Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Major at Dartmouth: Environmental Studies with a minor in Studio Art
Current Job: Sustainability Fellow
Favorite thing to cook for dinner: Ceviche
Yolanda Huerta has been advocating for a better future for as long as she can remember. Growing up in what she called “somewhat extreme poverty” she moved between several environmentally toxic neighborhoods, experiencing adverse health effects like nose bleeds and migraines. Yolanda participated in her first ever protest when she was in 7th grade, calling for justice and accountability from a battery plant that had contaminated the air and soil with lead, which has been proven to cause birth defects and adverse effects on soil and water quality. Yolanda recalls vivid memories of chemical leak drills in her elementary school which occurred at the same frequency as fire or earthquake drills. When asked about her decision to attend the protest at such an early age Yolanda explains that she went “not because [she] knew [she] wanted to be an activist... but because real stuff was happening in my neighborhood and in my friend group and in my family.” But protesting was not the only way Yolanda put her sustainability ideas into action. Growing up, Yolanda remembers reusing containers, collecting recycling for money, and organizing swap meets and flea markets with her mom. These have become the foundation for her work in sustainability.
It was not until she came to Dartmouth that Yolanda realized what she and her community experienced was not normal and should not be happening. For Yolanda this realization was a switch flipping wherein she finally understood that the things happening to her community was not their fault, but were instead the effects of a larger system in place that harms the environment as well as low-income communities of color. She describes Dartmouth as a place for understanding where she was able to confront and heal from the trauma caused by the environments she grew up in. From this realization, she began to study more policy and institutional systems in order to fully grasp the scope of these issues.
After meeting Jenna Musco during Dimensions, Yolanda knew she was interested in joining the sustainability community here at Dartmouth. Jenna was a Dartmouth Sustainability Office staff member at the time and Yolanda describes that meeting as warm, inviting, and comfortable. She thinks that had she not met Jenna that day, she may not have ever joined the Sustainability Office’s programs. At that time, the Sustainability Office was a fairly homogenous and majority white space that did not look inviting to a queer BIPOC student from the outside looking in. Sustainability is often talked about in spaces that are dominated by white voices, something from which Dartmouth’s Sustainability Office was not exempt. In the office, Yolanda found people who cared about the same issues as her who were searching for the same words to describe the problems they saw in the world as she was. She describes the feeling of finding the Sustainability Office as a sense of relief at having finally found people who made her think “okay maybe I’m not crazy.”
Yolanda remembers thinking that “this space is really white but I think these people understand that and we are creating a space where we can build each other's confidence.” This confidence building helped her grow from someone who was very shy to a community organizer who is not afraid to lead rallies.
Yolanda and her peers began to build a vibrant community that brought in students from affinity groups all over campus. Offering volunteer slots for events like the Sustainable Moving Sale and holding open-to-all Ruckus feeds encouraged students who were not interns in the Sustainability Office to come in and feel a sense of community. Looking back on this time Yolanda notes that “regardless of [the events] put on, regardless of the impact on Dartmouth, I was most interested in the impact it had on me and the people I was meeting.” This drive to impact those around her has followed Yolanda through her transition from a student to a fellow in the Sustainability Office.
Now as a staff member in the office Yolanda hopes to continue to foster an interest in sustainability for people and show them that their projects truly matter. She has found that the efforts of BIPOC students have often gone under-recognized to the point where the student feels as though the work never even happened.
Mentoring young BIPOC students at an Ivy League institution is no small task. In her role as a mentor, she helps students by “Planting seeds of confidence. [Confidence] is really hard to build when you are in a really white and elitist space. When I am a mentor to somebody [I ask] are they leaving with more of a sense of what they bring to the table… do they feel like they are able to say something in a space that was not meant for them to say something.”
Outside of her work in the Dartmouth Sustainability Office, Yolanda is a community organizer in the Upper Valley. She helped found the Mutual Aid Fund for the Upper Valley which helps to provide need-based resources to unhoused and undocumented people. She hopes to continue this work and is also contemplating a career in law or public health.
Right now, Yolanda is reflecting on her work as a staff member and how she can use her position to help foster open conversations surrounding privilege, current events, and simply how people are feeling.
When asked about the future of the Dartmouth Sustainability Office, Yolanda hopes for a continuation of the changes the office has started in recent months.
“I would like the office to continue down this path of collectivism as opposed to individual leadership. We are starting to really understand what it means to share space and use that shared space to come up with something awesome and almost revolutionary in a weird way. The impact that happens within the student, within the different people involved, continues to have a multiplier effect.”