Since its creation in 2008, Philadelphia's Office of Sustainability had been poor at outreach.
While it focused on its internal operations — working on the policies that regulate energy consumption; access to food, air and water; and carbon emissions reduction by 2050 — it rarely included the insights of local residents or connect with neighborhood projects. And the office wasn't thinking about reaching specific communities, like Latinos, either.
It turns out this is not specific to Philadelphia. According to a June study out of Yale University, a large percentage of U.S. Latinos (72 percent Spanish speakers; 63 percent English speakers) have never been contacted by an environmental organization working to reduce global warming or tackle climate change.
It's a finding with significant implications when you consider that a 2017 survey showed that Latinos — particularly those who prefer to speak Spanish — care more and are more aware of the issue than African Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Asian Americans, and Caucasians.
Anthony Leiserowitz, the study’s main author and director of Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication, said he and his colleagues began researching the topic about 10 years ago when they became curious about ethnic groups that care most about climate change. What they found is U.S. Latinos are far less likely to act politically on global warming — one reason being because they’ve never been engaged by an organization working on the issue.
"The common wisdom then, and even today, is that it's an issue that only 'upper-middle class, white, latte-sipping liberals' care about. It turns out that that's just not true," Leiserowitz said, adding that other global studies suggest that Latinos of North, Central, and South America also rate global warming as a higher personal threat that any other region. "We still don't really know why."
Mark Magaña, the CEO and founding president of Green Latinos, said Latinos are inherently conservation minded. Still, the 8,000-member advocacy organization out of Washington, D.C., formed six years ago to harness the habits of these communities, he said.
"Latinos learn their stewardship of the land through their grandmothers and parents," Magaña said. "They eat all the food on the plate, turn off the light when they leave the room, eat all the parts of the animal, use water wisely because it might not come the next day; things that we do organically, because it's in the back of the chanclas," he explained, using a phrase that best translates as "back of your mind" but alludes to the Spanish word for flip flops, a cultural touchstone because they're ubiquitous — to wear, even to discipline with.
Still, Green Latinos had no experience with local outreach efforts. So it partnered last year with Moms Clean Air Force, a national coalition of parents who wanted to reach Latinos in a more "culturally competent" way, said national field director Karin Quimby, especially after its own poll showed that women of color, particularly Latina grandmothers and mothers, were even more concerned than white women about climate and pollution.
"The poll confirmed what we knew," Quimby said. "The environmental movement as a whole hasn't done good work with communities of color."
The result — Ecomadres, which will help get resources to Latinas already doing local advocacy work — is rare in a U.S. movement that's predominantly white. A 2014 study of 280 environmental institutions found that less than 16 percent of the board or staff at mainstream NGOs, foundations, and government agencies identified as part of an ethnic minority.
In Philadelphia, the only group targeting Latinos in a coalition of more than 90 stakeholders that engage with residents on climate change issues, is Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM), which works on projects such as the Sustainable Communities Initiative and Paseo Verde.
Victoria Cubillos-Cañón, APM's neighborhood advisory committee coordinator, explained that the best outreach methods prioritize a residents' needs.
"We have learned to create conversations around the main problem and the layers that relate to their problems," Cubillos-Cañón said. For instance, APM might interest a homeowner about installing water retention systems like rain barrels by framing it around how to lower water bills.
Cubillos-Cañón shares that message with pastors before Mass, with a list of about 50 block captains, on fliers she places on the stoops and window frames of homeowners.
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The city's Office of Sustainability recognized its outreach efforts needed work, especially after input for its sustainability plan for 2016 showed people wanted to be included in the process. In fact, director Christine Knapp said the office had never had a community outreach strategist until May.
"We haven't engaged Latinos, and we haven't engaged with any community sufficiently well on these issues," Knapp said.
Ciara Williams, the outreach strategist, will be working full-time on a number of sustainability programs, including The Heat Vulnerability Index, a pilot project that launched Wednesday with the intent to reduce temperatures in neighborhoods. Hunting Park in North Philadelphia, for example, is one of the hottest spots, and is largely populated by African American and Latino communities.
To engage those residents, the city partnered with two neighborhood organizations with connections to Hunting Park's west side (the Lenfest Center) and east side (Esperanza). Esperanza already has a network of volunteers for outreach, so for the index, those volunteers might ask residents whether they need more trees, know how white roofs can cool structures, or understand how heat affects health.
Celita Campos, a Hunting Park resident of 20 years, was contacted by Esperanza two years ago, the first time she had ever heard from an environmental organization. It was a meeting that helped her realize how certain factors were contributing to her children's health: three of four whom suffer from asthma, she said.
She eventually became a volunteer for beautification projects, and plans to join Esperanza in its work on the heat index.
“This is for the sake of my children,” said Campos, 44, “and [the community] needs their [the city’s] support to watch our families thrive in a positive way.”