Latinxs and the Environment: Connecting University of California Students in Environmental Research and Social Change

October 30, 2023
Student and staff conference organizers sitting at the registration booth and holding up the conference tote bag.
Latinxs and the Environment Program Coordinator, Alexandra Acevedo Grave (second from left), and student conference organizers welcoming conference attendees at the 2023 conference registration booth at UC Riverside.

Established in 2017 at UC Berkeley by the University of California Global Health Institute (UCGHI) Center for Planetary Health Associate Director, Dr. Federico Castillo, in collaboration with Dr. Lupe Gallegos Diaz, and expanding to UC Riverside (UCR) in 2022 by UCGHI Center for Planetary Health Co-Director, Dr. Samantha Ying, with funding from the UCOP HSI Doctoral Diversity Initiative grant, the Latinxs and the Environment (L&E) program aims to create space where Latinx students are provided with the guidance and resources to harness research, graduate school and other higher education programs that are not as accessible for first-generation students. UCR L&E students led their first two-day conference, “Latinxs & the Environment: Conectando a la comunidad Latina en la investigación ambiental y el cambio social,” which aimed to foster UC-wide engagement and promote and encourage research across all disciplines in environmental fields and in the Latinx community. The event, held at UC Riverside on Friday, October 20th - Saturday, October 21st, 2023, brought together 50 scholars, policy makers, and experts from various fields to support a diverse community of students, advance important discussions on environmental health, and showcase research by Latinx researchers and for Latinx communities. 

Mariachi Juarez performing at Day 1 of the L& E conference.

The first day of the conference took place at the Culver Center of the Arts and included lively music by a Riverside-based mariachi band, Mariachi Juarez, while attendees checked in at the registration table and enjoyed dinner and refreshments. Drs. Castillo and Ying gave welcoming remarks before introducing UC Riverside Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies, Dr. Lidia Kos. Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia delivered an inspiring presentation on the importance of research to inform environmental policy. The evening concluded with poster presentations by undergraduate and graduate students from four University of California campuses covering a wide range of topics from air quality and water to soil contamination and climate change resilience and community engagement.

Left to right: Undergraduate students David Gonzalez II (UCR) and Diana Violeta Olivia Najarro (UCSD) and first year PhD student, Juliana Guerra, (UCR) presenting their poster presentations.

The second day of the conference took place at the UCR Student Success Center. It began with an inspiring keynote presentation by Dr. Loralee Larios, an assistant professor and Plant Ecologist in the UCR Botany and Plant Sciences Department. The presentation focused on her research on restoration ecology and the importance of using cultural wealth as a framework for researchers looking to root their work in the cultural strengths of the communities they come from. The presentation emphasized how early educational opportunities for high school students plays an important role in their commitment to sustainable environmental stewardship work. Dr. Larios invited the conference attendees to think of examples of their own cultural wealth that can be utilized to strengthen their work, leading to responses from the audience about resilience, familial capital, storytelling, multicultural perspectives, drive and passion, community histories, traditional medicine, and linguistic capital.

The environmental challenges we face today require a multidisciplinary approach that includes diverse perspectives and lived experiences. The L&E conference provided space for first time oral presentations by graduate students who presented multidisciplinary environmental health research that intersected with public health, microbiology, and digital storytelling. Following the graduate student presentations, Dr. Castillo moderated a panel discussion on environmental leadership, community engagement, and policy featuring UC Riverside PhD candidate, Gabriela Ortiz, UCR faculty, Dr. Alfonso Gonzalez Toribio, and UCR Blackstone Launchpad and Entrepreneurial Education Lead, Dr. Francis Reyes. Students engaged in lively discussions with panelists, sharing insights and strategies for addressing environmental issues that disproportionately affect Latinx communities in California.

Two of the first-time graduate student presenters, Mayela Gillan (UCB) and Araceli Serrano (UCSC).

The inaugural conference was a vital step towards building a more inclusive and sustainable future for the next generation of Latinx scholars. Notably, the conference facilitated valuable networking opportunities, enabling students to connect with Latinx faculty mentors and professionals in the field and across the UC system. This L&E conference was a testament to the commitment and passion of Latinx students to create spaces where their voices can be heard, and to faculty for supporting and mentoring the next generation of Latinx environmental health researchers who can effect lasting change in their communities. Attendees left the conference with renewed vigor, new connections, and a shared commitment to continue the fight for environmental justice across the State of California together.

In the coming year, the Latinxs and the Environment Program will continue to expand across the University of California, starting at UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Davis, where collaborating faculty have been identified to further extend and strengthen this important program.