Parent Spotlight: Dave Cortez

If I was ever going to be a solid partner, father, and changemaker, it was clear I needed to confront everything I was holding and work towards balance.

Dave Cortez, Texas Sierra Club

Y’all, we’re so excited to share this profile of Texas Sierra Club Executive Director Dave Cortez! Below, Dave recalls his journey into climate organizing and how becoming a father led him to recalibrate. He also offers an easy, important action that we all can take to speak out for clean, reliable, affordable energy in Texas as our summers heat up.

P.S. If this spotlight leaves you craving more Dave (which it will!), give a listen to this in-depth podcast interview with John Fiege of Chrysalis Conversations.

You are an El Paso native. How have the people and place of West Texas shaped your outlook and commitments today? 

West Texas and the frontera are in my blood and in my bones. No matter where I am or where I travel, the people I meet hear about the power of the mountains, land, and people of those lands. It’s home. Home, whether good or less good, stays with us and fuels us in our lives as parents and changemakers. For me all the good of home is as important as all the bad. Fronteriza/os are generally, culturally, a caring people. My experience at home is where some of the friendliest people in the world are. The land there is majestic, storied, and ancient. A gateway from the lands of the south across the river into the north. I feel the power and spirit of my ancestors when I walk the arroyos into the urban mountainscapes, when I escape into the creosote-filled desert, and wander the banks of the Rio Grande.

You can imagine how hurt and angry I became when I learned my home was under attack and set to be poisoned, again, by a multinational copper smelting company called ASARCO. Moving back to El Paso after college I never expected to be an organizer, but that opportunity found me because an organizer found me and asked me to volunteer. Working alongside former plant workers, students, colonia residents from Mexico, people from other communities impacted by the company, and concerned parents was the honor of my life. El Paso taught me what a failed, autocratic state Texas is, and that there is so much potential power in an organized, motivated group of everyday Texans who want a better life for themselves and their families.

Organizing is fundamentally about creating space for people to see and step into their own power.

Dave Cortez

You’ve been organizing around environmental and climate justice for nearly two decades. Did becoming a father change your relationship with this work, and if so, in what ways?

As Billy Placker, a former union plant worker stated about ASARCO, “When you find out someone is hurting your family and community, as a father, as a grandfather, you got to step up and fight.” I carry in my heart the sounds of my crying 1 year old when the power went out for days in 2021, but am trying hard to remember that organizing is fundamentally about creating space for people to see and step into their own power. Sometimes you’re in the front with the bullhorn, other times you’re in the back taking notes, serving food, or dealing with the cops. I was fortunate that early on in my career I was thrust into a community-wide, intergenerational struggle for justice. I saw abuelas, kiddos, mamas and dads all working together in a shared struggle for clean air, land, water, and reconciliation. 

I organized for 12 years before becoming a dad. Fortunate to have a strong union in the Sierra Club, I was given 3 months parental leave and a lot of flexibility to make the transition from giving my energy away to people wanting to fight the climate crisis to giving it back to my partner and my daughter. That transition in 2018, paired with the pandemic in 2020 and the winter storms of 2021 and 2023, showed me how much more to life there was than spending nights, days, weekends in meetings and rallies. Most importantly, that time laid bare how much I’d failed to give attention and care to my own body, mind, and spirit. I was filled with hurt, rage, anger at systems that were repeatedly harming and failing my people. If I was ever going to be a solid partner, father, and changemaker, it was clear I needed to confront everything I was holding and work towards balance. I’m finding that today, and am the healthiest, most balanced I’ve been in my 6 years as a dad and partner. Long way to go, but it feels really good to be on the right path.

Dave and his mom at a march.
Dave and his mom at a César Chávez march. Courtesy of Dave Cortez.

Speaking with friends and neighbors, I hear a lot of cynicism and disillusionment around our state’s potential to move forward on climate action and social justice. Are there any recent wins, emerging movements, or culture shifts that are sustaining you?

Speaking up for our people, our families and a vision for a more equitable and just future is an amazing catharsis, and every time someone does that in this state, that is a victory. Especially if you’ve helped them find their voice. It is so much more powerful and impactful in the long game than hearing a politician share their talking points, and it is an example of the kinds of victories I work to cultivate in everything I do. Take the case of Colonia Hacienda West in the Rio Grande Valley for example. Mother of two, Agripina Gomez, organized alongside residents to find the strength to share their stories to local politicians and utility officials, and successfully won the fight to bring electricity to their homes after years of neglect and abuse by an intimidating developer.

I saw Molly Cook, nurse and community organizer out of Houston’s housing and highway justice movements win her campaign for the Texas Senate! I’m seeing residents of Joppa in Southeast Dallas grow their movement to repel heavy polluting industry, and a rapidly rising tide of coastal Texans in the Coastal Bend turn out hundreds of folx in opposition to destructive desalination and industrial projects in their community.

More needs to be done to truly center community and justice in our movements, particularly housing justice work in Central Texas. The Jemez principles for democratic (little d) organizing are a tremendous tool to help advocates do that, and I look forward to refiring engines to help more organizers and activists discuss, unpack, and learn what mutuality and solidarity looks like, as opposed to organizing to be close to power at the high cost of community division.

The work of caregiving and community organizing can lead to burnout. What do you do to replenish your energy?

Building a bit off my earlier response, learning to listen to our bodies is so important. Especially as we age. As I continue the pursuit to find a therapist to build a solid relationship with, I’ve zeroed in on the signals my body is giving me. The pain and tension of years of organizing. Daily yoga, pilates, and jumping around with our doggo or my daughter have been HUGE releases for me. The meditation of the time on my mat helps my mind release all I’ve accumulated, now to the point where I’m finding creative pathways through those types of exercise. 

Growing up I rarely had family dinner, and I know it may seem small, but keeping true to daily home cooked (okay some takeout nights) dinners is so difficult yet absolutely life giving. Even if there’s a meltdown, mess, or anything that goes with tired adults and a young human at the table, I get to see and hang with my family every evening. We get bath and bedtime routine. And while we’re exhausted as F when our respective shifts are done, I know my partner and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. In terms of organizing, that means way fewer meetings, community events, calls, one on ones, etc. But I’m okay with that. What I can participate in, I owe all gratitude to my amazing partner for taking on the load to free up capacity. It takes a village in the struggle, so I find ways to play my part where I can. Kiddo loves the environment and nature, and thinks the Sierra Club (despite our flaws) is super cool because you can have a job working for the environment. 

What is next with the Texas Sierra Club’s grid campaign? Why should this issue matter to ATX caregivers, and what are some easy ways that we can get involved?

Remember the Audre Lorde quote, summarized here in part: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives. Within each one of us there is some piece of humanness that knows we are not being served by the machine which orchestrates crisis after crisis and is grinding all our futures into dust. If we are to keep the enormity of the forces aligned against us from establishing a false hierarchy of oppression, we must school ourselves to recognize that any attack against Blacks, any attack against women, is an attack against all of us who recognize that our interests are not being served by the systems we support.”

The campaign and organizing we’re doing on the “grid” in Texas has needed a shift for some time, and I’m stoked to be part of the Texas Sierra Club team and growing numbers of partner organizations who want to more directly challenge fossil fuel power in our state. The powers that be – Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton, and their fossil fuel campaign funders – have repeatedly made clear since 2021’s winter storm that they were going to do everything in their power to protect fossil fuel corporations, blame and undermine clean energy, socialize the costs of these storms onto the backs of everyday Texans, and choose to ignore cost effective solutions to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis. These politicians are out of touch with everyday Texans and parents like us who want a liveable future for our families, and we believe the issues of losing electricity or keeping the lights on, rising energy costs, and the consolidation of fossil fuel political power provides us an opportunity to talk to thousands more Texans than if we just engaged from a climate-centered perspective. 

Everyone lost power. Everyone felt the hurt and anxiety of the winter storm. And we feel it again every time ERCOT sends out a grid notice, or bad weather is forecast. The heat dome is here and severe weather has led to disaster declarations in one third of Texas counties. 

Parents, caregivers, and anyone concerned about these issues does not have to take this stuff sitting down. Sierra Club launched our petition to Keep the Power On targeting Gov. Abbott as the first of many efforts to inform, listen, educate and learn from women, parents, caregivers and youth about life in the twin grid and climate crises. What is ERCOT? Why is Abbott appointing fossil fuel billionaires to run it? And how can you help shape the effort to connect these issues back to the folx we see at school pick up/drop off, soccer or dance practice, and the countless weekend birthday parties we attend. 

Our goal is to make organizing for power something relatable, easy, fun, and not scary, so that those of you reading this can feel empowered and comfortable talking to anyone we cross paths with about the growing movement for change in Texas. 

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