The mission of Comunidades is ambitious: to amplify voices for environmental and social justice while increasing Latina/o/x engagement and leadership in Columbia River Gorge communities. Founded in 2018 by Columbia Riverkeeper Senior Organizer Ubaldo Hernández and community volunteers, Comunidades is now an independent organization fiscally sponsored by Riverkeeper. I met up with Comunidades’ first full-time staff member, Program Director Lisa Muñoz, and Ubaldo to reflect on the organization’s efforts to engage the collective activism and leadership of the Latina/o/x communities in the Gorge.
How did Comunidades come together?
Ubaldo: Starting a new organization from scratch is a lot of dreaming, work, and patience. You need to dream with others to see your dream grow. Comunidades grew organically through conversations and goals identified among Latina/o/x community members in the Gorge who wanted to engage in and organize around protecting natural resources. The group started after Riverkeeper hired me to organize Latina/o/x communities to protect the river, and this expanded and crossed into social injustices experienced by our communities.
Today Comunidades’ goals are to build a coalition of communities that engages on issues that affect our lives: toxic pollution, pesticides, health equity, housing access, workers’ rights, racial discrimination, and social justice. Our vision is to take a grassroots approach, centered on the voices of our communities, advocating to reduce environmental and social injustices.
Can you share a story or example about how Comunidades has impacted people’s lives?
Lisa: Comunidades started “Voces del Noroeste,” a weekly, online community-journalism show featuring voices from across the Pacific Northwest, after leading community journalism training in 2020. The pandemic is such an isolating experience for many. Comunidades offered stipends to 30 Latina/o/x storytellers to develop journalism skills. People were eager to share stories and grow their communication skills—and it’s been amazing to witness how folks are sharing their stories in creative ways.
Ubaldo: In early 2020 I had a friend voice concerns about losing his home of over a decade, located in a trailer park, to developers in White Salmon. To respond, Comunidades coordinated weekly Saturday meetings for the residents, mostly farmworkers, empowering them to know their rights and use their voices to incite change. I invited the mayor and city council members to a few meetings so they could talk to residents directly. We coordinated legal representation and offered public testimony training to those who needed it. People ultimately lost their homes. But the city council updated zoning codes to preserve affordable housing options in White Salmon, preventing further displacement and houselessness.
My experience of direct exposure to pollution through working, combined with witnessing and enduring workplace discrimination, racism, and classism, all influenced my decision to advocate for our communities and form Comunidades.
How did your upbringing influence your path to Comunidades?
Ubaldo: I came to the U.S. from Mexico having worked as a press operator for a worker’s union. I started as a farmworker while learning English so I could expand my career options. I then worked in the print industry, restaurants and breweries, and graphic design. I got to experience firsthand how these industries impact the environment—immense water wasting in breweries, ink pollution and paper production from print, and the detrimental effects from toxic pesticides on agricultural workers—which are all still impacting communities today. My experience of direct exposure to pollution through working, combined with witnessing and enduring workplace discrimination, racism, and classism, all influenced my decision to advocate for our communities and form Comunidades.
Lisa: Both my lived experience growing up in the Hood River Valley and professional experience studying science, specifically biochemistry, drew me to Comunidades. I grew up on an orchard in Odell with parents who were farmworkers. I got to be outside a lot, and my parents loved being outside as well. Constantly being in nature was a blessing, but there were a lot of injustices that I was exposed to. Family fears of discrimination and pesticides meant I was aware of social and environmental injustice at a young age. When the opportunity to apply for Comunidades’ program director arose, I jumped at the chance because of my love for my community.
How does Riverkeeper support Comunidades’ growth?
Lisa: Riverkeeper is officially our fiscal sponsor, providing structural support to create a foundation and example of the level of work that we want to achieve. Riverkeeper provides administrative and fundraising support, like administering and giving feedback on our grant applications, and strategic communications efforts. It’s always helpful to have advice from an established nonprofit.
How does Comunidades differ from and complement other organizations doing environmental work in the Pacific Northwest?
Ubaldo: Simply put, we are Latina/o/x-led and not filtering decisions and voices through white leadership. We create our own perspectives, rules, words, and style to create community access to knowledge and resources to achieve justice and engage with the environment. We talk about how we feel, what we see, and we really treat all of our members as the leaders and decision makers that they are.
What excites you most about the work you are doing?
Lisa: Everyone else’s excitement. All of the volunteers who spend so much time and effort to move things forward instills excitement within me. Our volunteers are our leaders and the people doing the work.
How can Columbia Riverkeeper members support Comunidades?
Ubaldo: You can dream with us as a community to protect our natural resources and advocate for social justice issues. We invite you to look eye-to-eye with us in doing the work by listening and learning.
Read the full newsletter: the formation of Comunidades; Snake River restoration opportunity; Yakama voices against Rye Development; and more!