My name is Paulina Casasola Mena, and I work as the Climate Justice Organizer at Clean Water Action in Massachusetts. I believe that one of nature’s most powerful examples of resilience is women; our kind hearts allow us to connect with nature and everyone around us, finding ways to give back and fight for justice in our world. I feel fortunate to be surrounded by many incredible women in my life, whom I’ve had the opportunity to learn from for many years. In recognition of Women’s History Month, Clean Water Action is thrilled to raise the voices of strong women in the environmental justice field who continue to encourage us to take action and better our communities.
Kaira Fuentes, a dear friend of mine, is an inspiring Boriqua woman who works as an environmental scientist and organizer in Syracuse, NY. However, Kaira’s heart and a lot of her work are based in Puerto Rico, her home. Her kindness and passion for change allowed her to see and understand the meaning of injustice from an early age. She is optimistic, empathetic, and made the brave choice of dedicating her life to community organizing and fighting for justice.
According to Fuentes, environmental justice represents equity and freedom for everyone; people should live without fear of natural disasters, poverty, inequality, and environmental hazards that harm their health and homes.
Kaira started a career in environmental science with hopes of making a change in the environment. When she graduated college, she realized that progress in the environmental field can be limited by government agencies and big corporations, which don’t always contemplate their actions’ long-term effects. Often, impact assessments and scientific research aren’t fully considered by policymakers and polluters, making it easier for stakeholders to ignore EJ communities’ needs in decision-making processes. Kaira believes that “an organized community is a powerful, empowered group of people with the ability to create tangible change. Also, collaborative community research on environmental and social justice allows people to enter into exploration dynamics that equip them with new knowledge to identify problems and solutions.”
Kaira’s Ph.D. research explored the role of community organizations in recovering from natural disasters in Puerto Rico. Her findings concluded that government institutions and bureaucracy continuously fail to respond immediately to natural disasters. “It is a situation that has been observed over and over in situations like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Communities are the first line of defense against natural disasters, and an organized community is capable of achieving a social transformation that promotes resistance and climate adaptation practices,” mentioned Fuentes. “The government is responsible for prioritizing the safety of EJ and BIPOC folks, but unfortunately, most of the time, elected officials only respond to organized communities’ strong demand, so community organization, empowerment, education are pivotal,” she added.
Kaira advises young BIPOC women who want to pursue a career in the environmental field to take a deep breath and analyze the situations and struggles they are passionate about to find the best strategy. “I would advise you to surround yourself with people with similar interests, and if possible, to identify a mentor who understands the challenges faced by women of color and who will accompany you in analyzing the actions to be taken,” she mentioned. According to Fuentes, collaborating with grassroots organizations is a critical and necessary action. It will provide young advocates with the experiences and organizational capacity to carry out their demands for justice. Kaira emphasized the need for BIPOC women in positions with decision-making power, from participating in community meetings to elected officials across the country who can act as changemakers for a better world.
Kaira’s inspiring story and dedicated advocacy have changed people’s lives in EJ communities; she is one of the millions of women worldwide who fight for environmental justice. Who are the women in your life that motivate you the most and give you hope? I encourage you to listen to their stories, learn from them, and continue uplifting each other every day.
Paulina and her mom, Alejandra.