By Victoria Ginzburg
Repeating patterns of yellow squares among a dark green forest becomes more visible as Pablo Alvarez, a mere 24 years old, zooms out on Google Maps over the entirety of Eugene. He is exposing the deforestation, the visible environmental impact one can see by simply opening up a map on a phone. The use of Google Maps to track mass environmental changes is a common practice for the young and impassioned Environmental Justice Organizer of the Eugene Springfield National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and organization Beyond Toxics.
Alvarez adopted this hobby when he was 14-years-old following his recent immigration to the United States from Guatemala City. “It started with homesickness,” says Alvarez. “I would use Google Maps to go back to Guatemala and say, that was my school, that is where I used to play with my friends, that is where I would hang out with my cousin, that is where I had my first kiss. It was a reminsent thing.” However, overtime Alvarez began to take note of more than just his childhood hangout spots; he began to notice the changing landscape and modernization of Guatemala city.
At the age of 21, Alvarez studied political science with the hopes of attending law school to solve civil and human rights issues. He decided to take a break from his time at the University of Oregon to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Cape Town, South Africa. He thought this trip would provide insight into what his envisioned future could be like as a civil rights lawyer. He spent his time helping to determine if people had a credible fear that would allow them to apply for asylum. Here he realized that many people did not qualify for asylum because they were not being persecuted for their race, religion, class or political alignment but rather because they were being affected by a life of insufficient environmental regulation. It was in that observation that Alvarez decided rather than devoting his time after college exclusively to civil rights, he would put his energy towards environmental justice, an issue he believes to be the root of the problem of the disenfranchisement of marginalized communities around the world. “I feel if I don’t advocate for my community, no one else will,” said Alvarez. “And by my community, I mean a socio-economically similar community, a racially composed similar community, the immigrant community– the most vulnerable being exploited from the moment they are born.”
Alvarez’s current work with the NAACP and Beyond Toxics is no simple undertaking. He describes it to be both physically and emotionally exhausting involving long commutes, door to door conversations with community members that often involve disheartening stories and on-going battles involving local policy change. “It’s an exhausting job 90% of the time, but that other 10% when you get that win, when you make a person feel heard in a place where they have never felt heard before, when I can go to an event and speak to someone in Spanish and actually make them feel understood and seen,” said Alvarez. “That’s rewarding.”
“He has done a lot of work not just for our branch with the Environment and Climate Justice, but he is also willing and able to jump into any role that we need him to do,” says co-worker Isis Barone. “He always makes you feel heard and he always makes you feel like he cares about what you are saying.”
Alvarez has plans to attend law school, but for now, he finds meaning in his job at the NAACP and Beyond Toxics. Despite the hard work brought his way, Alvarez will strive to advocate for and enhance the lives of those in Eugene and Springfield by interacting with community members, recognizing their struggles and working to change policy at the local level. He is hoping that by interacting with more people and helping to change the way they view their own environmental impact, he can also affect the way they vote. He believes that changing the way people are voting is ultimately necessary in order for him to fully serve the marginalized populations in need of his help.