Making the connection
Q: Can you start by sharing your name, title, where you work, where you’re located, and how long you’ve been in the energy industry?
I’m Cristina Garcia, and I live in Union City, New Jersey. I’m originally from Queens and lived in New York City pretty much my entire life. My parents immigrated from Colombia, so I’m a first-generation Latina, which is a huge part of my social identity. I started in sustainability in 2017 when I joined the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.
I wear two hats right now. I’m a Deputy Director at the Building Electrification Institute, which currently works with 12 cities across the country to accelerate their transition away from fossil fuels in buildings through equitable building electrification. We’re intentional about ensuring that programs and policies won’t overburden already overburdened communities and bringing community-based organizations to the table.
My other role is founder of Latinx in Sustainability. I founded the group in 2017 with the intention of connecting the few Latinx people in rooms to one another. We then pivoted to addressing systemic barriers that make it so that only a few of us exist in these spaces. We host a lot of panel discussions, webinars, and in-person events focused on unveiling what those barriers have been for folks. We have a mentorship program and a stipend program for continuing education. We also do a lot of storytelling about people’s trajectory into this field; for many, it was very windy. It’s about offering a platform to elevate our community and bring more people up with us.
Q: Can you share more about how you transitioned into energy with the Mayor’s office?
While I was at City College in Harlem, studying Environmental Engineering, I knew I wanted to work on climate change but didn’t know how my engineering degree fit in. My senior capstone project involved a group focused on greenhouse gas emissions from buildings in New York City. That project made me think I could use my engineering background and problem-solving skills to address building emissions in New York City. I thought I’d be designing HVAC units or working in maintenance; honestly, I didn’t really know what an environmental engineer did in sustainability. I was so unsure I thought I should do my master’s because, at the time, City College had just started offering a master’s program for environmental engineering. I figured the timing was right and grew this desire to very specifically be involved in solving New York City’s problems.
I graduated, applied everywhere, and could not get a job, so I worked in construction for two years. It wasn’t the climate change focus I wanted, so I reached out to my thesis mentor from graduate school, who is involved in the New York City energy efficiency world. I told him I knew what I wanted to do; I just could not get my foot in the door. I share that because I want to recognize that I only got my foot in the door because I knew someone. It took knowing someone for me to even get an interview. And not everyone knows somebody, right? The fact that this happens only excludes people of color and people from low-income backgrounds from entering the field. It needs to be addressed.
Part of it had to do with the fact I went to City College. I was competing against probably, NYU and Columbia graduates for interviews, and on paper, that may feel fair to decision-makers, but that only looks at part of the narrative. A lot of folks choose CUNY schools for socioeconomic reasons. The socioeconomic status you’re born into dictates what internships you get and your first job.
So I ended up getting interviews, and due to a lack of exposure and not really knowing what some of these jobs look like, I felt like the mayor’s office didn’t make sense for me because I’m an engineer by training and have no policy background. What could I do from the mayor’s office? At the time, I had also gotten an offer from an engineering firm, so I thought that was perfect and exactly what I should be doing. My thesis mentor was still in my life and coaching me a bit. My mentor was the one that told me to work at the mayor’s office even though I thought I didn’t belong there. That’s why with Latinx in Sustainability, we believe mentorship is critical. Just having someone that’s gone through this before, understands the ropes, and understands the landscape, is critical. That decision to listen to him completely changed my life.
The mayor’s office was an incredible opportunity; I was exposed to so many of the challenges and opportunities in New York City. It exposed me to workforce development, an absolute passion of mine I hope to continue working on forever. The mayor’s office cemented that I wanted to work with cities to have a real impact on residents and that I wanted to work on buildings.
Q: How have you navigated unfair treatment or injustice as a person of color in the energy space?
I want to recognize that I am a white-passing Latina and don’t face many of the injustices many other folks in the BIPOC community face. I haven’t lived that and can’t speak for those challenges. What I can speak to are the commonalities among first-gen Latinos I’ve learned about through storytelling opportunities, and these are some of the issues I’m trying to address through LiS. Many of us are lucky enough to come from supportive families, but that’s not the same as having knowledgeable families with experience with networking or interviewing for white-collar jobs. That is why we at LiS are intentional about trying to provide those supportive resources for young people. Resources can be exposure to professionals, and it can also be time. Many of us had to work part-time jobs while also commuting a few hours a day to school, which is time we didn’t have available to do other things that could have advanced our careers.
Q: What do you think industry leaders can do to better support BIPOC professionals?
Regarding hiring, I’d say casting a much wider net and looking at the complete picture of an individual. Don’t be dissuaded by college name, GPA, or a lack of internships (because many are non-paying). People are working to implement these things already, but the work gets significantly harder when it comes to an organization’s culture. Managers need to practice inclusion and be intentional about culture. Part of that means creating policies within an organization with the folks you’re trying to serve. There’s a difference between co-creating and just putting the onus on the first person of color that enters your work. There is an opportunity to co-create with people of color. It’s a learning journey, but iterate and co-create policies that work for those folks. There is no silver bullet; people need to work to figure out what’s best for their organization and people and understand nuanced needs.
Q: Do you have a message for BIPOC in the energy industry?
There’s a lot of value in coming together and storytelling. Let’s all be intentional about elevating each other through different platforms and offering opportunities to people who might not get them otherwise. Not only is it individually rewarding to be on a panel because maybe you can put that on your resume, but it also exposes younger people to people they may resonate with. Representation and storytelling are critical in these spaces in order to expose individuals to new perspectives and inspire action in allies and advocates alike. Climate change feels like the greatest crisis of our time, and we need all hands on deck. Low-income communities and communities of color are the least responsible for climate change yet continue to bear the brunt of its effects whilst simultaneously being shut out of critical decision-making spaces. We need to be intentional about making space for everyone and centering historically marginalized communities in crafting solutions as we move toward an equitable future.
And you don’t need to be Latinx to engage with Latinx in Sustainability. We are interested in collaborating and increasing awareness and exposure around careers. There are other groups out there, so seek groups that try to build community in a space where there hasn’t been.