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Environmental Activist

Erica Fernandez: Toward a Safer, More Just World

20-year-old environmental activist takes multigenerational approach.

Erica Fernandez with Jane Goodall, Ph.D., DBE

Erica Fernandez with Jane Goodall, Ph.D., DBE — Courtesy of the Jane Goodall Institute

En español | She's four feet 11 inches and her little-girl voice tells you sweetly, yet somehow defiantly, that she won't stop fighting until there's justice in the world.

"I know I'm an idealist. My eventual goal is to prevent the rich from getting richer and the poor from getting poorer," says Erica Fernandez, not pausing for breath or for effect.

If that sounds impossibly naïve, it could be because she's 20, a junior at Stanford University, and she believes in magic.

"What else can I call it?" says the environmental and community activist who was honored last year by renowned primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall. Fernandez has also met President Obama, hobnobbed with environmental-minded movie actors such as Pierce Brosnan and received accolades and awards from organizations such as the Earth Island Institute's New Leaders Initiative, which gave her a much-coveted Brower Youth Award when she was only 16. A Gates Millennium Scholarship and assistance from Stanford cover her education expenses.

"Look where I started and where I am now. It's all kind of magical, isn't it?" says Fernandez.

Perhaps, but there's also her hard work and her ability to reach across generations to organize communities around issues that range from immigration reform and affordable housing to clean water and green spaces. Some of her friends and mentors, including Goodall, are old enough to be her grandparents.

"A key message of mine is that every individual makes a difference," wrote Goodall in an e-mail. "Erica certainly illustrates just what a difference one individual can make."

Gloria Roman, 56, met Fernandez about seven years ago. The then 12-year-old approached her during a beach clean-up day in Oxnard, a city 60 miles north of Los Angeles.

"It's her enthusiasm, her eagerness, how she throws herself into a project, that first appealed to me," says Roman. "It was clear she had no problem speaking to people much older than she," says the community activist.

That meeting proved fateful. Guided by Roman, Fernandez soon joined the work of local groups that for years had tried to stop the world's largest mining company, BHP Billiton, from building a liquefied natural gas terminal just off the Oxnard and Malibu coastlines. The plan called for running a 36-inch pipeline through a predominantly low-income Latino neighborhood. At minimum, the project would have led to the displacement of numerous families. A leak or any other accident would have put many more at risk, local activists say.

Fernandez campaigned door-to-door, spoke in schools against the project, participated in protests and took her impassioned arguments before various state commissions. In the end, BHP Billiton cancelled the project.
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