Erica Fernandez speaks out for the environment
Environmentalist Erica Fernandez talks to Scholastic Kid Reporter Maya Kandell about her life as a young activist. (Photo courtesy Erica Fernandez/Earth Island Institute)
Where does one of the most powerful young women in America live? In a dorm room complete with studious roommate, paper-strewn desk, and poster-covered walls.
Her name is Erica Fernandez and she is a freshman at Stanford University in California. She is also is a determined, compassionate and hard-working activist, as well as an inspirational speaker. In 2007, she won the Brower Youth award for brave young environmentalists. Recently, she headlined a public policy leadership conference at Harvard University.
“I was able to speak and show them [the students] that there were things that we could do as youth and work together with the government to improve things that are affecting us directly,” she told Scholastic News.
When she was 16, Fernandez rallied the people in her hometown of Oxnard, California, against a multinational company. The company planned to run a 36-inch liquefied natural gas pipeline through low-income neighborhoods. Fernandez spoke up and gave speeches to protest the idea. With the help of others, the company listened, and four years later, the pipeline idea was dead.
Although Fernandez has yet to decide her college major, she says it will likely be a combination of anthropology and ethics—with a focus on environmental justice.
“I want to focus on helping communities—minorities especially—and I also want to study international law,” she said.
Somehow, in her very busy life, Fernandez manages to integrate her passion for the environment into her studies and hobbies. She says it is very difficult because, “half of me is back in my community and half of me is here at Stanford trying to sort things out.”
Busy is an understatement when it comes to Fernandez. She is taking biology and calculus classes, speaking at conferences around the nation, and learning to play the piano, harp, and guitar. She also takes dance classes in salsa and Mariachi. And she helped plant a flower and vegetable garden in her dormitory courtyard.
When she met President Barack Obama on the campaign trail last year, they discussed how communities can work with elected leaders to protect the environment.
“I’m sure that even though he’s President, he cannot do it himself,” she said. “He needs the cooperation and collaboration of people like you and me and people who raise their voices to create change.”
Fernandez is a role model for young people who want to make a difference. Her role model, she says, is Cesar Chavez, a Mexican-American labor leader. Chavez was inspired by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead his United Farm Workers union in nonviolent protests against California grape growers.
Chavez once fasted for 36 days to protest the use of pesticides on farm products. Fernandez recites one of Chavez’s famous quotes: “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”
“Those words inspire me every day to keep going,” Fernandez says.
In her own way, Fernandez is following in Chavez’s footsteps, and she has words of advice for kids who might follow in hers: “Find your voice. Speak up. Because once you speak up, adults listen to you.”
Maya Kandell is a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps.