I have the great joy of presenting the reflections of the most outstanding environmental leader I know, Rocío Olivera Toro. I met Rocío in Oaxaca de Juarez, Mexico, during Bard CEP’s course there in January 2020. As one of the few Spanish speakers in our class, I was encouraged to chat with her over our dinners, and I am glad I stepped out of my shy shell so I could meet an incredible mentor, role model and friend.
Although my Spanish isn’t perfect, I could immediately tell that we share a similar spirit and ideology rooted in justice, love, and protection for the human and natural world. Rocío currently manages projects for a civil association, Comisión de Cuenca de los Rios Atoyac y Salado or the Atoyac and Salado Watershed Commission. She’s also launched her own brand of mezcal!
The following interview features seven questions I asked Rocío. I’ve translated my questions and her responses into English for this platform.
What experiences influenced you to work with environmental issues?
My job training began with environmental education and science literacy, and I later began to approach environmental issues by analyzing their interdisciplinary nature. My interest grew when I saw how linked environmental issues are: they’re an axis that crosses economic, social, and cultural aspects.
The human impacts of environmental issues are crucial to recognize—environmental issues all have a face, meaning that they affect people’s livelihoods, their health, and their cultural bond to nature.
Beyond these human dimensions, though, there is a non-human world that has an intrinsic right to be protected and restored and that requires someone giving a voice to nature.
Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine a future free from environmental injustice. With every victory, there is yet another problem to tackle. What do you recommend for activists who have trouble producing satisfying and visible outcomes?
Because environmental issues involve so many complex actors and interests, to achieve environmental justice in a variety of realms such as water, sanitation or others, it’s important to develop awareness-raising processes in society.
Social and environmental justice can be achieved through steps such as social participation and public influence in the design of public policies, ensuring that laws and norms guarantee the protection of the environment, equity, the fight against poverty, the rights of women, indigenous communities and the vulnerable population.
We need a new paradigm: institutions and political parties have lost all credibility and are completely dissociated from the interests and needs of the vast majority of people in the world.
Rocío also addressed a big question of mine—how can we not feel powerless while tackling a monumental challenge?:
Each battle won must be celebrated as a triumph but without losing sight of the fact that we must prepare for the next challenge, taking up the lessons learned from the successes and errors, and continuing with courage, hope and fearlessness.
I think this is advice that can be applied in a wide range of contexts. For these entangled problems I’m taking inspiration from Rocío’s attitude.
This fall, I realized that in my career I want to be careful to avoid having a hero complex as sometimes happens with people in NGOs or related roles who work on equity. However, I think that if I don’t see tangible results of my work, it’ll be difficult to maintain ambition. How do you deal with this problem?
Organizations can find success with equal decision-making power and attention to dynamics of inequality and unnecessary bureaucracy.
In many civil society organizations there are professional egos and, in some cases, vested interests. When NGOs are disengaged from society, and from the communities they work with, they may begin to represent other interests; for example, those who give them financing, governments or companies.
So as not to lose the objectives and the raison d’être of an NGO, it’s necessary that:
- there be internal processes for democratic decision-making
- there’s no vertical power structure
- members have the same employment opportunities
- there’s true gender equity
- there’s respect for differences of thought
- and above all that there is a continuous process of reflection and self-criticism
All of this can help workers not get lost in their personal or institutional egos.
What’s the most satisfying part of your work for you personally?
Being able to learn from people and communities, exchange experiences, knowledge and being able to influence small changes that benefit the conservation of nature and the well-being of people.
In particular environmental education has allowed me to teach and learn from people. I also like participation in different governance spaces, since from there it is possible to promote and strengthen social participation in decision-making regarding environmental policy.
How do you create a motivated and creative team?
In any context, a motivated team is one that can express what it thinks, listens and respects differences, and values and takes into account the everybody’s drive. A team that’s aiming for success must also be built on humane relationships and a respect for the labor rights of all.
To maintain motivation, it’s crucial to strengthen equity and mutual aid, and there must be continuous training and shared learning in environment of humility and generosity towards other companions.
Each team achievement should be recognized both individually and collectively. To maintain enthusiasm, setting realistic goals that can be met helps prevent discouragement.
What approaches are most successful to generate consensus among stakeholders with a wide variety of opinions?
Consensus building is always a complicated process and strategies can vary depending on both the actors involved and the environmental conflict in question. A basis from which to start is the review of the applicable environmental legal framework in order to establish the responsibilities and the framework of action of each of those involved.
Another important aspect is to base the analysis on technical and scientific data; consider the vision, perspectives, and interests of each actor and/or sector involved in order to establish consensus that first benefits the environment and then each sector involved but always on the basis of the common good of society.
Analysis of the political context is also essential to identify allies and opponents and, based on this, design the strategies and tactics to follow.
What advice would you give to future leaders?
Here is the advice you have been waiting for, blooming environmentalists!
Have passion for what you do, have knowledge of the subject, have empathy with other actors, know how to communicate, build trust, be honest, leave the ego at the door, make alliances, listen and respect diverse opinions, fight for your ideals, be patient and persevering and do not lose hope that changes can be achieved as a collective. Perhaps the most important thing is to dream of a paradigm shift—great leaders always must dream.
Some advice I’d tack on: don’t be afraid to make conversation and gather life wisdom from people you admire and want to know. You might meet someone really cool like I did!
And pay attention in your language classes—you never know when you’ll need to use your skills to connect with someone from a different place but with the same ambitions.