Cherry trees, corn, squash and beans grown in her grandparent’s backyard are not only reminders of Audrey Serene Alonso’s childhood, but the beginnings of her passion for the environment.
Alonso, 25, of Fresno, was raised by her parents and grandparents. Both of her grandparents were agricultural workers and taught her how to take care of the plants they harvested. They also showed her little tricks to save money and be environmentally friendly, like line-drying their laundry. By the age of five, Alonso recalls being in love with the earth and the environment.
“I feel like having that background and exposure to being resourceful and learning about ways to care for the environment was something that really fueled me in my life throughout school and led me to where I am now,” Alonso said.
Alonso is the digital organizer for Our Climate, an environmental justice organization empowering youth to fight for climate justice, and though her passion for environmental justice stems from childhood, her advocacy took root in grade school.
“I learned in elementary school about global warming and the ozone layer before we called it climate change,” Alonso said. “It was very interesting to grow up and see science grow at the same time. I remember taking economics and government in high school, and whenever I’d do projects, I’d relate to why we should grow more trees and how that could increase property value and also bring more tourism to places or new ways of income. I would always try to do stuff like that.”
And despite her fondness for the Central Valley, the surrounding spraying of insecticides and local pollution related to farming had a negative effect on Alonso and her grandparents’ health.
“I remember my grandparents both having to use asthma devices, a nebulizer,” Alonso said. “I never really understood why until I realized that it was because they suffered from breathing issues, which I now suffer from, from living in the Central Valley.”
In 2017, when she began as a freshman at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), Alonso initially decided to major in television and film because she had an interest in entertainment journalism. But after learning from a favorite professor more about environmental racism and discrimination against communities of color committed through environmental policy-making, she decided to change her field of study.
“I was finally able to put the puzzle pieces together. Once I learned about environmental racism, I felt like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this information was never made easily available to me.’ I just wanted to tell everybody to be aware of their environment,” Alonso said. “It persuaded me to learn how it not only affects my community where I grew up, but also communities here in LA and other states. I felt like environmental justice should be something that we know about and shouldn’t have to be understood from reading a really difficult article with scientific numbers, something that is super hard to understand, when it affects everybody.”
Alonso switched degrees to Social Justice Communication with a focus on environmental justice and graduated from CSULA in 2020.
In August 2020 and in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, she interned at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science because she said that, at the time, it prioritized aiding communities in LA most impacted by the virus. There, she helped increase online engagement and the use of attendees of Zoom meetings.
In November 2021, Alonso began working with Balance Now, a nonprofit that promotes diversity in leadership within various industries, including film, business and sports. She served as the engagement coordinator and helped increase the organization’s following on social media platforms and created content.
Today, at Our Climate, Alonso creates and implements various digital strategies to gain online engagement with youth who may be interested in advocating for environmental justice. Additionally, she helps make information easier to access, something she wishes had been done when she was a child.
“I make all of the science information easily understandable for people on social media and in emails,” Alonso said. “I just feel like making information accessible to everybody is something that I do first in my job.”
Struggling with allergies and asthma that force her to use two different inhalers, Alonso understands how badly environmental racism can affect Latinos living in areas surrounded by pollutants. She said that she believes that the more information that becomes accessible to Latino communities, the sooner others may learn the causes of their health issues.
“It sucks having to realize that a large population of Latinos are affected by bad air quality and are susceptible to asthma or allergy attacks and difficulty breathing because of the pollution that we’re exposed to,” she said. “It’s not just from us having bad health practices or something. I think that’s important for us to be knowledgeable about. It’s not, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ It’s what’s wrong with the environment around us.”
CALÓ NEWS sat down with Alonso to discuss the obstacles she has faced as a Latina in the field of environmental justice, the importance of accessible information and more.
Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
AUDREY SERENE ALONSO, 24, California, Digital Organizer for Our Climate, she/her, Latina
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO FELLOW LATINA ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCATES?
I think the obstacles I’ve experienced have been having to fight for my voice to be heard in spaces that are very elite or maybe have more experience than me. There have been times when people in classes or coalitions have made me feel like I can’t speak up or they question what I say. For example, how Covid-19 was going to make things worse because of racism. Some people are in areas that are more populated, so they were affected more. I was met with questions like, ‘How can Covid-19 be racist?’ Or others not really wanting to see my point of view. And then, later on, say ‘Oh, okay, I get what you mean now.’ I have to push that I know what I’m talking about. It’s both internal and external. There are definitely those moments where obstacles might be internal, but there are definitely those times where I feel my experience hasn’t been counted as credible and showing the environmental justice side of things has been difficult.
At the Fire Drill Fridays rally [in February of 2020], I had a sign that said ‘Environmental Justice,’ or something like that, and somebody asked, ‘What does that mean? How can the environment be unjust?’ or ‘How could it be racist towards different people?’ and I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh. I thought we were at a place where we all just want the environment to be better for everybody.’
There are those moments of people denying the fact that populations are affected differently, and bringing that information to light has been difficult. And I’ve experienced the disregard for the lived experience of people who are in an environment that is more polluted or affected by different pollutants. But, it’s nice to know that there are other people from different communities and different environments who are also advocating for it. And being able to see that there’s a growing community of Latinos that are involved in the environment has been very nice and welcoming. Even though I have experiences where I don’t feel the most comfortable or invited, there are those Latino spaces that have been created that I’m glad exist and am able to be a part of.
I would say, to fellow Latinas, don’t be afraid to express your passion or whatever you choose to advocate for. There are always aspects that could be added and everyone’s ideas are important to this fight against climate change because there are ideas that people say that you might’ve never even thought of. I think there’s always more space, especially because environmental injustice affects so many people. And even though Latinas might experience moments like I have, where I might not feel like people really get what I’m trying to say, there are groups of people that are out there who are advocating for similar things.
‘DIGITAL ORGANIZER’ ISN’T THE TYPICAL ROLE THAT COMES TO MIND WHEN YOU THINK OF ADVOCATING FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE. HOW HAVE YOU FOUND THAT YOU HAVE BEEN ABLE TO ADVOCATE IN THIS WAY AND WHY ARE DIGITAL ORGANIZERS SO IMPORTANT?
Being in this job has opened my eyes to the fact that digital organizing and communications are important to climate change. There are a lot of times when there’s information that is brought to us by scientists that is not really understandable to the general public, and having a background in being able to understand that and make it understandable and accessible to people is something that I find really important. Finding new ways to connect with people who might not be ‘all in’ for the climate justice movement, but are on social media and see things that are re-posted. What really excites me is being able to find ways to reach an audience – and not just an audience who’s looking on Google Scholar for specific articles about climate change
I also work with organizers who are in different states and are working with fellows that Our Climate has and seeing that they could use help with finding ways to showcase that they’re going to have an upcoming rally or a different event or ways to connect with their Congress or Senator.
Finding a way to make environmental justice more accessible and ‘cool’ so that it’s not just about being in college or being a scientific person to know about this is something I find really empowering. A lot of my friends, a lot of people I grew up with feel like, ‘Oh, that environmental issue is too much for me to even look at.’ I think being able to break it down, pull out the important things that we need to know about, and make them accessible to people is what I really find important about digital organizing.
WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO OUR CLIMATE?
What brought me to Our Climate was the fact that I really wanted to be more involved in the environmental movement. When I was in school, I finished my degree in Social Justice Communications. And there, I did a lot of my projects, like in high school and elementary school, also focused on the environment. It wasn’t a requirement, it was my passion I brought to my research. So once I was at Balance Now, I kind of expressed that that was something I was interested in and finally discovered Our Climate. It just felt like something I was really interested in, especially because they focus on empowering youth and being someone who was young and didn’t have the information about my own environment, like I said, until I went to college, that was something that really inspired me to want to work with them.
IN WHAT WAYS ARE LATINOS IMPACTED BY ENVIRONMENTAL INJUSTICE? WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?
I think that Latinos are impacted in many ways because of where we’re located throughout the United States. Here in California, a lot of us are affected by the drought and by pollution in LA. And even now in Florida and Cuba and Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, they’ve all experienced these horrible hurricanes that have happened. And those have just been made worse by the warming ocean temperatures. Environmental justice is seeing how the places where Latinos live don’t have the infrastructure that they need. People are still without power today. So, I think there’s a multitude of ways that we’re affected, but especially through the drought that we’re experiencing, the heat waves that we experience, and also the industries that we work in, a lot of those are affected by climate change as well. If you work in agriculture and the heat waves are happening, it’s making it worse.
What can be done to lessen injustices is creating a more green economy, allowing improvements to be made to our neighborhoods, and creating cleaner jobs that we can go into, which I know is already happening, such as people involved in solar panels and stuff like that. Advocating for our community and being a part of policies that will make a difference for us. Environmental injustices toward Latinos is a big problem. Caring about the environment and participating and voting for policies or advocating for policies that would benefit us could definitely help. I don’t feel like I have the answer on how to solve it, but if we all work together, the more ideas we have, the more solutions to make a better environment for us all.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST REWARDING PART OF YOUR ADVOCACY? THE MOST CHALLENGING?
Seeing people become aware of their environment has been rewarding, as well as not attributing things that are inflicting our environment onto ourselves or our character, but seeing that environmental injustices are also affecting our health. Just getting more people to see that this information is accessible to them. You don’t have to be a scientist to care, to know about climate change, or to do something about it. That’s really rewarding because I definitely feel like there have been times, before I learned what I’ve learned about the environment, even from people who are more scientific than me, when it was hard to feel that there was a space for myself. I think there’s a space for everyone and just knowing that that kind of information can be made accessible to all of us.
The most challenging, at the same time, has just been finding ways to engage with people on social media because you definitely have to combat the algorithm or there are other things that are more popular or trending.
WHAT DRIVES YOU TO CONTINUE YOUR ADVOCACY FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE?
The hope that something can be done about environmental injustice and that the more people are aware of the environment as a whole, hopefully, they will be motivated to take action. And my own experience and my family’s is definitely a reason that I continue this work.
There’s so much power in Latino stories and how we’ve been affected by environmental racism, so I think that giving people the space to use their stories to advocate and to motivate other people to express that it’s real is something that really motivates me. It’s important to share real stories. If some people aren’t going to believe science, then let’s bring in the real stories of people who are affected by it. Because I think that’s something that we’ve seen throughout, that people who are affected by it are still resilient and able to share stories and make an effort to make a change.