In Drinking Water, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Water Pollution

Engaging Latino and Hispanic Communities: Best Practices for Water Groups

In the U.S., many communities of color face environmental racism. Disproportionate exposure to toxins and pollution occur in areas primarily inhabited by communities of color, including areas with large Latino or Hispanic populations. These communities often face multiple environmental injustices simultaneously, the impacts of which are compounded by high rates of poverty, unemployment, and disenfranchisement. Yet, recent surveys by Sierra Club and Green Latinos show that Latinos are environmentalists at heart. A majority (94%) of Latinos and Hispanics consider outdoor activities important to them, and strongly support clean air (76%) and clean water (79%) regulations. Climate change is a top concern of those Hispanics and Latinos surveyed (82%), and they have a strong commitment to conservation.

Over the last 12 months, with the support of the Wege Foundation, our work has connected us to communities and organizations serving the Hispanic and Latino populations of southwest Michigan, as well as with environmental groups—including West Michigan Environmental Action Council, the Grand Valley Metro Council, The Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, and American Rivers—dedicated to protecting and restoring waters in this same region. It is River Network’s goal to empower all individuals, communities, and organizations to build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive movement for our water.

During that time, we have observed first-hand the environmental challenges faced by communities in SW Michigan. We have witnessed water wells in Rockford, Michigan, contaminated by perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS). We have learned of elevated levels of PFAS in drinking water across Michigan. The community, with significant Hispanic and Latino populations, can no longer swim or fish safely in Plaster Creek, now the most polluted tributary of the Grand River. What’s more, the 49507 zip code has more incidents of lead in homes than any other zip code in the state Michigan. The zip code is home to predominantly African Americans, Hispanics, and Latinos. These are just a few regional examples that highlight opportunities for the environmental community diversify our organizations and efforts while effectively inviting and connecting Latino and Hispanic community members to the movement for clean, safe water.

As part of River Network’s commitment to this work, Francisco (Paco) Ollervides, River Network’s Great Lakes Leadership Development Manager, undertook training in network weaving and completed the Environmental Leadership Program as a national senior fellow. He attended civic discourse summits, and equity, diversity, and inclusion workshops, as well as Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) training. By building the foundation of the individual goals and finding commonality in the collective and community needs and priorities, River Network has begun to invest in work that elevates the voices of those who often are not involved in major decisions impacting their water, their communities, and their lives. Ollervides will build on the first portion of his trainings and work with fellow COFI graduates in Grand Rapids, plus their environmental allies, to reduce the cases of lead poisoning in homes and make water cleaner and safer to drink, swim in, and fish.

“This project has allowed me to merge essential components of my personal and professional life,” says Ollervides. Ollervides’ personal journey has taken him to many places. He grew up in Mexico City and was an exchange student in Washington State during high school, attended graduate school in Texas, and has worked in Washington D.C., New York State, and currently works and lives in Ohio. “My role is to facilitate and sustain some of these relationships (among Latinos and environmental groups) in a genuine, transparent, and reciprocal manner,” he says. “I am eager to increase access to vital information and community resources for my Hispanic peers, plus suggest opportunities for environmental activism in their own backyards.”

Overcoming Challenges: Best Practices for Engagement

To help water conservation groups begin to diversify the movement and to engage—or improve current engagement—with Latino and Hispanic communities, River Network interviewed three leaders who are building bridges between the environmental movement and Latino and Hispanic communities:

  • Javier Cervantes, Grand Rapids Public Schools. Cervantes was honored as an Emerging Hispanic Professional of 2018 by the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
  • Sergio Cira-Reyes, Director of Community EngagementUrban Core Collective. Cira-Reyes has done extensive work in the community of Grand Rapids to elevate the work of Latinos especially with young professionals. The Collective was created to dismantle racism and to facilitate equity and inclusion.
  • Erika Carolina Van Dyke, Communications Coordinator, Latino Community Coalition. Van Dyke produces and distributes a weekly postings of job opportunities, lectures, events, and relevant meetings for Latino Community Coalition.

We asked Cervantes, Cira-Reyes, Van Dyke, and ourselves: “What are the most effective ways to overcome the gap that currently exists between the Hispanic and Latino communities and the environmental movement?” Here is what they had to say about the challenges and the solutions.

Challenge: The Big Disconnect

“There is a disconnect between environmental movement and Hispanic communities,” acknowledges Cervantes. “Part of that is a lack of understanding of the language and terms [that environmental groups use]. But the Latino community is very interested.”


Be proactive. Learn what Latino and Hispanic community needs and priorities are. “Listen to the issues that are most prevalent to specific communities, share resources to build trust, and then seek alignment between environmental issues and the issues that communities are facing,” says Ollervides. This step-by-step approach, slowing down the process to listen and learn first “takes time,” he says, “but can yield much success.”

“Show up where Latinos and Hispanics are. Participate where we are,” says Van Dyke. “Show up at education and immigration meetings.” Hispanics and Latinos need to know that you care about them as whole people, she notes. “Do the work of relationship building and know the gate keepers,” she says.

“Have listening tour to understand Latinos’ experience with nature and land,” suggests Cira-Reyes. “Learn their relationship with the environment.” Just because a community is urban, does not mean they do not care for environment, he points out. “Some Latinos come from rural backgrounds had agricultural focus and a nostalgia for the countryside. We have a relationship to land, and we have traditional knowledge. Seek to understand that and connect with us.”

Make sure you’re meeting people where they are and where their needs are, suggests Cervantes. “Some people may have more knowledge than others,” he says. Be open to having conversations and be ready to educate people or a group by answering these questions: How does it affect you? Why is it important to you and to the community? How will it affect you in the future?

Challenge: The Language Gap

Even among Latinos, languages differ between countries of origin as well as between rural and urban migrants,” says Ollervides. Even knowing the proper language, using environmental jargon and unfamiliar terms can create a disconnect for Latino audiences. 


Hone and translate your message for your audience. Hire the appropriate translators for text as well as for in-person events. “Messaging should be designed by Latinos with their experience in mind and then translated into Spanish [or other languages]. Take into account differences in socioeconomic status,” says Cira-Reyes. Base your communications on a good understanding of that specific Latino community, he recommends. 

Challenge: Choosing the Right Channels for Outreach

There are so many options for outreach—from social media to neighborhood canvasing. Which channels are most effective for communities to understand the issues and the effects on their families and their community?


Take a multi-pronged approach to outreach, and broadcast through the channels that will reach your audience. “Social media is only one approach,” says Cervantes, “but not all families have access to internet or social media.” Cervantes gets the word out through Hispanic radio stations, which his audience listen to on the way to a job or at work. “Hispanic families often listen to several local stations,” he notes.

Also, do not overlook word of mouth, Cervantes advises. “Word of mouth is one of the most powerful ways to spread the word. Once you have ambassadors they will spread your message through churches and other organizations out there. They’ll make sure people are at your events.” He also recommends being out in the neighborhood, canvasing on the ground, and having people and translators available to answer specific questions. “Make it easy for the families to interpret what this means for them, in a way that they can understand,” he recommends.

When you have an event, be sure to make it worth the attendees’ while. “Serve food or provide child care. Do what you can to help, to remove barriers,” says Cervantes. “Make sure that interpreters/translators are there to interpret the information is being delivered.” 

Challenge: Establishing Contact & Building Trust

Trust is hard to gain and easy to lose from Hispanic and Latino communities in the U.S. These communities are quick to perceive inauthentic efforts or engagement.


“Partner – it’s vital!” says Cervantes. Don’t try to do something on your own, he advises. “Partner with not just environmental orgs but orgs doing great work in the community, who have a following. Go to the churches or schools that are key in the community. Invite neighbors from area to learn about the issue. Have the organizations and churches be your ambassadors. They can help get the word out.”

Ollervides agrees: “Consider engaging older generations, perhaps grandparents, that already have a strong connection with nature and have a lot of time due to retirement. Engage communities through churches with Latino leaders.”

“Establish trust or work with others that have a reputation,” says Cira-Reyes. “Focus on places and events where you can interact within the communities.” Search for groups that meet regularly connect with facilitators and do your homework on local events, he recommends. But also have direct one-on-one conversations. “Although this takes longer, it is effective at establishing rapport,” he notes. “Focus on the personal touch. Represent yourself as an individual, not an employee from an organization.”

Challenge: Finding Common Ground

The experiences of individuals in Hispanic and Latino communities do not match with those of the typical environmental advocate (usually not a minority or person of color). Concerns about resources for families, fear of immigration consequences, and discrimination are top of mind for Hispanic and Latino communities, ahead of environmental protection and water issues.


It’s important to allow different groups and people to share and exchange information, ideas, and innovation. “This builds consensus among groups representing different interests,” says Ollervides. “You want to have an inclusive structure and make processes more democratic in order to have broader political and economic relevance. By stimulating dialogue, we build a sense of community and growth that lead to development of local leaders.”

“Work smarter, not harder,” suggests Cervantes. “If other organizations have the people and the space and you have the resources, how can you connect to make something happen? Connect the dots, and then everyone wins.”

Bottom line, says Ollervides: “We need to figure out how they wish to learn and work together.” Be approachable, kind, and open, he says. “Face-to-face gatherings are the most effective way to connect and build trust,” he says, but try other informal interactions—workshops, coaching, or webinars. “Hispanics favor all sizes of gatherings. Our strong sense of family and community allows us to promote opportunities while making new friends and strengthen existing ties.”

Challenge: Staying Motivated

Building bridges takes time and dedication. It won’t happen overnight, and it can be frustrating when you come up against inevitable hurdles.


Cervantes recommends a compassionate and understanding approach. “Don’t take things too personally,” he says. “When we’re young, we take things to heart. But sometimes it’s just where people are and they’ve had different experiences and opportunities. Just because we’re all Latinos doesn’t mean we’ve gone through the same things. You learn in time. But that’s something that I would have loved to know sooner.”

“Coalition building is important,” reminds Cira-Reyes. “Do not try doing things alone. Have confidence in bringing people together. Do not wait for the approval from others or enough people to believe in your cause. Do not wait to take action,” he says.

“Things go wrong? Try it again!” Cervantes encourages. “You keep moving forward at the end of day because you have people looking to you for leadership.” Cervantes worked in afterschool programming for 6 years. “I knew the youth were watching every step I made, so I made sure that I was doing the best that I could. So when they’re older and they out in their communities, their neighborhoods, they know they can make a difference.”

We want to connect with you!

River Network’s mission is to connect all people, not just some, in order to protect and restore all rivers and waters, not just the wild and the pristine. Our work in southwest Michigan is founded in our belief that we need a movement that embraces all people, and that elevating more voices creates powerful movements, innovative ideas, and solutions that are more effective and just. Read Why Equity, Diversity and Inclusion are the Foundation of our Mission.

If your organization is interested in joining us in this work, we’d love to hear from you.  Join us at River Rally 2019, where we will hold a workshop to share our experience working in southwest Michigan and provide other opportunities to engage in discussions related to becoming a more inclusive network. In the meantime, if you are a majority-white organization and have made headway building bridges to members of your community that are Latino, Hispanic, or other people of color, we want to know what has worked for you. If you’d like to but are not sure where to begin, let’s begin the conversation – join us at River Rally or contact Paco Ollervides or Diana Toledo on our staff.

Please join River Network as a member so you can be the first to know when our newest “A Safe Drinking Water Guide” is available early next Spring 2019.

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  • Chadwick Sarne

    F*ckin’ awesome things here. I am very glad to see your article. Thanks a lot and i’m looking forward to contact you. Will you kindly drop me a mail?

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