The Protectors: Latina Climate Leaders

Laura Bond


ilda Nucete has become a familiar face at the Colorado State Capitol. She shakes hands with senators and representatives. She’s learning how they vote, especially on issues that involve women, children, clean air, and clean water. In one week in March, she was at the Capitol for Women and Families Wednesday and Latino Advocacy Day. When she visits, she’s rarely alone: On Women and Families Wednesday, many who showed up to the gold-domed building to meet face-to-face with their legislators were there for the first time. They were there because Nucete had encouraged them to come.

Nucete is Program Director of Protégete: Our Air, Our Health, and a leader of a growing movement to amplify the voices of Latinos in Colorado, who disproportionately suffer the negative effects of climate issues. In Metro Denver, for example, Latinos in low-income areas experience higher-than-average rates of asthma and respiratory disease. Nucete knows that Latinos would positively influence environmental policy and practice, if their collective wisdom was tapped and validated.

No environmental group has ever approached us with any kind of language competency or cultural awareness that would build that trust, so with a lot of our people we have to start with the beginning.

“We’ve never been invited to the table, to be involved with decision-making,” she says. “So it starts with asking: How do we highlight policy that would benefit our community, and how do we also highlight policy that would harm us? How do we civically engage this community in a way that builds trust?

“No environmental group has ever approached us with any kind of language competency or cultural awareness that would build that trust,” she continues. “So with a lot of our people we have to start with the beginning.”

Protégete (which means “protect yourself” in Spanish) was founded in 2014 as a collaboration between the League of Conservation Voters and Conservation Colorado, the state’s largest and most active environmental advocacy organizations. The leaders of both groups recognized that while Latinos represented a growing demographic— currently 21 percent of Colorado’s population—as well as a political force, their voices weren’t part of the mainstream conversation about climate change.

In Protégete’s most potent program, Promotores for Environmental Justice and Action, a team of community organizers—currently, five Latinas—galvanize the community around issues including affordable transportation, walkable sidewalks, and healthy food. Their conversations with neighbors and elected officials in the city of Aurora and in Denver, Adams, Jefferson, and Arapahoe counties are usually rooted in day-to-day realities, not abstract or lofty concepts about nature and climate change. The Promotores look for points of intersection, where an issue has a direct impact on an individual’s life.

“Sometimes when I’m talking to someone in the community, and I say, ‘We work on the environment,’ they say, ‘I don’t go to the mountains,’” says Maria Diego, who joined the Promotores last fall. “They think about trees. Once we get them to see that they are the first ones in line for things like asthma and cancer from pollution in the air and water, they become concerned about that.”

Diego, who was born in Guatemala, moved to Denver expecting a clean, idyllic city. When her son developed asthma, she realized her family, and many others, were at risk. “There are so many mothers out there who are concerned about their children’s health and futures,” she says. “I can relate to the mothers. We share our issues. They don’t know they have the power to make change. We tell them: ‘You have a voice.’”

“In our community, there are natural conservationists,” says Nucete. “A connection to Mother Nature is very spiritual and also very culturally ingrained. We hang clothes dry, reuse plastic containers, reuse bags, don’t waste resources. We’re not just talking about their right to clean air or clean water. We’re talking about economics. We say things like, ‘You know that Tupperware you’ve used 1,000 times? Let’s build from there.’”

Nucete with former Vice President Al Gore at the 2017 Climate Reality Leadership Corps Summit in Denver. Photo courtesy of Climate Reality Project

Nucete, a native of Caracas, Venezuela, got to know Denver by getting involved with community. She’s known for building bridges and spotting talent in other leaders. Under her leadership, Protégete has strengthened partnership with GreenLatinos, Mi Familia Vota Colorado, and other groups. Last year, Nucete was appointed to the Denver Office of Sustainability Advisory Council by Mayor Michael Hancock. In early 2017, she was invited to present at the Climate Reality Leadership Corps Summit in Denver. Nucete was the only woman, the only person under 40—she’s 24—and the only person of color on a panel that included former Vice President Al Gore.

"In our community, a connection to Mother Nature is very spiritual and also very culturally ingrained."

“What makes Hilda great is her seemingly limitless desire to make real, lasting change,” says Pete Maysmith, Executive Director of Conservation Colorado. “She is a connector, always thinking about who knows whom, who’d be a great volunteer, and who she can help lift up on the ladder of engagement.”

Philanthropy and Community

Protégete is funded in part by The Denver Foundation’s Environmental Affinity Group (EAG), a circle of donors who pool resources to increase their collective impact around climate issues. In 2016, the EAG made Latino leadership a funding priority.

“What we saw coming into the awareness of many environmental organizations was that they weren’t very inclusive,” says Linda Campbell, a founding member of the EAG. “Even though most environmentalists tend to be progressive thinkers, there was a mismatch. As our own understanding of that grew, we shifted our funding accordingly.”

Protégete was among a handful of organizations that received grants to increase outreach and programming at the community level. Boulder’s Eco-Cycle was another. Eco-Cycle is currently working with Westwood Unidos, the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization (CLLARO), and Sachamama to boost recycling in Montbello, Westwood, Green Valley Ranch, and other areas.

In partnership with Eco-Cycle, Montbello residents lead efforts to increase recycling and decrease waste in their neighborhood.

“Denver’s Latino residents care about environmental issues, yet they’re often not at the table when it comes to making policy,” says Randy Moorman, Eco-Cycle’s Director of Community Campaigns. “We want them involved in the process as an equal partner. Eco-Cycle works to develop leaders within the Latino community who can spread the word and overcome cultural barriers and misunderstandings.

“The Latino voice is a crucial one,” Moorman continues, “and they have a powerful message about the city’s sustainability efforts that we want Denver’s political leaders to hear.”

Rosario Mendoza lives in Montbello and participates in an Eco-Cycle program that aims to increase recycling in the city, neighborhood by neighborhood. Denver currently recycles just 18 percent of its waste. In high-density apartment complexes like the one where Mendoza lives, there are no services for recycling or composting.

“We have to maintain active recycling education in all of our neighborhoods so that we can obtain positive changes within our city,” says Mendoza. “We also need to stay active as a neighborhood and inform others and ourselves. A concrete message makes a small change, which will make a greater difference in our communities.”

This spring, the EAG directed a second round of funding to Latino outreach and leadership initiatives, including a collaboration between Protégete and Groundwork Denver. Groundwork partners with communities to improve the physical environment in lower-income areas; the projects are chosen and developed by residents and leaders of those communities, which is why they include everything from planting trees to insulating houses for greater efficiency and lower utility costs. Protégete and Groundwork are working together to support a pipeline of skilled community leaders and advocates who understand and reflect the concerns of Denver Latinos.

"So many mothers out there are concerned about their children's health and futures."

“You hear sometimes, ‘Why don’t people [in the Latino community] care about these issues? And the answer is: They do care, in the context of their own communities,” says Wendy Hawthorne, Groundwork Denver’s Executive Director. “When the opportunities are there for those who are ready to get more involved in things like advocacy, they do.”

"Be The Boss"

Nucete and the Promotores are a regular presence at direct actions that have become common in the modern protest era, especially amid proposed changes in environmental policy at the federal level. The group joined several hundred protesters at the People’s Climate March on a snowy Saturday in April.

Whether marching or lobbying, they encourage boldness. This March, in preparation for Women and Family Wednesday at the State Capitol, the Promotores coached fellow Latinas to share how they are, or will be, negatively affected by climate change: If la comunidad doesn’t tell our representative what is important, someone else will, read the materials for the event. The government works for us; be the boss.

Aly Ferrufino left a corporate job to join the Promotores

“The goal is to help people advocate for themselves around\ environmental justice,” says Aly Ferrufino, who left a corporate job to join the Promotores in early 2017. “We’re making civic engagement accessible. You hear them say, ‘Ididn’t know you could walk right into the Capital and talk to someone.’ It’s really fun to see.”

Nucete agrees. One of her favorite parts of her work is the sight of the Capitol building, filled with people advocating for their communities, learning the system, fighting with tools.

“That’s my job,” she says. “To help build up leadership to sustain the next 100 years. That’s the future.”

The Denver Foundation is building many new on-ramps into the world of philanthropy. One way is through collective giving. Giving circles and affinity groups are a form of philanthropy through which groups of individuals donate their own money to a pooled fund, decide together what charities or community projects to give to, and in so doing, increase their awareness of and engagement in the community. Many such groups also contribute their time and skills to support local causes.

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