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Working Together as a Community: the Activism of Fernando Cázares

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Fernando Cázares | Photo: courtesy Fernando Cázares
Fernando Cázares | Photo: Rudy Espinoza, Investing in Place

The common stereotype of environmental activists would tell you that they're all either high-priced lawyers or trust fund hippies. That hasn't been true for decades, if it ever was at all. Our series This Is What Green Looks Like profiles Californian environmental activists from diverse communities and walks of life, bringing you stories of your neighbors campaigning to protect the planet. 

Fernando Cázares is reluctant to call himself an environmentalist in the traditional sense.

As Senior Manager of The Trust for Public Land’s “Climate Smart Cities” program, and working for the Natural Resources Defense Council before that, he has been professionally involved in environmental organizations for almost four years now. But he is acutely aware that his entry into environmental activism wasn’t prefaced by an educational background in environmental conservation. Rather, his involvement in the environmental movement comes from a more experiential, one might say, organic, place.

“One of the principles of organizing is that you don’t just show up to a community and pretend that you know their issues and their solution,” says Cázares. “You establish a relationship, you do a lot of listening, and you let folks share with you what their priorities are. In return, you share your vision and offer resources to support their agenda.” 

“And you find opportunities to work together towards a common vision. I’ve been very mindful of that for the last four years,” Cázares explains. “I’ve been inspired by the leaders of the Equipo Verde who live in the same neighborhood where I grew up, and are telling their story of organizing their vecinas (neighbors), and elementary and high school-age children to plant trees, write poetry and paint murals in the South LA Green Alleys to anyone who’ll listen, including California legislators at their Sacramento offices. I’ve also been inspired by the grassroots work of organizations like East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.”

Cázares and his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1990, making a home for themselves in South Central L.A. A middle school student, he remembers having to share a room with his parents and younger brother in a house also shared with other families. As with so many immigrant families living in crowded urban spaces, they didn’t have a yard to play in. South Park was their closest public green space; he and his brother would play there with other neighborhood kids. The family would also drive to Griffith Park.

As Cázares remembers, “my mom would plan a whole picnic, prepare some food and we’d picnic out in Griffith Park, we’d hike and we would collect bottles and cans and sell them to make extra money. And so we managed to connect with open spaces, not just for recreation — because we didn’t have the opportunity to do that at home — but also for some economic opportunities.”

At that time, the young Cázares wasn’t particularly aware of the environmental benefits of public parks and open spaces. “I didn’t really think about the carbon sequestration value of parks, trees and open spaces like Griffith Park. We enjoyed them as free spaces of nature.”

These early memories of open public spaces for his family and his community formed the core of what motivates Cázares now in his environmental work.

"Climate justice is a social and civil rights issue… our state and local climate policies and investments should be grounded in the principles of civil rights."

In 1992, he witnessed the Rodney King uprisings in L.A. As large pockets of his wider urban environment were razed, and buildings and businesses were destroyed, Cázares observed first-hand the devastating aftershocks of the marginalization, alienation and degradation of low-income communities that more often than not were communities of color.

He recalls, “I got to see the impact and the aftermath of buildings being burned, and communities grasping for some outlet of frustration; poor educational resources, police brutality, the lack of economic opportunity and jobs and inadequate transit to get to jobs, and the lack of affordable housing. I got to see what happens when things get burned down and you don’t have resources to rebuild. It was a culture shock because I was two years into the U.S."

This experience at an impressionable age was coupled with his daily school bus ride, which crossed the city from South Central to the San Fernando Valley. His school was surrounded by gated communities with plenty of green trees, open space and an ostensibly better quality of life. To the young Cázares, this chasm of inequality did not go unnoticed.

Cázares subsequently earned a Public Policy degree from Occidental College and a Master’s degree in Public Affairs and Urban & Regional Planning from Princeton University, both of which focused on how community organizing can influence land use planning. Since entering the environmental arena in 2013, he has worked to support grassroots activists doing day-to-day advocacy, and to ensure that organizations like The Trust for Public Land have those activists in meeting rooms along with city officials and public health representatives, so that the results of those meetings are grounded in the community’s priorities.

Building burned in the 1992 Los Angeles riots | Photo: Dark Sevier, some rights reserved
"I got to see what happens when things get burned down and you don’t have resources to rebuild." Building burned in the 1992 Los Angeles riots | Photo: Dark Sevier, some rights reserved

This desire to mobilize, support and engage with communities as an integral part of environmental activism is reflected in Cázares’ involvement with the organization Voces Verdes, of which he was a project associate. A project of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Voces Verdes was founded to identify and empower Latinx leaders from business, public health, local government and academia, and engaging them “to be spokespeople for why we as a nation need to move away from fossil fuels, protect public health, and promote environmental justice and energy efficiency.”

As a Voces Verdes associate, he has helped build Latino leadership coalitions in key states such as Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to build support for President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. He recruited and staffed leaders from organizations like the National Hispanic Medical Association, National Latino Farmers & Ranchers, the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization from Chicago to testify before the Environmental Protection Administration or speak at rallies.

Since January 2016, Fernando has worked to elevate the voices of neighborhood leaders of the South LA Green Team, in partnership with his organizer colleague Nancy Vargas. This past March, he assisted two Latina leaders during visits to California Assembly and Senate members as they spoke of their experience organizing their neighbors, children, husbands and nearby middle and high school students to paint murals, implement clean ups and tree plantings of their Green Alley, as well as to take on other pressing community issues like domestic violence and human trafficking.

And as much as environmental activism and climate-change issues are about science, conservation and the much-needed burgeoning of permaculture practices, activists like Cázares are highlighting that that they are also inseparable from the civil rights movement.

He states as much unequivocally. “Climate justice is a social and civil rights issue. As such, our state and local climate policies and investments should be grounded in the principles of civil rights – quality of life, equity as a guiding value, economic empowerment and leadership of disenfranchised communities, and more than just fairness, to include an intentional effort to undo — or at least not repeat — the historic injustices of racism, classism, xenophobia, economic displacement and segregation in the name of progress.”

In this political climate, with its all-out assault on the environment and the socially and economically vulnerable, this natural evolution of green activism to encompass civil rights issues is vital. The degradation of our natural world and our fellow humans have never been mutually exclusive. They are one and the same, and the environmental movement desperately needs more activists like Fernando Cázares working to ensure that marginalized communities can be heard.

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