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Centering Community in Environmental Advocacy: A Q&A with Environmental Policy Fellow Callia Téllez

Callia Téllez just finished their Environmental Policy Fellowship. Former Environmental Policy Fellow Callia TéllezHere are some final reflections and takeaways on their experience working in advocacy at the Ohio Environmental Council.

As the environmental policy fellow, what did your role look like during your time here?

The fellowship’s main goal was to introduce me to all sides of advocacy. While my role was rooted in our democracy and public lands work, the flexibility of my position allowed me to find ways to learn and contribute across OEC’s efforts. Highlights of my role were creating maps illustrating the connection between gerrymandering and environmental injustice that were used in Statehouse testimony and Ohio Supreme Court lawsuits. Getting to lead on public lands policy research and outreach for our National Recreation Area campaign and learning the “watchdog” role from [OEC’s Public Lands Director] Nathan Johnson definitely inspired my next steps. Engaging with regional and development staff allowed me to explore topics such as the ethics of community engagement and more just funding processes for nonprofits.

How did your work impact the work of others?
I was fortunate to chase my passions around the OEC. My role allowed me to put myself in any room and any conversation. The ability to bring my interest and expertise into many projects with a lot of flexibility was unique and I feel so grateful for this role.

What did you feel you brought to this work and why were those things important to you?
I recently gave a talk at OSU on how I used asset-based community development in our work to center advocacy on people’s lived experiences. With redistricting, [OEC’s Staff Attorney] Chris Tavenor and I led map-making workshops where Ohioans drew their community and crafted testimony on how gerrymandering affects them and the issues they care about, which often are environmental and public health related. My background and interest in community development was important to how we engaged with people on the ground. With our National Recreation Area campaign, it’s about making sure that not just advocates from Columbus are visiting southeast Ohio saying, “We think you should preserve 30,000 acres of forest!” but ensuring the campaign is co-led by entrepreneurs and advocates living in southeast Ohio who can bridge conservation goals with shared goals for a recreation economy fueled by decades of hard work by southeastern Ohioans. I also felt privileged to share my skills and passion for public speaking and become an OEC spokesperson. That’s allowed me to speak on many panels and be featured in events to elevate critical topics of environmental justice into all sorts of subjects and contexts.

What did you learn this past year?
I came into this fellowship not understanding my next steps. Do I pursue a law degree or tackle advocacy from the grassroots organization, litigation, or research sides? It’s a testament to the mentoring I’ve received that I feel ready to take my next steps and pursue a research-based MS/PhD in environmental sociology. In my undergrad research at OSU, I saw disconnects between the research that institutions produce and how those practices are observed on the ground. Having spent a year in nonprofit advocacy, I see opportunities to not only bridge research but deepen the focus of environmental advocacy on frontline community priorities. I’ve always wanted to return to research, but now I’m thinking, “How can I conduct it in a way that’s rooted in community?” I came into this feeling lost, but this fellowship helped me realize these issues are very connected and there are paths I can take using multiple areas and skills.

What was a challenge for you?
Facing the failures of the environmental movement historically and the failures prevalent to this day. The environmental movement has been very exclusionary of Black, Indigenous, and people of color voices. Those are the very communities that face disproportionate environmental harms and growing impacts of climate change. While we see growth in inclusion in this movement, change is sometimes slow and incremental.

What brought you joy in all of this work?
This is the classic OEC answer, but it’s the classic OEC answer because it’s so true, and that is the other staff at the OEC. I feel so fortunate to have been mentored and supported by so many incredible advocates. These are folks that I will keep in my circle for the rest of my career and I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve taught me.