From Small Town Girl to Big Green and Back Again

Photo taken during a team building exercise during SISL 2016.

By Esmeralda Hic, September 17, 2019. By every definition, I am a small town girl. I was born and raised in the Coachella Valley, a rural desert community located in southern California. I am the daughter of an immigrant father who came to the U.S. seeking a future free of violence as a civil war consumed his community in Guatemala. I am the daughter a migrant farm worker, my mother often says she took her first steps in the agriculture fields and had been helping my grandparents pick fruits and vegetables for as long as she could remember. My parents are resilient survivors and have raised me to embody this resiliency. My community is quiet, everyone knows each other and our struggles are shared. A mostly Latinx community, many people face fear and uncertainty given this current political climate filled with immigration injustice. Many of us struggle financially, we do not embody economic or political power. This reality has made my community vulnerable to social and environmental inequities. As our ecosystems, such as the Salton Sea, continue to deteriorate, our health and livelihoods bear the worst consequences. Worsening air quality and hotter summers continue to place a health and financial burden on my community–one I cannot and will not stand for.


This reality peaked my interest in social and environmental justice since my early teenage years. As I entered my first year at UC Irvine in 2016, I was worried about what awaited me here. Majoring in a heavily STEM-based subject area plagued me with worry that I wouldn’t be able to make the cut as a first-generation college student who didn’t even know where to buy her textbooks. I was very fortunate to be able to find wonderful mentors who helped guide me before classes even started. The summer before my first year I was accepted into the Student Institute for Sustainability Leadership (SISL), now known as the Student Leadership Institute for Climate Resilience (SLICR). At SISL I was introduced to the concepts of sustainability and environmental justice. I found myself deeply ignited by the content we covered, especially given that this was at a time where the fight at Standing Rock was growing and our political climate surrounding the presidential elections was uneasy.


Following that summer, I became involved in various environmental circles as well as social justice groups. I began making more and more connections to inequality, injustice, and environmental racism, many being based in my own lived experiences. The more I learned, the angrier I got, and the more I wanted to fight back. Throughout the following three years I would go on to be involved in various demonstrations and would continue to speak out on these interrelated injustices, often times being the only Brown woman in the room full of environmental scientists to do so. All of these paths in my journey led me to apply for the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program (DDCSP) at UC Santa Cruz. DDCSP is a program and network in the United States that targets underrepresented minorities early in their undergraduate careers and gets them involved in the environmental and conservation field which has historically excluded us. The goal of DDCSP is to make this field accessible to minorities by providing guidance, funding, and experience. Through the funding provided by DDCSP and with the help of my femtor Abby Reyes, I was able to secure an organizing internship with Friends of the Earth in Washington D.C. this past summer. 

Friends of the Earth U.S. office in Washington D.C.

Friends of the Earth (FOE) is one of the “Big Green” organizations in the United States. “Big Green” organizations are the environmental organizations that have been historically involved with the conservation movement and are most often thought of when discussing environmentalism. Some other examples of Big Green include the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Audubon Society, among others. What really drew me to FOE was their theory of change and the way in which they choose to navigate the environmental movement. FOE does not believe in advocating only for what is deemed politically feasible but rather they choose to work towards what we need as a society to heal the destruction that has been caused to our planet and pursue an equitable society.


My first day at FOE very much reminded me of that first day of college. My imposter syndrome made me question whether or not I really belonged there and if my experience in local organizing really gave me any substance to be at this big organization. I was very fortunate to join an amazing group of organizers and activists who immediately made me feel welcomed and seen. I learned about the relationship between national organizing and policy implementation. Liz Butler, Vice President of Organizing and Strategic Alliances, and Drew Hudson, Senior National Organizer, both welcomed me into the organization and helped guide me throughout the process. 


During my time at FOE, I made thousands of phone calls and text messages, and reached more people than I could have ever imagined. The organizing

A drawing by Movement Generation that describes some elements of  what I understand to be Friends of the Earth’s organizing theory of change.Source: Love with Power, Practicing Transformation for Social Justice. Movement Strategy Center (2016).

leadership at FOE trusted me with helping facilitate regional training calls in which people received training on various resistance tactics such as bird dogging and banner drops. I learned how to do letter drops on Capitol Hill and how to target key elected representatives when doing this type of work. Most of my work focused on fighting fossil fuel projects around the country. By fighting fossil fuel projects, our work aimed to amplify the voices of the community members who are on the ground fighting against the corporations who are putting their homes and loved ones at risk through various pipeline and fracking projects. A key lesson I learned this summer is the thought and care that has to go into organizing within Big Green and navigating the limitations placed nonprofits. I saw how the organizers at FOE recognized what is necessary for change and then worked to try and navigate how to produce this change within the nonprofit industrial complex and the limitations it can place on organizations working towards radical change within our society. Nevertheless, the passion, care, and love that I witnessed the organizers put into their work, continued to inspire me to do the same.


Thanks to the connections I made during my time in D.C. I was able to attend various meetings discussing the September 2019  Climate Strikes and actions in Washington D.C. It was essential for me to learn the mechanics on how big actions like these happen. Being in these organizing spaces and actively witnessing how these massive protests come together was very enlightening. Most of the time when big social and political movements happen, they seem to come out of nowhere, where a select few organize and all of a sudden a massive amount of people have been mobilized and are on the streets. To see the behind the scenes and the mechanics of how this happens was truly a gift. I was also able to join in on a national call with Representative Jayapal to discuss the Green New Deal and climate change which really helped put things into perspective for me and reinforced this idea that climate advocacy and policy must go hand in hand if we are to create the just systems that our society needs to overcome this crisis.

Photo taken on the last day of my internship with Friends of the Earth U.S. with Liz (left).

The greatest lesson I learned from this experience was a deeply personal one. I learned that my best organizing work is born out of love for human connection. I loved being able to grow my connections with people, from the initial recruitment call or text to them sending me an email update on how their action went to them actually joining me via video chat during our training calls. Being able to connect and mobilize people in this way meant the world to me. I saw the earlier versions of myself in many of them, interested in how to get involved, wanting to fight, but not knowing how to get involved. In many ways this felt almost like going full circle for me. Throughout my activist journey I have been lost and found many times by organizers who were willing to take me in and help me be a better advocate, and as I continue to learn and grow as an organizer, I am thankful to find and guide others along the way. 


Now as I return to California and prepare to finish my undergraduate career, I carry these lessons with me. As I prepare to engage in my local climate strike on September 20th, I bring with me the tools and experience that I gained at Friends of the Earth and I carry the perspective that came with living in D.C., a place full of political mobilization. As I continue my local work, I continue to work towards the future that my community needs, regardless of the limitations others try to place on us. I don’t know if I’ll return to Big Green or what the future holds for me in terms of organizing, but in this critical moment that we are in, where people all around the world are rising up in the fight against climate inaction, I am excited to see what the future holds for us and how far we’ll go.