The common stereotype of environmental activists would tell you that they're all either high-priced lawyers or trust fund hippies. That hasn't been true for decades, if it ever was at all. Our series This Is What Green Looks Like profiles Californian environmental activists from diverse communities and walks of life, bringing you stories of your neighbors campaigning to protect the planet.
With a Donald J. Trump presidency looming, few issues precipitate more anxiety than the state of the environment. 2016 is slated to be the hottest year on record, topping – you guessed it – 2015. Yet President-elect Trump has derided the idea of climate change on social media, claiming that global warming is “a hoax invented by the Chinese.” For many who want to see environmental action on climate change and other issues, the future can, understandably, feel bleak.
That is, until you speak to Allen Hernandez.
Hernandez, 36, works as a senior organizing manager at the Sierra Club, focusing on Southern California’s Inland Empire and the surrounding areas, including San Diego and Los Angeles. As a leader of the “My Generation” campaign, Hernandez manages a dizzying range of projects, including policy work, advocacy and conservation issues.
Among other projects, Hernandez and the Sierra Club (in collaboration with local partners) worked to protect the Mojave Desert from the controversial Soda Mountain solar project. He and his team recently secured a promise from the city of San Diego to commit to a 100 percent clean energy future, and from Los Angeles to up its renewables portfolio to over 50 percent. There are many more projects in the works; for Hernandez, Trump is little more than an afterthought.
“Much of the progress we’ve already accomplished [in California] cannot be undone,” he says. “Our strategy won’t change. We have an opportunity to lead here in California. We will set the agenda, not the Trump Administration. We have the sixth-largest economy in the world, and the most aggressive renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals in the nation.”
Hernandez is not alone in seeing California as a symbol of unapologetic progressivism. In fact, to many Californians, the states’ electoral left turn in 2016 felt like a rebuke to the xenophobic, anti-science, even bigoted tone of the national GOP leadership. For Hernandez, a native of Fontana, even the global challenges of climate change feel local.
“We work on pushing our local utility companies to press towards more clean energy,” he says. “On a county level, we have worked with our county supervisors in pushing for protection of desert lands in San Bernardino County and Riverside County. We also work on pushing our local air quality agency for tougher rules on polluting industries.
"On a state level, we’ve been very involved in pushing clean energy and clean air legislation. [In addition], we helped replace an incumbent who wasn’t supportive of clean air issues in her district. On a federal level, we work on pushing legislation to further advance good quality projects in the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.”
Preferring to be considered a “leader” as opposed to an “activist,” Hernandez keeps a clear eye on the long view, juggling policy work, community organizing and collaborating with local residents and business leaders. Yet even when the change comes incrementally or the issues get wonky, Hernandez views environmental leadership through a social justice lens, sensitive to the concerns of indigenous peoples and lower-income populations. He’s worked closely with the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), and on local Chicano and indigenous people’s issues with the Chicano Indigenous Community for Culturally Conscious Advocacy and Action (CHICCCAA).
I fell in love. I felt an urge to protect these spaces. That’s when the spark inside me was ignited.
Hernandez’ passion for environmental justice all started with a road trip.
While in college in his early 20s, Hernandez hit the road with his buddies, traveling across the United States for two months. It would turn out to be a transformative experience.
“We made our way to the Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands and Zion,” he says. That was my first exposure to the National Park Service. And I fell in love. I felt an urge to protect these spaces. That’s when the spark inside me was ignited.”
The spark hasn’t dimmed. One highlight of his work involves the Sierra Club’s “My Generation” campaign, an ambitious project that aims to make 100 percent of California’s electricity derive from clean energy by the year 2030. To achieve this, Hernandez works closely with business and is eager to dispel some of the conventional myths surrounding business and the environment.
“There’s a false narrative out there that the business community is against clean energy, energy efficiency, community choice, and all the benefits that come with clean energy,” he says. "The business community likes the idea of savings and reliability.”
The oil and gas industry is another story. According to Hernandez, one of the biggest challenges he faces is battling the entrenched interests of fossil fuels. "It’s the oil and gas companies [that] are the main opponents of clean energy.," he says. "They want us tied to outdated systems and infrastructure tied to fossil fuels."
Hernandez finds that businesses express an interest in a future powered by clean energy, and, in fact, have much to gain from that future. But in order to keep momentum going, he directs his team of organizers to use boots-on-the-ground outreach, fully cognizant of the fact that too many communities are impacted by environmental racism, in which communities of color are disproportionately vulnerable to toxic-waste dumps, polluting factories and other environmentally dangerous areas. In order to craft and make gains in the realm of public policy, Hernandez believes he and his team just need to simply listen.
[Policies] need to be both equitable and just for the most highly impacted communities, communities of color and low-income communities,” he says. "Our policy experts take a lot of direction from what they are hearing from the front lines. From the bottom up, we take this policy and push for it on the ground to our local decisionmakers through educational visits, agency hearings, marches, rallies, press conferences, in the media and social media."
These steps toward a more equitable environmental future for California’s communities are, in many ways, the heart and soul of what Hernandez is working for. To Allen Hernandez, setbacks just give him more reason to fight. He remains undaunted.
“Our strategy has always focused on the power of the people to create change and to fight for a better environment,” he says. “Now, more than ever, this is important.”