Contact: Patty Cronheim

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Barriers keep Hispanics from becoming involved with environmental causes | Opinion

                                                    By Maria Santiago-Valentin and Patty Cronheim

A common false assumption is that Hispanics don’t care about the environment. Nothing could be further from the truth.

New Jersey League of Conservation Voters and the Atlantic Climate Justice Alliance (ACJA) have been collaborating to break down barriers that prevent Hispanics and other people of color from having an active role in environmental causes, and we have some ideas about how to move forward.

A poll conducted

EditSign by the Environmental Defense Action Fund and Latino Decisions showed that the environment is a strong unifying message for Latinos. The survey found strong support for protecting drinking water and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it also indicated strong support for policies that will help combat climate change.

Factors that stem primarily from language and economic barriers often keep Hispanics from becoming involved with the environmental causes that impact their daily lives. If we don’t want environmental engagement to remain primarily the province of white privilege, we need to break down the barriers that make it difficult for people to get involved.

English language-only meetings that take place at times during the day when people are at work make it harder for Spanish-speaking communities to access the information they need to effectively advocate for their environmental health and safety.

Yet, the people who face the deadliest consequences of bad environmental policy in New Jersey and throughout the nation are people of color, including Hispanics.

Communities with large Hispanic populations often experience environmental injustices such as high rates of air pollution and other environmental toxins. Polluting industries have been deliberately placed in their neighborhoods, causing elevated rates of asthma, heart attacks, and other illnesses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22% of poor Latinos have asthma, compared with 12 percent of poor whites. And Latinos are 60% more likely to visit the hospital for asthma-related complications than are non-Latinos, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.

A study last year from Harvard University showed that residents who live in counties with higher levels of air pollution are more likely to die from COVID-19. This is a big concern in New Jersey where poor air quality continues to plague our state and especially our cities and communities of color.

We were extremely excited last year when Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a bill to address the cumulative impacts of pollution in overburdened communities in New Jersey. It is the most progressive and consequential action regarding the cumulative impacts of pollution on low-income and communities of color in the nation. However, we need to make sure the law is implemented in a way that makes a real impact and that Hispanics are engaged in the law’s implementation.

The days of traditional environmental organizations approaching Hispanic and other communities of color with the thought of telling them what to do and how to do it are over.

The first step when approaching Hispanic communities is to listen. New Jersey League of Conservation Voters has held over 30 listening sessions this past year with organizations of color including the AJCA, to hear their concerns and ask for some solutions to environmental issues in their communities.

The second step is for white-led organizations to be an ally, to ask how to help, and to offer resources that are needed, but to not take the lead. People who live in overburdened communities know what they need.

Thomas Macias, a professor of sociology at the University of Vermont who has studied environmental perceptions among racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., advises that in order for traditional white-led environmental organizations to further increase engagement with Hispanics, they should seek to learn from and collaborate with existing initiatives within Latino communities. “Reaching out to pre-existing organizations and not coming into the community as an outsider is important,” he added.

Ultimately eliminating barriers is about building trust and it takes time. For example, our two organizations worked together on the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters’ Green in ‘21 policy initiative, with the ACJA taking the lead on strategy regarding climate change education and career technical education. At a news conference, the policy recommendations were introduced to the public in both English and Spanish.

As we work to address some of the significant environmental issues of our time such as climate change, safe drinking water, and land conservation, we can’t ignore nearly 20% of the New Jersey population. We’re going to need everyone to be involved. That’s why breaking down barriers that prevent Hispanics from engaging in the environmental movement is so important.