Recycling Director talks about FIELD’s program designed to improve the environment and the lives of young adults in underserved communities
Seventeen years ago, all Andres Lopez knew about recycling was that he could return bottles for five cents a pop. Then, one meeting with an HR person led to him getting a job in conservation and now recycling is his life.
In the fall of 2021 Lopez then met with Farmworkers Institute of Education & Leadership Development (FIELD) President David Villarino-Gonzalez, and was sold on FIELD’s mission established in 1978 by Cesar Chavez: to lift the economic prospects of underserved populations in poor and minority communities by educating young people to become self-sufficient, productive workers.
Today, Lopez is FIELD’s director of recycling. He took the time to speak about the passion he has for his work and the communities he serves:
What was it about meeting Villarino-Gonzalez that made you want to work for FIELD?
Andres Lopez: David Villarino-Gonzalez shared how FIELD is here to empower and help the underserved of the community. And I totally bought in. It’s not just about making a paycheck. It’s about having a social impact and giving back to the community where you’re living.
What exactly does your recycling department do?
AL: We focus on four different areas: tires, oil, e-waste, and CRV (California Redemption Value). With oil, we educate the community as far as not dumping it down drains, and how badly it affects the environment. With the e-waste, we pick up electronic waste old laptops, computers, desktops, radios — stuff that people no longer have a need for. We also go around town and find illegally dumped tires and take them to a recycling facility where they get shredded and reused. With CRV we have two recycling centers currently: one in Tehachapi and one in Bakersfield. We pay the community back the five cents per can or bottle that has CRV attached to it.
What does the department’s program provide?
Our program is the Cesar Chavez Environmental Corps, which is FIELD’s certified conservation corp. that operates throughout the state of California. It’s a one-year program. Those who come here — if they haven’t received their high school diploma — have the opportunity to enroll in our charter school to get [their diploma]. We focus on ages 18 – 26.
A lot of the pushback we get is, “Oh, I would get my high school diploma, but obviously I have to pay the bills.” Our program allows them to get their diploma and we give them work at the same time. Not only is our program free, but we pay them to be here. Everybody starts off at $16 an hour. Drivers get paid $16.50. Crew leads get $17 an hour.
What is the demographic makeup of the students?
The students are about 70% Hispanic and mostly poor or low income. Our focus is on low income, underserved communities, but there are so many people out there that need help. So, we do reach out to other organizations like the Dream Center Foundation and people in the foster care system.
How many come into the program knowing what they want to do?
Rarely does someone have a concrete idea when they first come into the program. One of the first things they do is take a survey as to where they’re at, what they’re trying to learn, and where they think they want to go. For example, someone may want to get their forklift license. So, we focus on that and then introduce them to forklift jobs. Later they have the real-life skills, because they’ve been using the forklift here on campus, have the certification, and are now qualified for a job.
How many people go through the program in a year?
We have to maintain a 50 count, but that 50 count isn’t 50 people, because some of them might quit or get other jobs. That 50 might increase to 120. Some come, do their paperwork, and then never show up to work. Others come for a day and never come back. I wish it was all sunshine and rainbows, but there is a huge turnover rate.
What percentage is class and what percentage is practical work?
Everybody has to be in class. That’s one of the requirements. If they are in the high school program, it’s 10 hours a week, two hours a day. If they are in the CTE (Career Technical Education) program, it’s four hours, two hours a day, two days a week. And then there is homework and assignments.
What are some of the challenges faced by those in the program?
Some of their barriers might seem insignificant, but to somebody that doesn’t know how to overcome those things, they’re challenges. Childcare is a huge [issue]. Transportation’s another. I’m blown away by how many 18-26-year-olds that have a vehicle and drive, but don’t have a license. They don’t even know what the first steps are to get their driver’s license. Learning how to get a license has been a huge challenge.
What are some of your success stories?
Some of our students have been recruited to work for the Bureau of Land Management. We have individuals that have been recruited directly to work for Caltrans. Some come from rough areas, but once you get to know them and once you chip away at their hearts a little bit, they’re the sweetest gals and guys.
Some of them we kind of have to push out of here because they get so comfortable [because] they’ve never been welcomed or accepted anywhere before. We do have to have sit down with them the first couple of times and have a come-to-Jesus moment: “Hey, you’re not trying to prove yourself to anybody here. We don’t care where you come from. We don’t care about your past.” Once we break down those barriers, they’re totally different people.
What’s the most fulfilling part of your job?
Some guys come in giving everybody a dirty look. They’re the tough guys and they’re going to show us. Seeing their transformation is my favorite part. I like to remind some of them how tough they thought they were when they first got here, because the toughest ones are usually the biggest teddy bears.
How would you assess the program to this point?
Developing the program took me about a year and a half, and we’re still in the infancy stages. But we’ve [grown in] leaps and bounds. There are 14 local conservation corps in California. When I got here there were four different categories and they were all ranked 14th. Right now, we are anywhere from number three to number six, depending on the category.
Why this is such an important program?
When I was 18 and had found out about a program like this, I would definitely have taken advantage of it. When I was that age, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Our program allows them to fail and get back up and not be judged. One of the biggest things that we push is, “Go out there, try different things. Apply for a job. If you get let go, or if you totally hate it, you can come back. You will always have a home here.”
What’s your ultimate goal for the program?
Originally it was recycling, but now it’s the people. Giving these individuals a new life experience. It doesn’t matter where they came from, how they grew up, their insecurities. We’re all created equal and as long as we’re willing to put in the work, we can make something of ourselves. We can have a livable, sustainable income and provide for our families. We don’t always have to be dependent on the system. It might be a little bit harder for some of us, but it is doable for all of us.