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When asked about my career path and trajectory as the only third executive director of local Denver nonprofit, Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK), I would love to weave a tale about an inherent thirst to conserve the environment, or a deeply rooted calling to inspiring young people. But alas, my path began with a free T-shirt.
The place? An organization focused on the conservation of our environment. The T-shirt? No, it wasn’t the most flashy or comfortable shirt I’d ever own. But to me, it represented that this was a space for me.
The novelty of a T-shirt sparked my interest, but seeing leaders who looked like me sparked so much more. We need more Latinos in leadership positions in the conservation and nonprofit fields. As the effects of climate change become more and more of a reality, it’s important that all young people believe these topics are theirs to learn about, engage in, and take ownership in solving.
According to the Colorado Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Latinos in the state of Colorado represent 21% of the population, counting over one million people. When we talk about the United States as a whole, one in six people identify as Latino. The history of Latino heritage and culture across the U.S. is broad, as reflected in the fact that the U.S. has the third largest Spanish-speaking population in the world, just below Mexico and Colombia, according to Rosetta Stone.
Despite, having a significant presence in the state of Colorado and nationwide, we aren’t reflected in leadership positions within the environmental nonprofit sector and the conservation movement as a whole.
Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK) has spent the last 26 years inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards in Colorado. Currently, we serve on average more than 5,000 students a year. Nearly half of our youth identify as Latino or Hispanic, while 26% are African American, 20% are multi racial, 3% are Native American, and 1% identify as Asian/Pacific Islander.
Then, you may wonder, if our organization is able to do this, why aren’t there more leaders of color in the environmental movement? Why, even though Latinos have such a strong, rooted history in Colorado and, according to findings from the 2022 Conservation in the West Poll, overwhelmingly have concerns about drought and snowpack, aren’t Latinos driving the solutions to address critical environmental challenges such as drought and wildfires?
As a locally rooted and nationally known organization, we have been introducing multi-generations to the environmental issues that impact our own community, and furthermore, enabling them to take on some of the most pressing challenges of their lifetime. Notwithstanding, it seems the environmental community isn’t ready to embrace our culture, our community, and our heritage.
A 2021 report by Green 2.0, who call themselves the “watchdogs for inequality in the environmental sector,” reflects that even though we have some positive trends towards hiring more racially diverse staff, this trend may not be enough to catch up with the rapidly changing demographics of the country, in a sector overwhelmingly white-led.
Is your organization, institution, and environmental solution thinking of us? If not, we are working to change that, and you can’t succeed without us.
Juan Pérez Sáez is the executive director for Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK), a Colorado-based organization with the mission of cultivating a passion in science, leadership, and service in a diverse community of learners. 
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