

A 2021 report by Green 2.0, who call themselves the “watchdogs for inequality in the environmental sector,” reflects that even though we have some positive trends towards hiring more racially diverse staff, this trend may not be enough to catch up with the rapidly changing demographics of the country, in a sector overwhelmingly white-led.

From the 16th to the 24th of July, we celebrated Latino Conservation Week. An initiative by the Hispanic Access Foundation, that brings our community to the front and center of the movement that has excluded us. However, we are here, we care, and we act.

Is your organization, institution, and environmental solution thinking of us? If not, we are working to change that, and you can’t succeed without our gente.

Juan Pérez Sáez is the Executive Director for Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK), a Colorado based organization with the mission of cultivating a passion in science, leadership, and service in a diverse community of learners. ELK has spent the last 26 years inspiring, educating, and transforming the lives of the next generation of environmental stewards in the state.

About Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK): Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK) is a Denver-based, nonprofit organization established in 1996 to address the growing need to introduce and educate Colorado’s racially diverse youth about science, leadership, and careers. Twenty-five years later, ELK continues to provide strong educational support, good role models, and opportunities for positive community action for youth, helping them to become engaged, productive, and successful members of society. Learn more at elkkkids.org.

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Environmental Learning for Kids

Environmental Learning for Kids

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Environmental Learning for Kids cultivates a passion in science, leadership, and service in a diverse community of learners.