This article was jointly published by The Nation and WireTap magazine.
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 many of his peers, Juan is tired of hearing what he calls the “endless gloom-and-doom scenarios.” When he organizes young people in Albuquerque or in 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 biodiesel-powered concerts and pushing their cities to support municipal green jobs programs.
This summer, the League of United Latin American Citizens asked Reynosa, the field director of New Mexico Youth Organized (NMYO), to speak to a group of Latino teenagers about the environment and sustainability. He entered a dark, stuffy classroom filled with more than 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’d been organizing young people since 2001, Reynosa knew that pushing teens into the arena of civic action required translating tedious data into engaging stories–and it wasn’t happening here.
Many teenagers today have grown up uploading their opinions, pictures, blog posts and reviews. They expect to participate, to interact. Reynosa and his co-worker Cyrys Gould opened the 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 with high school students, Native American tribes, business club members and audiences at hip-hop shows, having conversations about climate change and, given the 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 the environmental movement is strictly about social justice, first and foremost.
Reynosa grew up in the 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. More than 42 percent of Hobbs’s 30,000 inhabitants are Latinos, with 24 percent of the city’s residents living 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 the contents leached 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.