The National Hispanic Environmental Council (NHEC) is a non-profit organization which provides advocacy, programs and policy work to fulfill its mission of “representing the interests of Latinos before federal, state and green-group decision-makers.” NHEC is based in Alexandria, Va., and is the only national Latino environmental organization in the country.
Annually, NHEC sponsors a national Minority Youth Environmental Training Institute. The institute is held for 11 days in Northern New Mexico and exposes minority youth to environmental opportunities within the Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service. These organizations co-sponsor the institute and provide students with role models, normally minority employees, who have successful careers in environmental fields.
In early July 2012, I applied to and was accepted for the institute. This year, it was held at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M., and students stayed in the dormitories, except for two nights at the beautiful campsites along Abiquiu Lake.
My journey with NHEC began July 20, as I joined students and instructors arriving from all over the country at the Albuquerque International Sunport. I met people arriving from Oregon, Maryland, California, New York, Puerto Rico and Texas right off the bat. There were 29 students, four instructors and two student assistants, all completely unique in background, interests and manner. However, we had the commonality of being minorities, youth and interested in making a difference in the environment.
During the course of 11 days, we became a family. We overcame obstacles together, and we bonded throughout each trial.
I came to understand that most students in the institute live in urban areas of the country, such as Brooklyn, or Los Angeles, and they had never been exposed to the outdoors at such a magnitude. For my friends from Puerto Rico, hiking at Pecos National Monument provided a first encounter with a hail storm. For a friend from Houston, seeing a deer for the first time in his life was a highlight of the experience.
While camping at Abiquiu Lake, I saw the Milky Way for the first time and more shooting stars in five minutes than I ever thought possible. Students also faced the challenge of setting up tents for the first time. Unfortunately, right before setting up our tents, the area was hit with a hard rain, so the area was a muddy, soaked mess. We got through this challenge by reminding ourselves of the s’mores we would be consuming later. Also, many students suffered from altitude sickness, but they endured because they were truly passionate about the work we were doing.
Field studies included water quality testing, soil sampling, catching (and releasing) macro and micro organisms from riparian habitats and presenting all of our findings. Students also became familiar with equipment that many of us will go on to use in our professional lives. We used technology and software such as a surveying tripod, automatic level, total station, AutoCAD, GIS, Google Earth and multi-parameter water quality sensors.
Mentors from the federal agencies showed us how they applied these tools in their career, and it was interesting to learn that many of the role models came from backgrounds similar to the students. This factor put into perspective for many of us the idea that “if they can do it, so can we.” Some of the role models had traveled from as far as Puerto Rico to educate and encourage students. Role models told us jobs are now offered through the Pathways program (which is replacing the STEP and SCEP programs). Most importantly, role models gave students the confidence to apply for jobs and become minority leaders of tomorrow.
An inspirational person to me was Pamela Bingham. She operates her own consulting firm and talked to students about environmental justice. Environmental justice is what the EPA defines as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, sex, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” Pamela played an integral role in providing aid to Hurricane Katrina victims after the storm hit. Her lessons on environmental justice affected me deeply. As a matter of fact, I’m now interested in doing environmental justice advocacy work because of her lessons and NHEC.
Roger Rivera, president of the organization, promised a life-changing experience, and I can proudly say that NHEC did change my life. I am inspired to give back to the community by engaging in environmental justice advocacy. The experiences I gained from “11 days of Learning and the Experience of a Lifetime” are ones I will take with me forever, and the NHEC class of 2012 has kept in touch and is planning a reunion next year in Puerto Rico.