Nuestras Raíces: How we Turned Environmental Justice into Action

By Giovanna Di Chiro

Nuestras Raíces Clean Air Event, 2011

When I first started working with Nuestras Raíces, I was inspired by the passion and commitment of Holyoke, Massachusetts’ young Puerto Rican residents toward improving their community and respecting Madre Tierra (Mother Earth).  I thought EPA’s Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) program would be a great resource for harnessing this passion, and we were fortunate to be awarded a CARE grant to support these goals.  For our grant project, Nuestras Raíces has focused on engaging young people to create awareness among our neighbors about the risk factors in the community related to indoor and outdoor air quality, water quality and mercury contamination from eating fish from the Connecticut River.

In addition to our focus on environmental health education and organizing, Nuestras Raíces is committed to promoting sustainable economic development to address the high rates of poverty and unemployment in our community. Our youth environmental leaders became more and more excited about the environmental issues we were focusing on in the CARE project. They asked us how they could turn their efforts to expand environmental awareness into jobs and careers that would help make a difference in the community.  To support their great idea, Nuestras Raíces applied for the Department of Labor’s Pathways Out of Poverty funding to start RootsUp, a green jobs training program. To date, RootsUp has completed three cohorts with 22 graduates placed in local energy and green building and manufacturing companies.

Soon it became clear, however, that simply churning out green jobs trainees was not enough; we also wanted to help create good career pathways for our young graduates. Nuestras Raíces’ growing expertise through CARE and other community environmental and health collaboratives allowed us to launch and become the majority owner of Energía, a “triple bottom line” green energy services company, committed to hiring and mentoring local young people.

Now in its second year of operation, Energía has hired and trained three work crews, purchased and retrofitted two grease-powered trucks, and to date has completed over 700 residential and commercial energy efficiency projects, reducing homes’ and businesses’ energy output and saving them money from lower utility bills.

Mark Tajima and Yamil Brito

One of the graduates of our RootUp green jobs program, Yamil Brito, who was promoted to crew leader, has described his burgeoning career at Energía as, “good for his future, good for the earth, and good for the community.” As it grows and thrives, Energía will provide a source of sustainable income generation for Nuestras Raíces, while creating jobs and making our community more sustainable.

About the author: Dr. Giovanna Di Chiro is Director of Environmental Programs at Nuestras Raíces, Inc. in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and Research Associate at the Five Colleges Research Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.