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You Voted. Now What? Juan Reynosa's Environmental Mission
(Ed's Note: This is the second in the series of features titled "You Voted. Now What" highlighting some of our nation's most inspiring and successful young activists. Through these stories we hope to highlight a broad range of potential paths for channeling some of the prodigious political energy unleashed during the Obama campaign. All features are produced in partnership with the StudentNation.)
If you talk to the 27-year-old community organizer Juan Reynosa, it becomes obvious why the rhetoric of President-elect Obama mobilized a record number of young voters. Similar to a vast majority of his peers, Reynosa is tired of hearing what he calls the "endless gloom and doom scenarios." When he organizes young people in Albuquerque or goes back to his native rural town of Hobbs, New Mexico, he wants to talk about solutions and hope. He doesn't dwell on polar bears drowning — he wants to talk about how young people around the country are retrofitting old, polluting buildings, putting on bio-diesel powered concerts, and pushing their cities to support Green Jobs.
This summer, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) asked Reynosa, the field director of New Mexico Youth Organized (NMYO), to speak to a group of Latino teenagers about environment and sustainability. He entered a dark, stuffy classroom filled with over forty 13- to 17-year-olds, looking at slides of stranded polar bears on the melting ice caps accompanied by a lecture on the end of human civilization. While the numbers and facts were urgent and terrifying, kids were falling asleep. As someone who's been organizing young people since 2001, Reynosa knew how to translate boring data into engaging stories for teens.
Most teenagers grew up uploading their opinions, pictures, blog posts, and reviews daily. They expect to participate. Reynosa and his co-worker, Cyrys Gould opened all blinds and windows. "We just asked a lot of questions," Reynosa explains, "and talked about what they could do. ... At the end, one young person said, 'I'm going to grow my own garden.' Another said, 'I'll save my allowance to buy some organic food.' Another high school student wanted to open a green club in his school," Reynosa recalls. The best way to engage young people is not to lecture them, but to genuinely solicit and respect their opinion, Reynosa explains.
As field director, Reynosa spends most of his days in the community, having conversations with high schools students, Native American tribes, business club members, and hip-hop show audiences about climate change and, given current economic recession, a unique opportunity to build a new, green economy that will lift people out of poverty and expand the middle class. While most well-known environmental groups focus on nature preservation and animal protection, for Reynosa environment is a social justice issue.
|5 Ways to Save the Planet and Reduce Poverty|
| 1. Sign up for Green for All newsletter for action alerts on nationwide green jobs events.|
2. Come to PowerShift conference along with 10,000 young environmental activists, as they gather in DC on Feb. 28, 2009.
4. Visit the best youth blog on climate change: ItsGettingHotinHere.org
5. To volunteer, search Future5000.com database for environmental organizations in your city or state.
Reynosa grew up in a small, rural town of Hobbs in southeast New Mexico with an ever-present stench of gas in the air and oil delivery pipelines sticking out of the ground. Over 24 percent of the city residents live below the poverty level. Most well-paying jobs -- close to 6,000 in 2007 -- are in gas, oil and mineral mining industries.
"When I mention to people where I'm from, they say, 'It's the stinkiest town I've ever been in!'" Reynosa says. When he was a child, an Exxon gas tanker corroded and all of the contents went into the water table. Some people got sick. When Reynosa visited his family for the Fourth of July this year and they decided to step outside to look at fireworks, they had to keep moving to different spots to avoid the pungent smell of gas from a dangerous nearby leak.
Despite these health risks, most jobs in Hobbs are still in polluting industries. Reynosa's father, Mario Reynosa worked most of his life at Sunoco Oil Co. "It's a very dangerous job. They work very long hours. Some end up using drugs to stay up. It's just a bad environment—not very well regulated at all." Reynosa's mother, Elizabeth Gonzalez worked in a uniform cleaning factory that Reynosa refers to as a "sweatshop." "There was very poor ventilation, bad lighting, and no one was allowed to speak Spanish." Reynosa wants his seven nephews and nieces to have better opportunities. He wants cleaner air in New Mexico and jobs that don't make people sick.
In high school, Reynosa took some environmental science classes and decided to focus on that full-time in college. "My friends and I had high aspirations in college. We wanted to secure jobs with big companies or publish a big book. No one talked about becoming a community organizer," Reynosa laughs.
In 2001, he went to an anti-war protest organized by the League of Young Voters chapter in New Mexico that later evolved into NMYO. He got hooked. "After a while it [activism], feels so addictive," Reynosa says. He also engaged with some environmental groups on campus. After graduation, Reynosa continued to volunteer with the League while holding different day-jobs.
Paid contracts or full-time jobs usually get offered to the most active volunteers first and by 2007, Reynosa started doing contract work for NMYO and soon became a full-time field organizer. Now he spends his days raising awareness about the potential of a new, green economy, recruits volunteers to work on green projects and events, and works with the City and State legislators to help push funding for green jobs training programs.
A recent NMYO and 1Sky study (PDF) found that nationally, the energy efficiency and renewable sub-industry alone supported 8.5 million jobs with over 47 billion in tax revenues in 2006. The study helped NMYO and community allies to help craft a policy bill together with the City legislators in Albuquerque that proposes to train over 100 youth for green jobs next year. NMYO is also working with State legislators to introduce similar bills throughout New Mexico next year. That's good news for the 1.7 million youth nationally who were not in school and were out of work in 2005.
This year, Reynosa and NMYO also registered voters. "I've had so many friends who voted for the first time. ... People really want to be involved -- which is a big, good thing. They don't want to give up their careers just yet, but definitely want to volunteer, to give their time." Reynosa hopes that the 3.4 million first-time, young voters of 2008 will continue their activism by getting involved in anything that feels right to them. "Just start somewhere -- green business, sustainability, community garden, helping out in a homeless shelter, local church. ... So many groups will welcome you with open arms. Just try it."
When Reynosa was looking for a way to become involved with community service in college, he talked to his friends, read local blogs, alternative weeklies, local newspapers, and looked for fliers on his campus for potential leads. "I'm always out there putting out fliers," he says. Reynosa believes those volunteering experiences will get some people addicted to public service work. "We are all very capable of doing great things and those opportunities are out there waiting for us. And once you get involved, there is a snowball effect -- everything gets bigger and better."
Kristina Rizga is the executive editor of WireTap magazine, project director of Future5000.com, and a member of the editorial board of The Nation magazine.
Also in Youth Activism
- Best WireTap Stories of 2008 by The Editors
- Free Wheels: The Scraper Bike Movement Rolls On by Jamilah King
- You Voted. Now What? by Kristina Rizga
- Young Organizers Speak: We Are a New Coalition for the Common Interest by Matt Singer, Jefferson Smith
- Young Organizers Speak: It’s A New Era by Biko Baker