Cultivating a New Generation of Environmental Justice Leaders

by Alvaro Palacios Casanova

I was a gang-member from a low-income Southern California neighborhood when I had a wake-up call I’ll never forget. A rock hurtling through a car windshield crushed my nose, broke my jaw, cost me the use of my left eye and nearly ended up costing me my life.

But I recovered and turned my life around. Inspired by the example of a friend who had left gang life to pursue a degree, I enrolled in community college and ultimately received a Master’s degree from the University of California at San Diego in Marine Science in 2010.

In 2014, I joined the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), a national nonprofit health watchdog, as its inaugural Environmental Justice Inclusion Fellow. CEH created the Fellowship to offer a one-year paid entry-level position for people who otherwise could not afford an unpaid internship or part-time position in the environmental health field.

Working for the first time with a nonprofit public health legal and advocacy organization was a new and challenging experience. In my year with CEH, I have worked with grassroots organizations, activists, and government agencies on a diverse array of projects, including promoting health protective legislation in Sacramento, training child care professionals on reducing children’s exposures to toxic chemicals, providing technical assistance and cultural competency to a major natural products corporation, and serving as a mentor to CEH’s undergraduate interns. In many projects I was given a leadership role, gaining valuable experiences that were fundamental in making the Fellowship successful.

The supportive senior staff at CEH made the Fellowship an invaluable experience. Being a man of color with lots of visible tattoos, I never once felt marginalized. The fellowship really held up to its name and value by including me into the CEH family. That also came with a lot of trust in my professionalism and my abilities to execute, which allowed me to fully involve myself in the work.

CEH is now looking for another emerging leader to fill the Environmental Justice Inclusion Fellowship position for 2016. Ideal candidates are from environmental hotspots, have experienced socioeconomic disadvantage, are the first members in their families to attend college, and are looking to build careers in social justice, environmental health, and/or environmental justice.