The inherent lack of Latinx representation and inclusion in environmental science majors at the University of California, Berkeley — and across the UC system — motivated Federico Castillo, Lecturer at UC Berkeley and Deputy Director of the UCGHI Planetary Health Center of Expertise, and Lupe Gallegos-Diaz, Director of UC Berkeley’s Chicanx/Latinx Student Development Office, to start an initiative on campus that would change that.
The Latinxs and the Environment initiative is a 3-year-old effort started seeking “to establish a comprehensive program designed to generate knowledge and encourage increased study and research on Latinxs and the environment — both in the U.S. and abroad,” according to the program’s website. Additionally, the program has coordinated participation with policy makers, community-based organizations (CBOs) and the academic community in order to support students.
For Latinx/Hispanic Heritage Month, we spoke to Castillo, an environmental/agricultural economist with a PhD and undergraduate degrees from Cal, and Gallegos-Diaz, with a masters degree in social work from Cal, too, who teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses at the university in both Chicano/Latino studies and in the school of social work.
“The Latinx and the Environment was born out of what I perceive to be a need to have more students involved or choosing environmental majors,” Castillo says. “What I noticed was that I did not have Latinx students sitting in front of me or taking this class that I was teaching.”
Castillo set out to find the reason. What he found out from speaking with other colleagues and faculty members in environmental engineering or environmental health and other related majors, was that students simply “weren’t choosing these majors.” Castillo, along with Gallegos-Diaz, set out to investigate the root cause and change that and improve the pipeline for Latinx students to researchers to professionals in the field.
“When we first started, we were providing students a space where they actually felt that they created a community within (these) majors where there’s not a lot of Latino students,” Gallegos-Diaz says, adding that the initiative started with a pass/no pass introductory course — taught by students — which has since grown, featuring as many as 25-30 students every semester.
Students are encouraged to participate as fellows, interns, and teach seminars. The seminars are meant to prepare students to analyze and conduct research on environmental issues related to the Latinx community.
“This is not only preparing students in the sense of majors but also preparing them as leaders in their communities in order to address the injustices and issues in the environmental movement,” she says.
Gallegos-Diaz explains that the seminars don’t only cover “the soil in the land” when it comes to environmental issues, but rather cover the full scope. “It’s the air that we breathe, it’s the food that we eat … it’s also about our mental wellness, and how that’s impacted,” she says.
The seminars also teach students to ask themselves critical questions and that at its core, environmental issues are intersectional and don’t only affect the Latinx community. “How does it also affect larger communities of color and society in general?” Gallegos-Diaz adds.
MEET THE FELLOWS
A current fellow, Río Vargas, 21, joined a research team run by Castillo in May 2020, and was interested in joining the Latinx and the Environment because they felt a “lack of representation and space for Latinx researchers in the discipline of environmental science.”
The fourth year UC Berkeley student, who majors in landscape architecture and environmental planning, says it’s important for them that Latinx representation improves because of the environmental issues that directly affect the community.
“Air doesn’t have borders, water doesn’t have borders, you know, so these kind of environmental issues or injustices particularly for people of color … our entry is through our particular Latino experience, but it has to be much broader than that,” Gallegos-Diaz adds, explaining that other structural racism, sexism, among other issues work “in combination with each other and the environment.”
Another fellow, Leslie Alfonso, 21, previous UCGHI Planetary Health Student Ambassador, heard about the program from a friend during her freshman year. “I was still trying to find ‘my place’ within the UC Berkeley community and hearing both the terms ‘Latinx’ and ‘environment’ in one space sounded like the perfect fit,” Alfonso says.
After attending a welcome seminar, Alfonso knew she would find a community that would advocate for her, and other students, to excel in the field. And the fourth-year society and environment major, with a minor in food systems, agrees with Vargas that an increase in representation within these majors and work is “crucial.”
Without Latinx and the Environment’s existence, Alfonso doesn’t think she would have “pursued any studies or research in environmental policy or food systems.”
“Environmental spaces love to pride themselves in holding conversations of environmental issues that impact Latinx communities (i.e. farmworker rights, environmental racism), but that is not enough,” Alfonso says. “There needs to be more advocacy in academia to uplift Latinx students to positions where they can help their prospective communities, those same communities that are a part of the studies and statistics, themselves. Without representation, how can a Latinx student picture themselves in these spaces?”
Recent graduate Alexandra Acevedo Grave, 22, a former fellow of the initiative who majored in environmental earth science, was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles and has “experienced firsthand how our communities are never prioritized when thinking of solving environmental issues.”
Grave first heard about the initiative during her second year at UC Berkeley and joined because she “needed a space where there were more people like me.”
She adds: “Sustainability is a topic which has gained a lot of attention in recent years, but Latinx households have been reducing, reusing and recycling as a part of their daily lives for centuries. Latinx communities prioritize sustainability and we should be regarded when talking about ways to become environmentally sustainable.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR LATINX AND THE ENVIRONMENT
When it comes to the future of the initiative, Castillo says that along with Gallegos-Diaz, they’re starting a process “to build, to reach out” to more students, communities and campuses beyond Berkeley.
Castillo adds they are expanding their reach across the UC system by engaging with faculty from campuses at UC Davis, Irvine and San Diego, and that they are also trying to raise more funds to create similar programs in other campuses.
Ultimately, this outreach is done “in order for Latinx and the Environment to have a larger footprint and to increase our presence,” not just the presence of Latinx students in the program, but more students of color overall in the professional workforce.