By: Lilian Ongelungel

Ubaldo Hernández is no stranger to community organizing. As an active member of the Latino community in the Columbia Gorge and a Senior Organizer for Columbia Riverkeeper, he’s been instrumental in raising awareness on issues that impact Latino people on both sides of the river.

One thing Hernández realized is that Latino communities in White Salmon, Washington and surrounding areas face many challenges connected to environmental issues. The region is home to many agriculture workers and migrant families who are exposed to pesticides and other harmful toxins, an experience all too common for working-class people with few options for safer jobs and affordable housing.  

When he saw the need to address environmental justice alongside racial equity, he founded Comunidades in 2018. 

Environmental Justice Is Social Justice

Comunidades is deeply committed to amplifying voices for environmental and social justice.   

For Hernández, the goal is to engage and empower historically underrepresented populations in the Columbia Gorge, such as the Latinx community, because their lived experiences demonstrate the connections between racial equity and sustainability.  

He sees a clear path to his vision: give the training, provide the tools and open the space for civic engagement. The media projects launched by Comunidades do exactly that. 

Voces del Noroeste is a community journalism project by Comunidades that offers political, social, and cultural analysis for the Columbia Gorge community, the nation and beyond. With regularly scheduled Spanish-language livestreams on Facebook, the series has a steady and growing audience that tunes into the program’s breakdown of social justice issues and guest commentaries.  

While Hernández facilitates many live discussions, Voces del Noroeste is a platform for leadership development and education. Past episodes have included live reporting from direct actions, a talk show on women’s issues, COVID-19 vaccination testimonies, information for laborers’ rights and more. 

Leading, Learning and Building Momentum

Comunidades has already made their presence known in the Columbia Gorge through their community-led journalism projects and testimonies at city council meetings in the area.  

The group has made important strides in policy change as participants grow as leaders. In 2020, the group led a successful effort to preserve affordable housing by encouraging the White Salmon City Council to change zoning codes in the city. The effort also resulted in holding property owners accountable for paying relocation costs for displaced residents. Most recently, Comunidades and other environmental groups urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to have Bradford Island — once a bountiful fishing area but later used as a dump site by the US Army Corps of Engineers — listed as a Superfund site to allow the EPA to clean the highly contaminated area.  

Still, Hernández imagines a world with an even more engagement. A topic of discussion that arises in Voces del Noroeste is that of Latinx representation at the policy level. Hernández hopes to see people from his community running for school board positions, serving on municipal councils, appointed to special offices, and making systemic changes to benefit all people in the region. 

A Path to Resilience and Growth

With the support from the Foundation’s recently launched Social Justice and Resiliency Fund, Hernández hopes to continue building out robust community-led journalism courses. Providing training for public speaking, conducting interviews, storytelling and other communication skills creates avenues to civic engagement.  

Panelists from Voces del Noroeste shared that it isn’t enough to have one or two, or even ten years of positive changes that benefit the community. The objective is to have fifty to hundreds of years of mutual sustainability with clean jobs and natural environments that thrive. The work requires sustained support, but Comunidades is in it for the long haul.

The Social Justice and Resiliency Fund is one way to invest in this systemic change and help strengthen operations for nonprofits and coalitions like Comunidades. Anyone can make an online donation to this critical work, and eligible nonprofits are encouraged to submit grant inquiries through our simplified application form. 

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About The Author

Lilian Ongelungel

Lilian is a nonprofit communication professional living in Vancouver, Wash. who previously worked with the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington. In addition to connecting with and uplifting communities, they enjoy exploring the local art and food scenes, and cheering for the Portland Trail Blazers.