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Introducing the 2024 Environmental Justice Leaders

We are thrilled to introduce the third cohort of the Environmental Justice Leaders Program! For the 2024 cohort, six leaders across California were selected to participate in a knowledge exchange with UC Davis researchers. The Leaders are very committed and passionate about creating change in their communities and come with many years of doing the work on the ground! This year’s theme is mobility justice, focusing on matters of emerging transportation and energy and their intersection with racial equity. 

During May 2nd and May 3rd, the Leaders visited the UC Davis campus for the first in-person meeting. Leaders met each other and also had the opportunity to meet with their research partners. We learned what matters to them and how they hope to grow during this program, as well as what they intend to give the UC Davis research community. We look forward to continuing to build these relationships! 

The Environmental Justice Leaders program brings leaders working in environmental justice into dialogue and collaboration with the UC Davis research community. Fellows conduct research that benefits the community they serve, utilizing the expertise and resources at UC Davis. They are also participating in seminars, visiting classes, and speaking to the research community. The program is a collaboration between FRI, the Institute for Transportation Studies, and the Energy Efficiency Institute.

Shante Walker.jpg
Shante Walker

With a career dedicated to addressing environmental injustices, Shante has a deep-rooted connection to frontline communities, particularly in South Los Angeles. Growing up in these communities and experiencing firsthand the impacts of pollution and inadequate infrastructure, Shante has been actively involved in creating projects that support these communities. Her work involves understanding and addressing the unique challenges faced by frontline communities in adopting alternative and renewable fuels, advanced vehicle technologies, and sustainable practices.

Shante's work at The Niles Foundation promotes environmental justice through various initiatives, including:

  • Spearheading sustainable projects in Food and Agriculture, Clean Energy Technology, and Clean Mobility.
  • Collaborating with diverse stakeholders to develop equitable solutions addressing environmental challenges.
  • Advocating for policies that prioritize the well-being and environmental rights of frontline communities.

I am eager to collaborate with UC Davis Researchers to delve deeper into policies related to new and emerging transportation and energy technologies. She aims to explore key areas such as identifying barriers to adoption, understanding market potential for electric vehicles, investigating intelligent transportation systems, and sharing research results with institutions in California.

Collaborating with researchers at UC Davis presents a valuable opportunity in leveraging their expertise in identifying and addressing barriers to the adoption of new transportation technologies in frontline communities.

Natalie Espinoza
Natalie Espinoza

Natalie Espinoza leads community outreach and engagement initiatives for The Energy Coalition (TEC) and facilitates their Environmental Justice Advisory Committee. With over a decade of experience in energy-efficiency program education and engagement, Natalie is dedicated to advancing environmental justice and sustainability in underserved communities.

Natalie has recently focused on the EPIC Grant-funded Bassett Avocado Heights Advanced Energy Community project, serving an environmental justice community in the San Gabriel Valley of California. This project aims to create a resilient, sustainable energy future through innovative solutions and community-driven planning.

In addition, Natalie implements the Los Angeles County-administered Healthy Stores Refrigeration Program. This program addresses food deserts in Los Angeles County by providing free energy-efficient refrigerators with minimally processed, California-grown foods. This initiative helps small business owners save energy while empowering them to offer healthy food options.

Part of Natalie’s role at TEC is leading community engagement with Community-Based Organizations, fostering partnerships that drive impactful, localized solutions. As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, Natalie is passionate about giving back to the immigrant and underserved communities that helped raise her. Her commitment to environmental justice is intertwined with her dedication to supporting and uplifting these communities, ensuring equitable access to sustainable resources and opportunities.

Natalie holds a degree in Environmental Science and Policy from California State University, Long Beach, with minors in Geography and Anthropology. These studies shaped her understanding of how people move, think, and prosper. She applies this knowledge to her work, aiming to highlight the interconnectedness of people and their environments.

Maria Ruiz
Maria Ruiz

Maria graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication from California State University, Fresno. As an asthmatic, Maria knows first-hand the impact air pollution has on residents with and without asthma. Maria is committed to using her experience to prevent Valley residents from being left behind in California’s transition to driving electric, an effort to clean our air.

Maria is proud to work on the Climate Equity and Environmental Eustice team at the Central California Asthma Collaborative, a 501c(3) organization with offices throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Maria started off as a Program Assistant in 2021 and played a critical role in the development of the EV Equity Program—a free EV incentive application assistance and education program for residents in the SJV. She now leads the EV Equity Program as the Program Manager. 

Maria uses her background in communication to work with local and state agencies to assist San Joaquin Valley residents in their transition to clean vehicles through outreach and education. She also works alongside like-minded CBO partners who are members of the Clean Vehicle Empowerment Collaborative (CVEC) to educate communities on electric vehicles and incentives. Maria and her team prepare bilingual educational workshops and materials for residents of the San Joaquin Valley, ensuring knowledge on electric vehicle technology and EV incentives are accessible to the community. 

Xochitl Cortez
Xóchitl Cortez

Xóchitl is a passionate and visionary leader, serving as the founder and executive director of Frontline Catalysts, an organization committed to advancing environmental justice, social equity, and community empowerment. Raised in East Oakland and a cancer survivor, Xóchitl has firsthand experience with the severe environmental pollution that afflicts low-income communities of color. These communities often find themselves on the frontlines, neighboring toxic waste sites and grappling with contaminated resources.

Under her leadership, Frontline Catalysts champions young activists from these very communities, empowering them to lead the charge in sustainable development and transformative climate justice. The organization is driven by a belief that climate change is not solely an environmental issue but a profound social justice crisis that impacts all facets of life in vulnerable populations.

Frontline Catalysts integrates community-driven science and experiential learning, inviting students to participate actively in addressing local environmental challenges and advocating for necessary policy changes. This approach not only educates but also instills a sense of agency, enabling youth to become pivotal players in their communities. The organization's effectiveness stems from its deep connections to the communities it serves, ensuring authenticity and trust in its initiatives.

Xóchitl holds a BA in American Studies focusing on Public Health from the University of California at Berkeley and an MBA from the Lorry I. Lokey School of Business at Mills College. With her extensive community development and health advocacy background, she brings a unique and powerful perspective to the fight against environmental and social injustice.

Rio Oxas
Río Oxas

Río Oxas was born in Yaanga Village—aka Echo Park in Los Angeles. Río's mother is from Kuxkatan (Tonacatepeque, El Salvador) and their father from Tiquisate, Guatemala. They are Two-Spirit and their lineages are Nawat-Pipil, Mayan, and many others. Rio’s primary focus is remembering ancestral knowledge as a tool to address emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual imbalances - these imbalances often being dictated by inequalities and intentional design.  In the community, Rio and their family offer Danza on a weekly basis centered on Two-Spirit families but open to everyone. We also offer Bike rides and bike camping that are connected to health development and spiritual connection. 

Río Oxas in a professional context is a consultant, educator, national speaker, and real estate agent. They are a Co-Visionary and Principal of RAHOK, a family-owned business that illuminates the interdependence of Race, Ancestors, Health, Outdoors and Knowledge to cultivate loving Eco-Hoods. Visit Rahok.org 

Most recently, Río became a caretaker of a collectively held land in Tulare county which we call Xanich.  Xanich means nest in the Tule Yokut language. We are co-creating our nest for our children and generations to come. In the process of creating this livable space we also dream of offering knowledge shares such as ancestral foods, building sustainable adobe structures, caring for our native flora and fauna and much more. IG: Xanich7

Andres Ramirez
Andres Ramirez

Andres Ramirez serves as the Executive Director of People for Mobility Justice. He also serves on LA County Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Policy Advisory Council, the Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) advisory council, and the Interagency Equity Advisory Committee for CalTrans/Cal Sta/CTC. He has over 20 years of experience advocating for Equity in BIPOC communities through community organizing and policy advocacy. Andres has diverse policy expertise and a keen understanding of the strengths and needs of BIPOC communities. He has led multiple advocacy and organizing efforts assuring that land use, transportation, housing, and environmental policies are developed and implemented equitably. Some of the successful efforts he has led include: the LADOT Community Ambassador program (Vision Zero), Electro Bici (Pacoima e-bike library), and South Central Power Up (South LA e-bike library).


Mayra Barba Sanchez Headshot
Mayra Sánchez Barba

Mayra Sánchez Barba completed her PhD in Geography with a DE in Feminist Theory and Research Methods. Her scholarship has focused on the politics of knowledge in the making of toxic social and environmental disparities, and the ethics of everyday care work. This work draws from feminist theory, critical race theory, geographies of environmental justice, critical disability studies, and environmental humanities. Furthermore, her work employed principles of feminist and critical pedagogy and public scholarship. More recently, she is interested in learning how we collectively cope with loss, and is inspired by indigenous knowledge and ecological science that center our interconnectedness to seek ways of living that nourish our ecologies and cultivate more liveable worlds.

In her new role at the Feminist Research Institute, Mayra is committed to developing more just and transformative research and policy. To do this, she aims to work collaboratively with researchers and community members to center marginalized standpoints and unsettle dominant stories.

Megan Williams Headshot
Megan Williams

Megan Williams is a Graduate Student Researcher at the Feminist Research Institute. She is in her second year of the Community Development Graduate program at UC Davis. Megan currently works with Jonathan London’s Environmental Justice Lab. Her research interests include environmental justice, the built environment, and artistic expression as protest. 

Megan holds a B.S in Environmental Science and Policy with a minor in Spanish Language and Culture from the University of Maryland, College Park. Before moving to Davis, she worked as a constituent services liaison for a local government in Maryland, as president of a local youth political organization, and as an environmental/ climate justice advocate in Maryland.

Sarah Rebolloso
Sarah E. Rebolloso McCullough 

Sarah Rebolloso McCullough, PhD creates meaningful and respectful dialogue across boundaries that typically divide—between universities and communities, activists and researchers, scientists and humanists, workers and policymakers. An expert in research culture and a seasoned connector, McCullough’s work is focused on promoting equity-based solutions to social problems.

As associate director of the Feminist Research Institute, McCullough is dedicated to creating more equitable systems of knowledge production. She wants to see research culture change to be more humanizing and sustainable--for researchers, those we study with, and the environment. She seeks to create a world where we can bring our full selves to the workplace and produce more accurate and impactful knowledge because of it.

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