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.
Despite the health risks, most jobs in Hobbs–well-paying or not–are in polluting industries. Reynosa’s father, Mario Reynosa, worked most of his life at Sunoco Oil Company. “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 says. His mother, Elizabeth Gonzalez, worked in a uniform cleaning factory that he calls a “sweatshop.” “There was very poor ventilation, bad lighting and no one was allowed to speak Spanish,” he explains. 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.
Reynosa took some environmental science classes in high school, and in college he decided to focus on the ecology and humans full-time. “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,” he syas with a laugh.
In 2001, he went to an antiwar 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 worked 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. 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 city and state legislators to help push funding for green jobs training programs. A recent NMYO and 1Sky study found that nationally, the energy efficiency and renewable sub-industry alone supported 8.5 million jobs with more than $47 billion in tax revenues in 2006.
NMYO and community allies relied on the study to help craft a policy bill with the city legislators in Albuquerque that proposes to train more than 100 young people 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,” he says. Reynosa hopes that some of the 3.4 million first-time, young voters will be engaged by activism to get involved in whatever 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 campus for potential leads. “I’m always out there putting out fliers,” he says. He 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.”