A Mentor for Diversity in the Environmental Movement

Through his work with the RAY Clean Energy Diversity Fellows, Charlie Espedido is helping to change the face of the movement and create pathways for young environmental leaders of color.

Charlie Espedido, program coordinator of the Environmental Leadership Program

Credit: Charlie Espedido

Charlie Espedido keeps the inspiration for his environmental work close to his heart—or perhaps more precisely, his collarbone. Almost every day, he wears his lingling-o, a necklace that represents ancestry, pride, and land wealth among the Philippines’ Indigenous Ifugao people. The Ifugao province, where Espedido’s father’s family comes from, is home to the Ifugao Rice Terraces, a UNESCO World Heritage Site sometimes referred to as the “eighth wonder of the world.”

“There, land is part of your cultural identity,” says Espedido, who is based in Chicago. He has made it a personal goal to visit the region every two years—and eventually to build an environmental education center there. “My culture has really brought meaning to my life and the work that I am doing.”

Work for Espedido is at the Environmental Leadership Program (ELP), where he mentors and supports Roger Arliner Young (RAY) Clean Energy Diversity Fellows. The program aims to equip recent college graduates of color with experience, support, and the community needed to become leaders in the conservation and clean energy sectors.

As program coordinator, Espedido facilitates retreats, webinars, and other digital programs for RAY Fellows looking for career growth in the fields of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Beyond supporting fellows, he also works with the broader ELP team to address the lack of diversity in environmental organizations. That’s an inequity—first called out in a seminal letter by the Southwest Organizing Project sent to the “Big 10” environmental groups, including NRDC—that the movement has been increasingly working to address.

According to Espedido, a huge part of the work at ELP—interrupted by COVID—is in-person retreats, where the community of RAY Fellows discusses justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) within the organizations they have joined. They also address questions about diversity and inclusion in the actual work. “How are we framing our work to really change the narrative of an environmental movement that is predominantly white?” Espedido says. “It hasn’t been effective and equitable for everyone, so we discuss ways to make sure that our work doesn’t conform to systems of oppression and that we're really working toward liberation and equity for the environmental movement as a whole.”

Espedido (right) working with RAY Diversity Fellows
Credit: RAY Diversity Fellowship

Espedido’s interest in fighting for a more equitable world was first seeded in college. In between semesters at Loyola University Chicago, Espedido took a job at a foster youth summer program, where he led high school students of color—many of whom had grown up in communities with limited access to parks and green space—in an outdoor education program. Together they took a kayaking trip, toured the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, and identified plants and butterflies in the Monee Reservoir area. “Seeing them engage with the environment—and maybe they didn’t like it at that moment—and seeing that they were learning, that was all I could really ask for,” he says. “I reflect back to that experience realizing how important it is to have BIPOC environmentalists in the movement. Those most affected by environmental injustices should be the most listened to.”

After graduating in 2017 with a degree in environmental science, Espedido landed at NRDC, supporting Midwest environmental justice and safe drinking water efforts as an assistant in the Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program. He also became active in NRDC’s various diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) committees. “Charlie’s commitment and enthusiasm for environmental justice work stood out from the moment we interviewed him,” says NRDC senior attorney Meleah Geertsma, Midwest director for health equity and water. “As part of NRDC’s Environmental Justice team, he went far beyond the baseline expectations of his position to develop deep and lasting relationships with our frontline community partners, which in turn enhanced the work we all did together.”

The other members of NRDC’s DEI core group also took immediate notice of Espedido’s organizing skills. “Charlie talks the talk and walks the walk,” says Lauren Gonzalez, an NRDC media relations assistant, also based in Chicago. “His passion and commitment to DEI left a lasting mark on our committee and office.”

While at NRDC, Espedido began organizing with Chicago’s environmental justice groups fighting against the legacy of industrial pollution faced predominantly by the city’s low-income Black and Latino communities. He credits his motivation for joining that fight in part to the late Bryant Williams, a Chicago-based environmental justice and JEDI leader whom he met through one of his college classes.

To further this work, Espedido more recently joined the advisory board of Neighbors for Environmental Justice, a grassroots group dedicated to maintaining and improving the health and environment of the city’s Southwest Side, which includes the neighborhoods of McKinley Park, Brighton Park, Bridgeport, Back of the Yards, and Little Village. There, the city’s industrial corridors pass through dense residential areas, rendering the communities highly vulnerable to environmental threats. Their fight has continued during the pandemic; on July 2, Espedido and other activists stood with residents of McKinley Park to protest outside the home of the Tadin family, owners of an asphalt plant built in 2018 close to parks, schools, and homes—with no input from the community.

Espedido with family in the Ifugao Rice Terraces in the Philippines, 2017
Credit: Charlie Espedido

Espedido also advocates for environmental justice communities as part of the Environmentalists of Color network, which he joined at the urging of Williams, and the Chicago Asian Americans for Environmental Justice (CAAEJ), a volunteer-led organization focused on uplifting Chicago’s Asian immigrant community. With CAAEJ, Espedido worked on a campaign to raise awareness among residents of the city’s Chinatown neighborhood about testing their garden soil for elevated levels of lead. This was an urgent concern, as a large number of immigrant families grow their vegetables in backyard gardens. “Just connecting and engaging Asian Americans with environmental issues is important because our voices as Asian Americans are either co-opted, silenced, or disregarded, and it is often assumed that we don’t have a voice,” says Espedido.

Elevating those voices, and those of all people facing environmental racism—particularly those of individuals who are new to the movement—is a critical part of Espedido’s work at ELP. His commitment to hold space for young people of color is steadfast, his colleagues say. “Charlie is a great listener and is also ready to be vulnerable with people by sharing his story or perspective,” says Guilu Murphy, another program coordinator for the RAY Diversity Fellowship. “This makes it easy for him to build trust with his mentees because they can see his humility . . . and wisdom, too.”

Espedido considers himself “less of a mentor, more of a supporter,” reflecting the change he’s pushing the environmental movement to embrace. “Are we listening to communities we’re working with?” he asks. “And are they the ones who are actually driving the decisions at the table for their communities? There are people who are doing this work, but I think the norm that needs to take place is that we are really elevating and uplifting those most marginalized and listening to their concerns. We need to think about whose voice is centered in the work. That should be common practice, in my opinion. It’s not revolutionary; it’s just what needs to happen.”

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