HomeNewsJosé Luis Villaseñor advocates for decolonizing the environmental justice movement

José Luis Villaseñor advocates for decolonizing the environmental justice movement

The Environmental Justice Storytelling Project is a series of stories that aims to spotlight the work of leaders in the environmental justice movement. The stories are based on interviews with Eden Lim, the former Environmental Justice Storytelling Lead at the Institute on the Environment, which can be read in full on the University of Minnesota’s Digital Conservancy.

José Luis Villaseñor is the founder of Tamales y Bicicletas, a Minneapolis based non-profit, dedicated to strengthening Latino and immigrant communities through learning about and organizing for environmental and food justice. José Luis works to raise awareness about the Indigenous cultural roots underlying many of today’s “green” efforts. Through this work, he helps people understand that sustainability has always been a major cornerstone of Indigenous ways of living.

What inspired you to get involved in the environmental justice movement?

When I was a sophomore in high school I got involved in anti-racist work. As students, we created an informational video for teachers on how to be less racist when developing their curriculum. All libraries had this and teachers were trained to use it. It reinforced a passion for being part of spaces that advocate for justice, whether racial justice, workers’ rights, or youth justice. All of this inspired me to work for environmental justice and to be a critical voice, not just in the way we talk about it, but in its intersections with racial justice and economic justice.

A significant part of my motivation also stems from my experiences with white supremacy or discrimination, and the personal experience of witnessing my parents navigating those difficult situations. I became driven to get involved, to push against discrimination and unacceptable conditions, and the best way I knew how as a high school kid was through environmental justice. It became more than just a field of work, it transformed into a value, a worldview, a commitment to future generations who I might never even meet.

My passion for environmental justice is really a culmination of multiple stories. These stories are recurring and continue to inspire and motivate me in the work I do.

What is the work you’re currently doing that holds the most meaning for you?

I find the concept of decolonizing environmental justice as profoundly meaningful. It’s a realization that jolts me awake in this work, that we need to decolonize the environmental justice movement, environmental justice policy, policy in general, and also the colonizer and the colonized. It shouldn’t just be about me or us, but about everyone else.

Everyone, including the colonizer, needs to be decolonized, reconnected to the places we are all Indigenous to. Balance, nature, gender, food, medicine – these elements are key. Just today, I had a conversation with an elder from my community about the concept of being two-spirited in our Indigenous past, which refers to people who embody both a masculine and feminine spirit. These individuals were not only necessary in our communities, but they were major cultural contributors, connecting us to multiple, spiritual and non-spiritual, physical worlds. So, we should remember these constants that help us on our path to decolonize both the colonized and the colonizer. Currently, this work translates into equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts in the professional world, which I see as a form of
decolonization.

Could you describe what you mean by “decolonizing the colonizers”?

It’s about creating a space of vulnerability and shared understanding. Many years ago, an elder once told me that people of my culture are the intermediaries between the white community and our Indigenous traditions. That stuck with me deeply.

I was in a recent meeting with two white colleagues where we discussed how white supremacy affects communities of color and also how it disconnects white people from their Indigenous histories. Sharing my journey of reconnecting to my Indigenous roots, and encouraging them to do the same with their backgrounds, creates a mutual understanding.

We also explore literature like “White Fragility” and “Decolonizing Methodologies,” which provide historical and methodological perspectives on decolonization. Additionally, we delve into narratives like “As Long As Grass Grows,” illuminating Indigenous resistance to environmental injustice.

In my day job, I’ve helped start a book club, and some of our senior leadership is reading and discussing these works right now. My approach is to use literature, personal experiences, and vulnerability to encourage these discussions.

While some may refer to this as intercultural capacity or equity and diversity work, for me, it’s about creating space for people to journey and reflect on their own understanding of these issues. These topics became popular after George Floyd’s murder, but to me, it’s always been an essential part of my work and perspective.

Could you explain how your roots have influenced your work in environmental justice?

I am Mexican, with my family hailing from the state of Michoacán. We have Indigenous connections to that land, which I am still learning and reclaiming from what my parents taught me, indirectly or directly. We are from the P’urhépecha Nation, one of the Indigenous groups that resisted the takeover of the Spanish because we were a community from Northern and Central Mexico that had some influence over other Indigenous groups. My parents were connected to the land, and my siblings and I were all born here in the United States. These experiences have shaped me to understand who I am in a country that didn’t necessarily want us here. I experienced this early on, and it motivated me to take part in these challenging conversations about anti-racist work.

As a child, I faced racism that shaped me, made me want to ensure other children didn’t experience the same. These experiences did not pull me down but inspired me to do more. This background propelled me into youth advocacy work, supporting refuge and healing for those involved in gang activities and for homeless youth. So, the intersection of justice for young people, the environment, the Mexican community, and the immigrant community was not new to me. These experiences have led me to the work I do now and allow me to talk about decolonizing the colonizer and the colonized. My cultural identity as a first-generation Mexican, being raised by immigrant parents here in the United States, has guided my path into this work.

Can you elaborate on how you decided to intersect environmental issues into your justice work?

For me, the intersection came from transportation and food. Many immigrant communities of color live near highways, which exposes them to high levels of pollution, despite having less access to transportation. We have fewer cars, licenses, and the affordability to drive or own a vehicle, but we live next to highways, breathing in heavy metal toxins.

In terms of food, a lot of the work in conventional farming is done by immigrants who have been exploited. Women have given birth to children with defects due to pesticides exposure. The Gulf of Mexico, for instance, is a dead zone because of chemically-based agriculture, which impacts the communities where we’re forced to live and work. My father was part of the Bracero Program, a cheap labor program between the United States and Mexico, making the food industry a personal part of my family history.

I remember growing up in Alaska, when an oil spill from a ship created environmental devastation but also jobs for immigrant parents for the clean up. That incident made me question our dependence on oil and its environmental impact. But I also noticed that it became an economic opportunity for some parents, stepping a bit out of poverty. This made me realize environmental justice and decolonization isn’t always clear. We want solar panels and electric vehicles, but we need to consider where we’re mining the materials needed for these technologies. The complexity of these issues shaped my understanding of environmental justice.

Can you share a project directly related to environmental justice that you have worked on?

I don’t exactly work on projects, but I often get invited to speak at departments like engineering at the University of Minnesota or high school science classes about environmental justice. In these settings, I emphasize that careers in STEM are not just about specific knowledge in engineering or biology, but also about intercultural capacity. Understanding experiences different from your own is crucial. I feel that the science field must build more intercultural capacity and become more anti-racist.

Environmental justice history has roots in ignoring the impacts on communities of color. It wasn’t until those communities spoke up that they were noticed. So, I strive to bring these perspectives into my work and promote authentic community engagement. Also, in my day job, I work to reduce environmental impacts without erasing past harms.

About 90% of the people I meet with don’t live where I do. The air quality in my area is among the worst in the state, and I am raising children and growing food in a community heavily impacted by environmental racism. I interject these experiences into spaces where most people don’t understand these environmental inequities.

Although it may not be a “project,” I continuously work to promote environmental justice and equity. I humanize the data. We have a lot of data, numbers, graphs, but I am there to help people understand how we are personally impacted. It’s my mission to bring human stories into these conversations.

You mentioned wanting to escape, particularly from the systemic injustice targeting minorities, which is understandably overwhelming. Could you share moments when you felt overwhelmed like that and any signs of hope or empowerment that you saw during those times?

It’s difficult to explain, but in those overwhelming moments, just knowing that there are other people in the room who are older than me, still pushing for change, gives me hope. I can be there, feeling exposed, vulnerable, and unsure, and in those moments I see young people, children, listening, and others a decade older than me. Experiencing that diverse mix across the generations reassures me that hope persists. There’s a continuum of activism from those who have walked this path before, to us, and then to the children who will follow. There are elders in environmental justice, like the one I listened to this morning from Berkeley, who have been doing this work since before I was born. During tough moments, when I question the journey, I remind myself that there have been many people before us, and plenty of children are with us, ready to carry on the work.

What kind of changes do you hope to see?

I hope that we recognize our commonalities more. We often discuss how we are different, but there’s so much similarity that we miss. Concepts like family, safety, and love are universal. When I talk to students or professionals in STEM fields, I ask, “How does that make you feel?” Feelings are universal, but we often overlook them in these fields. Being vulnerable can be challenging but important. I hope that in the future, people will filter their thoughts through their hearts, making space for feelings alongside science.

It’s encouraging to see young people becoming passionate about these issues, don’t you think?

Absolutely, it’s inspiring to see the youth fired up about these issues. Anger can be an amazing catalyst for change. One young person I mentor is very angry about the state of the world, and I tell her she has every right to be. What’s important, though, is that we channel this anger into action. We must not get lost in despair, as it’s easy to fall into that trap. What’s hard, yet crucial, is to stand up and do something about it. It doesn’t have to be something enormous. It could be as simple as speaking from the heart, expressing how you feel. Everyone contributes in their unique way, and it’s crucial that we honor and need everyone for who they are and how they show up.

To learn more about José Luis Villaseñor’s work, visit https://tamalesybicicletas.weebly.com/.

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