Sonato ’15 works to connect Latinos and environmentalism

by University Communications,

As commencement nears, our graduates reflect on their Willamette experience and share their plans for the future. This is the third of our five-part series.

Kevin Gorman thought he knew what to expect four years ago when he made the drive from Portland down to Willamette University to speak to a College Colloquium class of freshmen. As executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Gorman makes about two dozen presentations each year advocating for the work his nonprofit does to preserve the 85-mile-long, nationally-protected river canyon straddling the Washington-Oregon border.

But then he met Martha Sonato ’15.

She didn’t say much during Gorman’s visit, but after class, Sonato cornered him in the hallway and peppered him with questions about the environmental policymaking process in the gorge. Who makes the decisions? Who’s affected by the policies? Who benefits from the Friends’ work? What do the Friends want and need from the communities they serve?

“I couldn’t figure out whether she was supportive or opposed to what I was saying,” Gorman says. “Martha was deeply inquisitive, more so than your average student. I finally asked her, ‘Do you live in the gorge?’ And that’s when I learned her story.”

Sonato, the daughter of farmworkers from Mexico, had lived for a decade in Hood River, Ore. — a town located in the heart of a spectacular recreational area that includes five distinct ecosystems, 15 species of wildflowers found nowhere else in the world and the largest concentration of waterfalls in North America.

But Sonato’s interactions with the gorge’s attractions did not revolve around hiking, windsurfing or mountain biking. Instead, she was intimately connected to the orchards where her father cultivated and harvested pears and cherries. She had rarely explored outside her own town — and, as a result, she knew almost nothing of the economic, environmental and political issues influencing life in the gorge. The more she learned, the more she realized that the information she craved was not easy to access in the Latino community she called home.

“When I asked Kevin all those questions, I was wondering how, as an organization that states it wants to protect the Columbia River Gorge, the Friends were bridging the gap between the Latino community and their goals,” Sonato says. “Latinos make up about 30 percent of the population of Hood River — what about their voices?”

That was exactly the question Friends of the Columbia Gorge has been grappling with for years. “Our organization, like other nonprofits, has been trying to figure out how to diversify more, how to engage new voices in the conversation,” Gorman says.

Impressed by Sonato’s interest and energy, Gorman invited her to help the Friends tackle this issue through a research project, funded by a Willamette College Colloquium Student Research Grant. Things went so well that Gorman wanted to deepen the relationship. So he asked Sonato to join the Friends’ 18-member board of directors. At age 19, she became the youngest — and the only Latina — ever to serve.

Redefining Environmentalism

The Friends of the Columbia Gorge formed in 1980, fueled by concerns that urban sprawl would destroy the area’s wild beauty. The organization pushed for federal protection of the region, and in 1986, Friends succeeded with passage of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act — a complex plan that works to preserve the landscape while balancing the varying needs of everyone who lives, works and plays there.

When it comes to Hood River’s Latino community, which includes numerous farmworkers, Sonato says many are unfamiliar with the Scenic Act and its far-reaching impact. Language and cultural differences create barriers to awareness, Sonato says, but so does a narrow definition of environmentalism.

“The people I know in the Latino community may not be concerned about a wildflower going extinct because they have other, more pressing issues to deal with — bringing food to the table, working to provide for their children, paying for education,” Sonato says.

“But so many environmental decisions affect their daily lives. For instance, when coal trains pass through the gorge, the coal dust spreads out into in the air, and that air doesn’t discriminate in who it affects.”

A Budding Community Organizer

So how do you engage a community that traditionally has not been connected to a specific issue? Sonato looked to her own experiences for ideas.

The summer before enrolling at Willamette, she worked for the Oregon Youth Conservation Corps, which sends crews across the state to complete environment-related work projects. Assigned to the U.S. Forest Service Branch in Hood River, Sonato traveled with rangers to sites throughout the gorge that she had never seen, introducing her to the ecological diversity and beauty of the area — and she wanted others to see that beauty as well.

During her research project with the Friends, Sonato led a series of focus groups allowing environmental groups and local Latinos to air their concerns about life in the gorge. Then she organized three hikes for Latinos, during which environmental groups also talked about their work and policy issues in the gorge.

Sonato’s senior thesis expanded on her initial project by studying the diverse ways that Latinos in the Hood River Valley advocate for and organize change. She eventually plans to continue studying public policy in graduate school, a goal that took on new reality last year when she was accepted into the competitive Public Policy and International Affairs Fellowship Program at the University of Michigan — a seven-week program she completed last summer. Immediately after graduation, she’ll spend 10 weeks in Portland participating in a PolitiCorps fellowship, a political organizing and leadership development program of The Bus Project.

Ultimately, Sonato hopes to find a career where she can address the environmental justice issues she became passionate about while at Willamette. She credits all of her experiences, plus the supportive help of her mentors — including current and former Willamette advisors Jonneke Koomen and Megan Ybarra; community member Humberto Calderón; and Gorman and Kate McBride from Friends — for giving her a strong start on that path.

Gorman is lobbying for Sonato to continue her work in the region where her advocacy began. “The more Martha engages not only her own community, but also our staff, supporters and other board members, the more our eyes will open a little wider to consider a perspective that goes beyond our own,” he says. “Martha has a deep connection to the gorge, so my hope is she’ll end up back here working on the issues she cares about. I think she could have a real impact over the next several decades.”


Other 2015 Graduates

Changing Direction

Halfway through his Willamette education, Jonny Saunders '15 discovered his love for neuroscience. Now, he's off to graduate school to continue his studies.

From Tragedy to Triumph

Moved by the death of a friend, Emily Miller '15 wants to help people heal. Willamette prepared her for UCLA medical school, where she'll study pediatric oncology.

Artistic Outlook

As the first Willamette student to win the Luce Scholar national fellowship, Oldham '14, MBA'15 is spending a year in Japan to study the art of ikebana.

Making Her Voice Heard

An aspiring human rights journalist, Natalie Pate '15 is honing her writing skills this summer through a reporting internship with the Statesman Journal newspaper in Salem.