“Our organizations need to reflect together on how to reach the people we’re not reaching”
– Dave Cortez ’06
Dave Cortez and Miguel Escoto are both leaders in the fight against climate change. Both grew up in El Paso and majored in Political Science at St. Edward’s. Cortez lived near a polluting copper smelter for part of his childhood and, after college, became a community organizer in a campaign to keep the smelter closed. He later moved back to Austin and has worked for the Sierra Club for more than a decade in efforts to center equity, justice and leadership development within the organization’s campaigns. In 2021, he became the director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, which serves Texas and includes more than 27,000 members.
Escoto returned to El Paso after graduation and cofounded the local chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led campaign to stop climate change and create green jobs that pay a living wage. He also is a field associate for Earthworks, which monitors emissions from oil and gas infrastructure facilities, and led a campaign to urge El Paso’s electric utility to increase the amount of energy it gets from renewables.
We sat down with Cortez and Escoto to find out what motivates them and what’s next for the movement.
SEU: Your work is about climate and the environment, but it also centers the voices of vulnerable people. Can you explain the “justice” dimension of climate activism?
Dave: Environmental justice is about fighting back against things that are imposed on a community that are counter to its values. A community of people has something that they didn’t ask for, like a smelter or a coal plant or a pipeline, and they are burdened with the consequences of that operation, like chronic illness and healthcare expenses. And those folks who suffer the disproportionate impact tend to be folks of color or working-class folks.
Miguel: Yes, it’s a crisis of power. It’s about communities not having autonomy over the air they breathe and the water they drink. As someone who grew up on both sides of the border, my earliest activism was on immigration justice — but I gradually connected immigration to climate justice because one of the things that most worries me about the climate crisis is the millions of people that will be displaced from their communities.
SEU: How is each of your organizations trying to change those power structures?
Miguel: It’s a two-part equation. You have to focus on the people who are in elected office as well as the general populace. If politicians don’t feel like their power is threatened through popular movements, they will not act. And you can have all the popular power in the world, but if there aren’t agents of change within government, you won’t be effective.
Dave: The environmental movement in Texas is completely saturated with policy experts and legal minds — whom we need — but the focus on those skill sets for decades has meant we haven’t invested enough in mobilizing ordinary people to advocate and testify to create pressure on those in power. Our organizations need to reflect together on how to reach the people we’re not reaching.
SEU: Can you talk about the values — not just the logistics — behind your work?
Miguel: Sunrise uses the moral authority we have as young people to call out people in power that are not thinking long term.
Dave: I always come back to the need to center the folks who are most harmed in any strategy. Our duty at the Sierra Club is to build coalitions of old-guard conservationists, who tend to be mostly white middle- and upper-class folks, aligned with and behind the frontline folks who are living and breathing the harm. Our duty is also to invest in education so that ordinary people understand how these decisions about the placement of a pipeline or power plant are made.
SEU: What is your personal contribution to this movement right now?
Miguel: Although I’m currently focusing more on activism than creative writing, every campaign that I’ve done necessitates creative writing and using rhetoric in a way that resonates effectively. That part of my training from St. Edward’s is still in everything I do.
Dave: I’m 38, and this movement is dominated by folks in their 60s and 70s or older. Other leaders call me young, but my job is to open the doors as quickly as possible to people like Miguel who are the next generation of leaders in this work.
By Robyn Ross
Illustration by Israel Vargas