A recent analysis by the Washington Post reveals the profound demographic change taking place across the U.S., as Latinx families and individuals move into rural suburbs and small towns that were once predominately white.
These places are far more likely to have public schools that mirror the new diversity of their communities, in contrast to the segregated school systems that remain in big cities. According to the study, the number of children attending U.S. public schools with students of other races has nearly doubled over the past 25 years—a surge that reflects the nation’s changing demographics.
Shifts Reflected in the American West
This transformation is ongoing in places like Western Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, a region that extends from Glenwood Springs to the resort towns of Aspen and Snowmass. 25 years ago, the valley’s school district was 12 percent Latinx. Since then, the region’s resort economy—and abundant service sector jobs—has continuously drawn Latinx families to the area. And today, this demographic makes up more than half of all kids in Roaring Fork public schools.
But, despite this fact, the communities themselves are failing to embody the diverse makeup within their own leadership. And as a result, Latinx residents continue to be underrepresented in key decision–making processes throughout all levels of government.
Small Town, Solid Voice
So, I sat down with local leader and environmental activist, Beatriz Oliva Soto, who has lived in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley for many years. Soto directs the Defiende Nuestra Tierra program for Wilderness Workshop—a local nonprofit that specializes in protecting the ecological integrity of the White River National Forest and nearby BLM lands through strategic research, education, legal advocacy, and grassroots organizing. She also undertakes workforce development, community outreach, and homeowner advisorship for the Community Office of Resource Efficiency (CORE).
Soto has lived in both the US and Mexico, allowing her to engage in a diverse range of community and architectural projects, while maintaining an environmental focus. Early in her career, she volunteered with Emerging Green Builders and the US Green Building Council, working with the Mexican Green Building Council as a mentor for college students interested in establishing a career in green building and LEED. But, as Soto states, “I felt like I needed to do more socially, as well.”
“As much as I love architecture, not everybody can afford an architect. Especially minorities and those in underrepresented and underserved communities. Sometimes they will get into housing if they’re lucky enough, but you have nothing guaranteed, and you’ll probably never really get a chance to design for a lot of these individuals and families.”
Community Leadership and Equity
Soto and I continue the conversation as we look at how America’s shifting demographics affect community decision-making, her mixed feelings about the environmental movement, and the future that she wants to see for her 8 year–old son.
Sierra Jeter: What is your vision when it comes to environmental issues and community planning for current and future generations?
Beatriz Oliva Soto: Well, I have an 8 year–old. And I guess my vision for the future is that my son “truly” has the same opportunity as any other person—to be whoever he wants to be. And that whatever he decides to do, even if it’s a mistake—that he gets treated equally, you know? That would be my hope and dream.
I love the Roaring Fork Valley. I’ve called it my home since 1998. And I would really like to see that we all have the same opportunities to be whatever we dream. And make sure that this community includes everybody. That’s what I would like to see.
So many people have been working at this for so many years—we already have a path forward. We are already following the footsteps of many great leaders. So, I think it’s just a matter [that we] keep working at it and realize things are changing. And [they] will change.
What was I hearing the other day? “We’re history in the making!” So, let’s make it better. Let’s make history. And hopefully in 50 years, 100 years, we’re still here as better human beings.
SJ: What initially attracted you to starting a career in green building and environmental sustainability?
BOS: My parents worked in drywall, and on weekends I would go to a job site where my parents were working—and they worked a lot—so I just became very familiar and comfortable in that world. And then, one day, I said, “Ok, I don’t want to be doing drywall, what’s the next step up? The architect. The one in charge. The one designing.”
So, early in my career, I was designing a home for a couple that was 9,000 square feet, but it had PV panels … and I’m like, this is a mansion for 2 people in the middle of nowhere—how is this sustainable? I mean, as much as you want to feed me this BS that this is sustainable … I couldn’t stand it. It’s totally greenwashing. I mean, 9 bathrooms for 2 people?
I was kind of disgusted with it at some point. And at that time, I just needed to do something different, and I was really fortunate to [then] have the opportunity to work with Wilderness Workshop. I’m doing community organizing with them, and it’s around public lands, and climate, so there’s still some overlap. With CORE, I’m spreading the knowledge to our Latino workforce through building science trainings so that we can all grow together for a more sustainable future.
SJ: What do you hope to achieve in your work with Wilderness Workshop and CORE?
BOS: So, with CORE, I do workforce development, teaching construction workers, including Spanish speakers about building science, so that not only the top people in construction know what’s going on in terms of codes and energy efficiency, but the guys on the ground that are actually doing the work know what they’re doing—and why they’re doing it. That way, these workers can be passionate about being a part of that process.
And after my first class, many of the workers began to talk confidently about these complicated design concepts, and using language that I just taught them—like, thermal bridging and all of this nerdy stuff—and they just start using it right away.
And that, for me, is power. It’s knowledge. And that really makes people feel better about themselves and the work that they are doing, and that it’s meaningful. So, I think having purpose and giving people that, “You have a purpose, and this is how you can make things better,” and, “You are a part of this bigger system.” And they get excited about it.
That’s why I work within the community in order to build more power, more of a voice, and a more organized Latinx community as a whole. So, when there’s decision making, our voices and experiences are being represented and everybody’s taken into account, because there are communities all over the country that are over 50 percent Latinx. So, if you’re not intentionally asking for that group to be included in community decision making, people are always just going to not do it.
SJ: And that’s a huge portion. And if they’re not included, how is any of the work that you do going to be equitable or sustainable for everybody?
BOS: It’s not—but that has to be on the checklist.
If Latinx represent such a large number of people in your community, you can’t just ignore it like it’s not there. To a certain degree, it’s the obligation of the people trying to move things forward to recognize this.
Some positions in leadership aren’t even aware of who’s building their community or who’s a part of their community. So, I think that it’s really important for people to have that intentional action—to know who is in my community and who needs to be at the table.
I have friends that are in their late-30’s and they [attended] the elementary schools here in the Roaring Fork Valley when there were only two or three Latino kids in the whole school. Now, some schools are 65%. And this happened in 30 years. This is such a quick shift that people haven’t even really realized yet.
For example, let’s say we’re going to work in Grand Junction, [Colorado]. Look at the demographics. That’s public information. And say, “Oh, Grand Junction is X% Latino.” And when you start working with them, just say, “Well, X% of your population is this, we need them at the table. Go and find your leaders!”
I think if it’s something as easy as showing the data—these are your demographics, these people need to be here, X% of this room needs to [represent] this, because that’s how this community is built. So, always asking for that, I think, can make a big difference.
SJ: With changing demographics in mind, how do you think this will affect the environmental movement going forward?
BOS: I think what a lot of environmental groups have started to realize is that demographics are changing. And what’s going to happen after only focusing on a certain demographic for two or three generations is that that group that was the majority—is not even the majority anymore.
And you left out this whole other demographic who already doesn’t even care about this movement because they were left out of the conversation. They didn’t have access. And all of a sudden everything that you had fought for was lost because you only focused on a certain demographic.
I have mixed feelings about the environmental movement. To be honest, as a Latina, it’s always been very white, and there’s always been this racist back-tone to it—that it’s about preserving land for certain privileged people, and the environment for certain privileged people, and when there’s population control and all these conversations, they often don’t apply to everybody—only certain demographics.
It’s well documented that minorities are disproportionally exposed to pollution, climate change, lack of clean air and water. And when environmental groups don’t pay attention to the big picture, they don’t realize what these communities are exposed to.
SJ: So, it’s not equitable?
BOS: No, it’s not. And the environmental movement has always kind of been like that, around public lands, land conservation and border environmental issues. I’m definitely hoping to talk about this, as I bring them up in conversation, when it’s possible and when it’s accurate. I know in minority groups, this is very much talked about and it’s very recognized. The environmental justice movement is the civil rights movement of our time.
So, at Wilderness Workshop, I run the Defiende Nuestra Tierra Program, which really is trying to reach out more to the Latinx community and bring that community into the public lands conversation. But, yeah, there are always mixed feelings.
And as much as I care about preserving land, what happens to demographics who are barely starting to create wealth? And, are barely starting to get a little more equitable?
By the time we kind of get to a level point, everything’s conserved and everything’s protected, and there [are] no possibilities for new people to thrive. So, I have mixed feelings about the environmental movement without a social equity lens, but I’m trying to bring that voice to the conversation.
SJ: It is typically minorities holding the torch on these issues, but what about the majority of Americans?
BOS: Yes, that’s true. But, if the majority of Americans don’t have the experience, and they don’t even have the education—or if they don’t feel it—how are they going to talk about it or take action?
That’s why I think it’s really important to bring minorities to the table, so the majority can understand there’s another side to the coin. There’s more depth to things. And how some of these policies are great [at protecting] one thing—they’re also affecting entire communities. So, if you’re not at the table, how does anybody even know what’s going on?
SJ: Do you think there’s a lot of potential for the future to be more inclusive when it comes to community planning?
BOS: Yes. A lot of people complain about our current political situation at a federal level, but then at the same time, I’m like, when has Congress been so diverse? When has the Senate been so diverse? When have you seen as many women at the table?
I know we’re still not where we’d ideally like to be, but we’re still at the most progressive, diverse point in American history. So, that is something to celebrate at a local and national level. Regardless of the fact that a lot of things still have to be done. We’re still at the best point in history, so yay for that!
“If you are sitting in a decision room and everyone looks like you and thinks like you, you will come up with a less-than-good answer. We need all voices at the table to make the best decisions.” –Michelle Obama