Spanish, bilingual course from WSU Extension creates climate ambassadors

An instructor standing next to a projection screen at the front of a classroom.
Cristina Ocaña Gallegos, WSU Extension lead educator of Promotores del Clima (climate ambassadors), presenting during the classroom portion, which takes place on the WSU Everett campus.

To reach thousands of northwestern Washington residents who do not speak English fluently but may want to protect the environment, Washington State University Extension is offering new educational programs in Spanish including the “Promotores del Clima” program — climate ambassadors.

“We’re taking this step to offer bilingual and Spanish programming to support underserved populations in Washington state,” said Patricia Townsend, associate professor based at Snohomish County Extension. “The learning and volunteer impacts are greater when we incorporate the voices of those we serve.”

Townsend is using funding from a National Science Foundation Advancing Informal STEM Learning grant to support the climate ambassadors program and other similar outreach. She has run additional bilingual programs since 2016, when she helped initiate the “Promotores de Energía” (energy ambassadors). The climate ambassadors programming stems from those earlier initiatives.

Though Townsend procures the grants, she recognizes that she would not be effective at delivering educational content for the course.

“I’ve learned that even if I spoke fluent Spanish, I’m not the right person to deliver this programming,” she said. “It’s important to have educators who grew up in the culture.”

Townsend instead leans on WSU Extension Lead Educator Cristina Ocaña Gallegos. A WSU alumna with a bachelor’s in plant biotechnology and master’s in crop science, she currently works at the Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center as a research technician in plant pathology.

Ocaña Gallegos meets with the climate ambassadors at the WSU Everett campus for three hours each Saturday, lecturing and facilitating guest speakers such as Biological Systems Engineering Department Chair Manuel Garcia-Pérez, who will present this month.

“We’ve learned from past surveys that many people feel powerless in the face of climate change,” Ocaña Gallegos said. “This course empowers participants to dive into the science, engage in teamwork, and reach out to their communities to make a difference.”

Through interactive and hands-on workshops, participants are trained to educate Latine or Hispanic families and communities how to care for the environment. One particularly memorable and experiential portion of the course includes layering an unlucky volunteer in six blankets, each representing the most common greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. At the end of the course, participants deliver and present a final project.

“One group of women educated on fast fashion – what it is and the impacts stemming from it,” said Ocaña Gallegos. “Someone else wrote a beautifully illustrated book for young children that raises awareness about the changing climate.”

Ocaña Gallegos and Townsend have found that the programming tends to appeal to all. One course included three generations of the same family, from the grandfather to the teens.

“We couldn’t have recruited this diverse body of participants without the support of our partners, particularly the Latino Educational Training Institute (LETI), who helped us to get the word out,” said Townsend.

The current group of climate ambassadors will relay their knowledge and partake in science-based environmental outreach with educational games like Climate Change Lotería, developed by the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center at University of Washington. They also host booths at summer events including the LETI Latino Expo, educating peers on the many effects and causes of modern-day climate change.

“People walk away with a deeper understanding of the science behind climate change, and they’re energized to spread the word and take steps to reduce their own impacts,” Ocaña Gallegos said. “It’s why we started the program, and it’s rewarding to see these results.”

Further information

Get involved with Promotores del Clima or learn more by reaching out to Associate Professor Patricia Townsend. Another program in Spanish, the Promotores del medio Ambiente (ambassadors of the environment), will resume in fall 2024.

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