Community Energy Ambassador Story: Environmental Leadership with Carolina Ortiz

April 2024

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Since launching in 2018, COPAL (Comunidades Organizando El Poder Y La Acción Latina or Communities Organizing Latine Power and Action) has blossomed into a well-known, grassroots institution. Based in Minneapolis, the organization is dedicated to improving the lives of Latine Minnesotans across the state.

COPAL staff smilingEmbracing a holistic approach, COPAL tackles a myriad of community concerns, from fostering health and education to championing workers’ rights and environmental justice.

“We understand that our community has immediate needs. We ask how we can meet those needs," says Carolina Ortiz, COPAL’s associate executive director. “But we also ask, why? Why are we in that cycle of need? How can we change that reality?”

Ortiz emphasizes the pivotal role of environmental justice in COPAL’s mission. Supporting green jobs and clean energy are stand out points in their work, but COPAL’s efforts extend even further. By confronting climate change and challenging extractive business models, COPAL is working to address the root causes of internal and external forced migration. It’s a reality that Ortiz understands intimately. 

“My family was actually forced to migrate to Minnesota due to my health issues as a child,” she says. “I can now connect those issues back to being surrounded by big major polluters in Mexico.”

“At COPAL we’re trying to help uncover that full narrative of our community and bring it to light.”

- Carolina Ortiz

In 2022, the unveiling of the Inflation Reduction Act marked a historic investment in clean energy in the United States. The bill earmarked $110 billion in grant dollars to be distributed along with two dozen tax provisions aimed at rapidly increasing clean energy, clean vehicles, clean buildings, and clean manufacturing. With an abundance of community benefits on the way, COPAL immediately took action. The first order of business was for staff to learn how the new legislation could support their community. Ortiz says the complexity of navigating legal jargon was matched by the organization's strong commitment to learning.

“It involved being brutally honest with ourselves,” she recalls with a laugh. “...acknowledging what we did and did not know. Even for our staff it was a lot to understand.”

Looking to cut through the legalese, Ortiz and COPAL turned to community partners like the Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs). CERTs website is home to materials focused on dissecting the nitty-gritty of the legislation and breaking down how it is relevant to regular Minnesotans.

“CERTs was one of the first to offer resources in various languages. Which was incredibly helpful,” says Ortiz. “That’s how we started explaining it to folks, utilizing the tools on CERTs website and linking to the CERTs landing page from our website.”

Guide to the Inflation Reduction Act

Discover how tax credits and rebates can help you make clean energy upgrades. 

CERTs Co-Director Diana McKeown, says CERTs is proud to have lent support to COPAL’s incredible grassroots outreach.

“Since the beginning of our partnership, COPAL and CERTs have continued to find ways to collaborate and support each other,” says McKeown. “The work they’re doing to help Minnesota’s Latine communities take advantage of the Inflation Reduction Act is crucial.”

Ortiz emphasizes the significance of understanding community needs and values in outreach efforts, opting for engaging and inclusive events over formal discussions. 

“If we host an event labeled as an Inflation Reduction Act talk, people are not going to come. So we approach our messaging differently.” 

- Carolina Ortiz

Instead, COPAL hosts fun, family-friendly events, inviting the community to gather and learn about saving money or improving health. These events have been essential for sharing information about the Inflation Reduction Act and how it applies to the community.

“Topics like saving money on energy bills and health are interconnected with the Inflation Reduction Act, and more generally, environmental justice. Thousands of our community members have encountered the issues we’re talking about,” says Ortiz. “Just like me and my family.”

Carolina's journey home

Carolina Ortiz was teaching citizenship classes to Spanish-speaking immigrants in the Twin Cities when she was approached by a member of her community. It was 2017 and Francisco Segovia had a vision to help advance the same community of people who were attending Ortiz’s classes. 

“He said, ‘I want to build a Latino-led community organization that could build collective power, transform systems, and help create opportunities for a dignified life,’” recalls Ortiz. 

Eight years later, that vision is a reality. Today, Ortiz is helping to lead the organization alongside Segovia, as associate executive director of COPAL. In her role, she spearheads environmental advocacy, coalition management, and legislative initiatives. In addition to her full-time work, Ortiz is a University of Minnesota Crookston student earning her bachelor’s degree in communications and public policy.

“I grew up undocumented and graduated from Richfield High School. Once DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) became available, I applied immediately. That changed my life completely. It gave me the ability to work and finally be able to go to college.”

It was through her involvement with COPAL that Ortiz began to reexamine her personal journey through the lens of environmental justice. Born into a large, multi-generational family in Zacatecas, Mexico, Ortiz grappA young Latina girl smiles at the camera. She is wearing a maroon colored zip up track jacket and has her hair styled with two pink pony tails on top. Behind her is a blue backdrop. led with health issues and asthma from infancy.

“We believe my health issues are the result of pollutants from the open mining corporations that came into our town,” says Ortiz. “Seeing their daughter sick, my parents were pushed to migrate and seek solutions.”

Ortiz admits that this kind of reflection can be challenging. Especially when the truth so clearly conflicts with negative stereotypes about immigrants in America, and their reasons for migrating.

“That was their home,” says Ortiz. “If my parents didn't have to, why would they leave their home? My mom and dad never saw their parents again.”

Unpacking the past is a priority for Latine leadership at COPAL. By doing so, they’re able to help make sense of the community’s path to the present, and pave the way forward. 

“When people were forced to move, for example, because of a hurricane or natural disaster, they may not initially see themselves as climate migrants. They see themselves as just trying to survive and looking for a home where they can be okay,” says Ortiz. “At COPAL we’re trying to help uncover that full narrative of our community and bring it to light.”

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Looking to tomorrow

With over 45,000 community supporters throughout Minnesota, COPAL says the future is bright. The organization recently purchased the former Minneapolis O’Reilly Auto Parts on East Lake Street, with plans to transform the site into COPAL’s Latino Center for Community Engagement. In celebration of what’s to come, COPAL recently held a kick off event at the site. Local community and supporters came together to enjoy food, games, music, and more. COPAL says the event marks the start of a journey toward a vibrant hub of unity, celebration, and cultural exchange. 

A Latina woman in her early 30's smiles at the camera. Beside her sits a large colorful poster on a stand. The image depicts a virtual rendering of a urban building, the design for the new COPAL building.

Carolina Ortiz shares a rendering of the new Latino Center for Community Engagement.

Welcome to COPAL sign

COPAL welcomes the community to a celebration at their new location.

Three women stand together smiling in a selfie post.

CERTs Co-Director, Diana McKeown (left) joins the kick-off event.

“We're planning to have solar panels, storm water storage, and a greenhouse for growing food,” says Ortiz. “It’s our new home and our priority is to use this space to continue learning with our community members.”

For Ortiz, the building is a testament not only to the future, but also to the past. Her past and that of the community. 

“I'm excited for what's ahead of us and I'm really proud of everything that our community has been able to achieve together. We’ve come a long way. This building will serve as a vehicle for change, and I'm just so grateful to be a part of that.”

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