This essay appears in the 20th Anniversary Solutions of the Year Magazine. Donate to Next City to get your copy.
The destruction of our climate can be simplified as an exertion of power. Corporations and polluters who benefit from destroying our climate currently hold all the power. They have a vision of the world that benefits them and because they have power, they can make it a reality. There’s no debate anymore over science — the only question now is whether the people fighting for climate justice can build more power than those who profit from our destruction. We will achieve this through organizing.
I’m a fronteriza from El Paso, Texas, where I organize with Amanecer People’s Project, a community advocacy and power-building organization that organizes to win clean air and clean water. I am part of Gen Z, and like many people from my generation, I was taught from a really young age about the climate crisis and how its solution rested in my hands if only I recycled. But as I grew older, I began to question whether my individual actions were enough. I looked at my community, with an oil refinery at the center of our city and hundreds of thousands of trucks from international commerce polluting the air we breathe, and felt hopeless against the system’s power. I recognized that small life changes I was told to make were not changing the intentional pollution of our community.
El Paso is a battleground for environmental justice for many reasons. Because we’re a border city, the EPA fails to hold polluters accountable and passes the blame for our terrible air quality to our sister city on the other side of the border, Ciudad Juárez. Additionally, El Paso is only four hours away from the Permian Basin, America’s highest-producing and the world’s worst-polluting oilfield. Our electric grid is owned by Chase Bank, the largest financier of the climate crisis. Solar or renewable energy only accounts for 5% of the company’s total portfolio despite El Paso being the 10th sunniest city in the world. The presence of the fossil fuel industry in El Paso is palpable. In the past, this often led me into hopelessness and cynicism, but through organizing I’ve been given the opportunity to be transformed into an active participant in building a world that works for us all.
(Photo courtesy Amanecer People’s Project)
We organized to have these dreams for the future codified through the drafting of the Climate Charter proposition, a first-of-its-kind community-led initiative that would transform our city government. We gathered nearly 40,000 signatures of supporters who also believe in a sustainable future for our city. The proposition would have established a department to reduce the city’s contribution to climate change, enacted democratic control over special interests and banned the sale of our water to fossil fuel projects.
Unsurprisingly, this caught the attention of the fossil fuel industry and lobbyists. They understood the power we were building threatened their profit and organized against the proposition. This opposition, consisting of some of the biggest polluters, mobilized nearly $2 million and spread lies and misinformation about the proposition. Though they defeated us by outspending us, we know we will win by continuing to build community power. We know that if we continue to organize, our victories may sometimes be delayed—but we will never be defeated.
The proposition’s failure to pass was a hard loss, but because we were organized we were able to transition the momentum from the election into a real structured power organization. In six months, we built out Amanecer People’s Project to have hundreds of dues-paying members with clear roles and demands for our community. Our members are driven to wrestle decision-making power away from the polluting elites and place it back in the community’s hands. We recognize the future we deserve relies on bringing more community members into the organization to craft and win campaigns that change the conditions in El Paso.
Through organizing, I’ve learned that the systems of inequality that once made me feel hopeless benefit from the inaction tied to that feeling. It is part of an intentional plan executed by powerful people who want us to remain isolated and unorganized. Oil executives, corporations and the 1% have successfully organized to create the world we live in, yet we can build the one we deserve.
There’s no secret formula to the future for the climate movement; it relies on every community building real structured organizations that are focused on building power and winning the future we deserve. Power organizations are the most efficient tool to turn the resources we have into the power we need to make the change we want. These organizations are essential to the movement’s success because otherwise, the status quo that benefits from exploitation will remain intact. That is my vision for the future, that every single community in this country and across the world, is organized enough to create a new world, one that prioritizes the health and well-being of our people and planet. Achieving this version of the world will not be accidental. We must fight for it.
Ana Fuentes is the executive director of Amanecer People’s Project, a power building organization in El Paso, Texas that fights for clean air, clean water, and community power. Fuentes’s work is grounded on her experience migrating as a young child from Mexico to El Paso—where she now organizes to change the conditions that put those most affected by the climate crisis at the center of decision-making. She holds a master’s degree in Latin American and Border Studies and served as the campaign manager for Proposition K—a first of its kind ballot initiative with ambitious standards for comprehensive climate policy. Fuentes believes that community organizing is essential to solving the climate crisis, allowing us to turn the resources we have into the power we need to build the world we deserve.