When her father’s two-week summer vacation would come around in the 1950s, Belinda Faustinos, her siblings, and parents took off on their annual camping trip. From Sequoia to Yosemite, the six-member family visited state and national parks and not only learned to appreciate the outdoors, but how to take care of it as well.
“[My father] has always had a real need to be sure that we were taking care of the parks,” Faustinos said. “I remember that we would get there and he’d say, ‘Okay, you guys have to pick up all the trash, the whole area,’ [and we’d say] ‘We didn’t make that mess! Why do we have to do that?’ ‘We have to be responsible and take care of the parks,’ he’d say.”
Although she was born in Boyle Heights, the family moved from Orange County to East Los Angeles and back as Faustinos attended grade school and high school.
At the peak of the civil rights movement in 1968, Faustino began at Pitzer College in Claremont, where she was met with a bit of a culture shock, meeting peers with different socioeconomic experiences. Not only was she one of the few Latinas in her school, but she was also balancing school and work, which wasn’t commonplace for her fellow classmates.
In her senior year, Faustinos began working as a rehabilitation counselor at the Chino State Prison for Men, where she helped connect inmates with job training and placement services for when they were released. After graduating from Pitzer in 1973 with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, and continuing to dabble in social work, Faustinos decided that she wanted a career that had more to show for it.
“Social services and rehabilitation counseling, in particular, is a critically important kind of work, but it’s really hard and you don’t get your rewards as quickly as you’d like,” Faustinos said. “So, moving on to something where you felt like you were getting more accomplished was what I was looking for. I worked for the Secretary of State’s office for a while, doing articles of incorporation, and I also considered going to law school, but that didn’t pan out.”
Faustinos continued advocating for both social and environmental justice when she was recruited in 1999 by Hilda Solis, a member of the LA County Board of Supervisors, to serve as the Executive Officer with the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, a California conservancy with a goal to preserve open spaces for recreation and educational uses. For 10 years, she aided in allocating funds to local governments and nonprofit organizations to buy land and build parks and recreation.
Additionally, Faustinos served as the Deputy Director for 17 years with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, meant to protect and preserve pieces of California to create a system open to the public, where she dealt with the acquisition of public lands and worked on ways to ensure the public could access them.
In May of 2011, after 40 years of working with the state, Faustinos switched gears and turned to a career in the nonprofit world. For 10 years, up until 2021, she served as the Executive Director for Nature for All, a nonprofit organization committed to ensuring that those in the LA area have equitable access to all things nature, but was once a coalition with the sole mission of designating the San Gabriel Mountains as a national monument. Said goal was finally met in 2014 when former President Barack Obama secured the California treasure as a monument.
Today, Faustinos remains environmentally driven as the Strategic Advisor for LA Water Keeper, a nonprofit organization that makes sure that the water quality in LA’s waterways is preserved. She also serves as the Environmental Programs Manager for the Fernandeño Tatavium Band of Mission Indians in the San Fernando Valley, “an independent nation, exercising its inherent sovereign authority over its tribal citizens and territory.”
CALÓ NEWS sat down with Faustinos to discuss the obstacles she has faced as a Latina advocating for the environment, the impact of environmental injustice on Latinos, and how injustices can be alleviated.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
AS A LATINA, HAVE YOU FACED ANY OBSTACLES IN SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE ADVOCACY? WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO LATINAS TODAY WHO MIGHT BE HESITANT TO ENTER THE FIELD?
BELINDA FAUSTINOS, 72, San Gabriel, Strategic Advisor with LA Water Keeper and Environmental Programs Manager with the Fernandeńo Tatavium Band of Mission Indians, She/Her, Latina
Well, I think early on, [as an employee of the state], it was about just getting recognition for policies that I was trying to advance within a very white male-dominated world, 23 years ago.
Being the only Latina was really tough sometimes, and, sometimes, I was the only woman. At that time, it was just very unusual to have someone of my background in those types of positions. It was challenging. I had to really overcome a lot of my own insecurities and fears.
I had a perspective that needed to be heard. Being able to be in a meeting room with 30 male engineers, how do you get across some of those barriers and understand that you’re not always going to be successful? It would have been much easier just to keep my head down, do my job, and get my paycheck. But I really felt that, if I wanted to feel good about myself, I had to push.
The good thing is that, not only, as a Latina, do I feel good that there are a lot more Latinos at every level of environmental issues, whether it’s about parks, air quality, or water–there are a lot more Latinos that are engaged in these issues. It’s just a question of how not to get comfortable and say, “Okay, we’re all here, so it’s all taken care of,” because it’s not. A lot of people that are in power, that are making decisions, are still very “white” in their approach [to environmental justice issues]. So, as a Latina, I think that we have to, in these settings, keep watching and pushing for social justice issues, because [change] is not going to happen without that.
FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE, IN WHAT WAYS ARE LATINOS IMPACTED BY ENVIRONMENTAL INJUSTICE? WHAT SHOULD BE DONE TO LESSEN THIS INJUSTICE AGAINST LATINOS?
Any research that’s been done on the impacts of the air quality and air quality issues, water supply issues, or extreme heat with climate change, the populations that get impacted the most are the populations that live in poverty, low-income, and people of color. And, in particular, in LA County, Latinos are the predominant ethnic group that is impacted by [environmental injustice].
There has to be a really dedicated, purposeful allocation of funding [by the state]. You could have great policies, but if you have no way of implementing the policies because you don’t have resources, you’re not really achieving your goals.
We also have to make sure that there is not only a focus on environmental policies we [already] have but what’s coming up and how to make sure that we have good policymakers, good elected officials that are going to support these [policies].
YOU MENTION TURNING TO THE NONPROFIT WORLD AFTER BEING AN EMPLOYEE FOR THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA. WHAT DREW YOU THERE, AND HOW DO THE TWO DIFFER?
I really enjoyed my time working for the state. When I was with the [Rivers and] Mountains Conservancy, I got to help shape the way the organization did its work so that the funding was going to the types of projects and needs most critical. It felt really good to be able to try to shape public policy in a way that was going to help address some of the disinvestment [in Los Angeles and Orange County] over the decades.
But [in working with the state], you have to have a public agency that would build parks and maintain and operate them. So, there was not a whole lot of opportunity for community-driven projects, which is what I really like about the nonprofit world. [Through nonprofit], we’re able to cultivate projects better and try to really get some of the nontraditional, [or nonprofit] organizations involved in what we’re doing for our projects, which has happened a lot in the last five years. East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, a community-based organization that prepares its community members to be directly involved in decisions regarding their own lives, through workshops, as an example, now have, as part of its justice work, access to parks and clean water.
That feels good that we’ve been able to do that. It’s a really different experience. And I guess what I treasure the most about being able to work in a nonprofit, and having had the experience working with the state, I can help educate the [nonprofit] world about how to get around some of the state restrictions because I know the system and the process so well that it’s really benefited the work I’ve done in the nonprofit world. To have that experience, to understand the state budgeting process, and to make sure that we have the kind of policies that we need so that, not only is the funding allocated, but we could actually spend it in the best possible way. That’s been a strong interest of mine, getting funding to where it needs to go.
YOU ARE CURRENTLY INVOLVED IN TWO ORGANIZATIONS, L.A. WATER KEEPER AND THE FERNANDEÑO TATAVIAM TRIBE, CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THEM, WHAT YOUR ROLES ARE, AND WHAT THEY DO TO ADVOCATE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE?
LA Water Keeper is part of the California Coastkeeper Alliance (CCA), another nonprofit organization, which is about making sure that water quality is preserved in our waterways. [CCA] is one of the more predominant [environmental justice] organizations because they not only fight for good policy, but if good policies aren’t implemented, they sue. They get things done by taking things to court and getting litigation underway to ensure that public agencies, in particular, are doing what they need to maintain clean water.
I got engaged with [LA Water Keeper] when I was working with Nature for All on the Our Water LA campaign, which was to try to establish more money for water equality projects. So, when I left Nature for All, there was still one more thing I really wanted to do, which was to look at this integrated approach to planning and investing in the community, which was something that the Executive Director [at LA Water Keeper] was also interested in. So, I came on board [as the Strategy Advisor] to focus on that and do the work of getting resources allocated to transit, water, parks, and housing, and making sure they leverage with each other.
That’s been the focus of my work there. And that’s half of my time. In the other half, I’m working with the Fernandeño Tatavium Tribe, [as the Environmental Programs Manager]. The tribe has several different arms. They are a government. They’re not federally recognized, but they definitely are state recognized and are still in the process of trying to get federal recognition, they have Tribal Senate and they have Tribal Elders. It’s a very, very robust organizational structure that they have. They also have a Land Conservancy, which is looking at opportunities to buy back the land, so that the tribes can operate and manage these lands for public purposes. They also have an Educational Arm, which does a lot of programming to ensure that tribal customs and tribal knowledge is shared with the tribe, but also with others that are going to be impacted by cultural resources. If there’s a [organization] going in, you have to make sure that they are very cognizant of the tribal history and the cultural history of that land.
[I’m] trying to develop a climate resiliency plan, and I’ve only been doing that now for a few months. It’s going to be a good template for how other tribes in the state can do resiliency plans, as well as to make sure that we’re addressing some of the significant climate impacts in terms of extreme heat, wildfire, and drought on [tribal] communities.
And [in terms of this climate resiliency] plan, it was actually something that they were awarded a grant for a year ago, and it’s a very specific project. We need to figure out what kind of engagement we need to do not only with the tribe, but with some of our external partners. And where do we have some extreme heat pockets? What are some of the challenges in terms of people being able to access cooling centers, places communities can go to cool off from the heat? Where can we maybe do more greening, or convert living environments into environmentally-friendlier versions, to reduce heat island (areas of land that experience higher temperatures than others) impacts? There’s a lot of work that will have to be done with that. It’s an eight-month process, and we’re just a few months in right now.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST REWARDING PART OF YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE ADVOCACY?
I think seeing the increase in [LA] community members that are now knowledgeable and being [environmental justice] advocates working directly with program administrators and their elected officials to get resources invested in their communities. [Environmental justice organizations] are so diverse and I’m really proud of the fact that many of the social justice and environmental justice organizations in LA have strong Latino leadership and participation. I think that we still need to do some work in terms of infiltrating the “traditional” groups, like Waterkeeper and Heal the Bay, an environmental nonprofit committed to making coastal waters and LA watersheds healthy and safe. They need to do a better job [of] looking at how they bring in and recruit [Angelenos] and cultivate a more diverse workforce.
WHAT DRIVES YOU TO CONTINUE ADVOCATING FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE?
Just trying to make [the environment] better, for sure. I want to see things improve and change so that my granddaughter doesn’t have to [fight for environmental justice] and that’s what it’s all about. Making sure that what we work for actually pays off and improves communities and natural resources, as well as having a better life that we can all rely on.
AS SOMEONE WHO HAS WORKED IN BOTH SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE FOR 40+ YEARS, WHAT ACTIONS CAN LATINOS THEMSELVES TAKE TO ADVOCATE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?
In our daily lives, there’s so much that [Latinos] can do right now. For example, our water shortage. What can we all do personally to help address those issues and make sure that, as we hear about opportunities for engagement, we take the time to pay attention and say, “This important environmental issue is coming up. I need to participate.” I also think that COVID-19 kind of exacerbated it more. We’ve, [as a society], become very isolated and in our own worlds. And I think being able to recognize that we’re part of a broader community and it’s important for all of us to contribute and to be active, but to the extent that we can. Obviously, we all have limitations on what we can do, but it’s about trying to be present and try to be meaningful and purposeful in the way that you engage in [environmental] issues to the best of your ability, in terms of the community and those that you could do in your personal life to make sure you’re taking better care of the environment.