Director of Community Relations
Recorded on August 4, 2023, Renée Mazurek, Resilient Communities Manager for River Network and team member of the Urban Waters Learning Network, interviews Candida Rodriguez, the Director of Community Relations for Groundwork Hudson Valley.
Listen to the full interview or read the full transcript below.
Note: The transcript has been edited for clarity. Links to resources from the conversation are also included.
00:00:05 Renée Mazurek
Hi and welcome to Urban Waters Speak from the Urban Waters Learning Network. I’m Renée Mazurek, Resilient Communities Manager for River Network and Urban Waters team member. To highlight our network members, we host conversations with water practitioners working to conserve, restore and revitalize America’s urban waterways. We’re glad you’re here.
For this recording of Urban Waters Speak, I was able to talk with Candida Rodriguez on August 4th, 2023. Candida is the Director of Community Relations for Groundwork Hudson Valley in Yonkers, NY, where she is responsible for implementing community engagement programs, event organization, and developing public relations strategy. Candida has experience working alongside community members, local nonprofits, international organizations and government entities. Her expertise expands through climate change policy, gender equality, migration, education, youth development, and poverty reduction. She is passionate about the inclusion of vulnerable and underrepresented populations in decision making, especially on issues pertaining to environmental justice.
It was great talking with her and getting to know more about her and the climate resilience work that she is doing with the community in Yonkers. Keep listening to hear our conversation.
00:01:42 Renée Mazurek
Hi, Candida. How are you?
00:01:45 Candida Rodriguez
Hi, Renee. I’m doing well. Thanks for having me.
00:01:49 Renée Mazurek
Can you tell me about your role at Groundwork Hudson Valley?
00:01:54 Candida Rodriguez
Of course. I am the Director of Community Relations, and my primary role is to foster and maintain strong relationships between our organization as well as with the communities that we serve. Essentially, I work with a lot of community members, and I engage partners, local groups, and government bodies in our environmental initiatives. What this involves is a lot of strategic outreach, a lot of collaboration and communication efforts to promote environmental awareness as well as participation in our programs and initiatives, and ultimately drive positive change in Yonkers, NY.
00:02:44 Renée Mazurek
Great. Thank you. How long have you been there and how did you personally come into this work?
00:02:51 Candida Rodriguez
I’ve been at Groundwork for almost 2 years now, and my journey into this work happened almost by accident. I will go back a little bit into my background. So, in college I had taken some classes in environmental studies. Being a sociology major, my main focus was on community development. After graduating college, I started working at a nonprofit where I was providing social services to people and businesses in lower Manhattan affected by Hurricane Sandy. A large part of my role was community outreach, and I learned a ton about disaster recovery. This is when I was introduced to the term climate resilience and without knowing, I was beginning to merge into the environmental work I do today.
I then went on to work for international nonprofits and organizations across different countries. I was working with both rural and urban communities in countries like Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, and then later in the Pacific. That’s when I saw firsthand how climate change was affecting people on the front lines on a scale that I’ve never seen before. So really what this has done is motivate me to uplift the voices of people that have been dealing with climate change and other systemic issues and empower them to take action.
00:04:34 Renée Mazurek
That’s really powerful. What a great experience to be able to see this in lots of different settings and bring that into your work here in the United States and in New York.
I know that Groundwork USA has a program called Climate Safe Neighborhoods that brings together 13 Groundwork Trusts to explore the relationship between historical race-based housing segregation and the current limited impacts of climate change. Your organization is one of the Trusts in the partnership.
Can you tell me more about your involvement in that and why you see it as an important program for groundwork?
00:05:13 Candida Rodriguez
Yeah, absolutely. What the Climate Safe Neighborhoods partnership and initiative has done is essentially allowed us as an organization to come with the data and prioritize our climate resilience efforts as well as the community engagement in the neighborhoods that need it the most. We were able to really zero in on where these pockets of urban heat islands were and areas that were experiencing environmental challenges, such as extreme heat and flooding, lack of green spaces. My focus has mostly been to build strong relationships with community members and also our partners. What that means is that I go out to community events, I organize workshops and events to provide information. I try to gather feedback from people and share tools on how to address these environmental challenges that are affecting people and their neighborhoods. This is really important, because involving the community and partners is so essential to our work and mission. What we do is essentially learn from them, because they know their communities best and they have unique skill sets. That’s important to creating a thriving community. Ultimately, what we want is for people that live in these vulnerable areas to be part of the change that is either happening or needs to happen in their neighborhoods.
00:06:58 Renée Mazurek
That is so great. I want to follow-up a little bit more about that community engagement piece. As part of Climate Safe Neighborhoods, Groundwork Hudson Valley created the Climate Safe Yonkers Task Force, and they were instrumental in implementing the Yonkers Climate Action Plan. I’d like to hear a little bit more about that.
Tell me a little bit about the Climate Safe Yonkers Task Force and the Climate Action Plan.
00:07:25 Candida Rodriguez
Sure. The Climate Safe Yonkers Task Force is a group of about 30 people who we have engaged over a year-long process. We began by recruiting diverse members within the community, and we were very intentional about wanting a group that represents all members of the community. Therefore, our task force members are people that either live or work in Yonkers. Some are high school students, for example. Others are college students or municipal housing residents. We have community activists and artists and organizational leaders. Our goal with this group has been to (1) build resilience and (2) promote action and overall empower within the community.
Over the course of the year, we have worked with the task force to identify and also prioritize the needs of the community based on their lived experiences. We’ve explored potential interventions and some strategies around climate resilience and mitigation to address extreme heat and flooding.
They were involved in the development process of the Yonkers Climate Action Plan, which is the first Climate Action Plan developed by the City of Yonkers. They worked closely with the city government to provide input and feedback and provide their shared experiences in terms of what should be included in this plan to ensure that this plan is equitable and that it represents the community. I think that’s one of the key factors to having inclusivity: being part of a process. I think it makes us, or at least it helps us get closer, to finding solutions that are sustainable and that will be effective for a long period of time.
00:09:44 Renée Mazurek
I’m wondering if everybody in this group also gets together to do things that are not always meetings or strictly talking about the Task Force duties.
00:09:59 Candida Rodriguez
Yeah, that’s a great point. They do actually. A lot of our Task Force members volunteer at some of our events. Whenever we have tree plantings or we’re removing invasive species from certain areas or we have a trash cleanup, for example, our task force members show up. They love volunteering. They’re really engaged. And whenever we have community events or we’re tabling, some of them volunteer to table with us and talk about their experience as being part of this group, this working group.
And I do know of some that have friendships outside of this group, and definitely go out and hang out and spend time together, and have a richer relationship with folks. I think also what this has provided is for people that normally wouldn’t operate in the same circles, to actually get to know each other.
You wouldn’t think that a municipal housing resident or a high school student would get to spend time in a meaningful way with a leader or a director of an organization. So I think this has been really fruitful in that way. And yeah, I love being part of this group and seeing them grow and seeing their relationships blossom.
00:11:29 Renée Mazurek
Yeah, I love when that happens and you get to feel a little bit of joy in the work that you’re doing. I think that it could be a model for a lot of places around the United States.
I watched the recent webinar that you were part of for Urban Waters [See Building Climate Reslience: Linking Historic Policies and Today’s Risks], so thank you for participating there as well. And when you were talking about this Climate Action Plan, you mentioned that that you felt that this was a systems change.
I’m so interested in systems change. I’m wondering if you can tell me more about how you envision this change and what that means to you.
00:12:01 Candida Rodriguez
Yeah, I think it’s important to note that part of our larger climate justice effort is to change places or revitalize places that have been historically left out or disinvested in. That is one of the reasons why we partnered with the Yonkers Housing Authority (MHACY) and a nonprofit that deals with affordable housing that’s called Westhab to make their properties more climate resilient because we noticed that these are where the urban heat islands exist. So that it goes to tying a little bit into the housing elements where we are meeting residents where they live and improving their overall quality of life by providing these improvements in their neighborhoods and in their homes. A lot of people that we work with live in these communities that have been disinvested in and also these neighborhoods were once formally redlined, meaning that they were systemically left out of the decision-making process.
We want to make sure that the community members have a say in what goes on in their homes and their communities because they have a lot of valuable knowledge and expertise and can contribute to the success of these initiatives. They are essential for us to really understand what is happening because they get to live these experiences themselves.
What I mean by systems change is that the people who have been historically left out of the decision-making process or whose voices have not been heard are now being included and being heard.
00:14:04 Renée Mazurek
Thank you so much. I really love that. I really hope for that change as well. [It’s related to] a lot of the work that I do for the Urban Waters Learning Network. I helped convene a collaborative around equitable development and this hits that directly. The work that Groundwork is doing is driving a lot of that. So, thank you so much for doing the work.
I want to shift a little bit and ask you what successes have you had recently, or have you had any challenges that you’ve learned from in doing this work that you could share with the network?
00:14:40 Candida Rodriguez
One of the successes we’ve had is the Climate Task Force being very active and very involved in the planning and the development process of the Yonkers Climate Action Plan…and building these relationships with city officials to make sure that the development of the plan included the people who are most vulnerable to extreme heat and flooding. Another success that I’ve witnessed personally is seeing how Task Force members have become advocates for change and how they’re now becoming micro-influencers and are spreading the word, raising awareness, and speaking to people about redlining, climate change, extreme heat, and flooding from their perspectives and encouraging other people to also care about these issues. Ultimately, we hope that it drives significant change within Yonkers.
As for the challenges, I mean, working in an environmental field is always challenging. There’s a lot of, oftentimes, systemic things and challenges that have happened. I think dealing with that, learning how to navigate that is a challenge; and I think it will continue to be a challenge. But I am hopeful that what we’re doing today is going to ultimately benefit us in the future.
00:16:20 Renée Mazurek
Thanks for bringing that up. It is a challenging field to work in and sometimes can be really heavy. My next question points to: what keeps you motivated in this work?
00:16:34 Candida Rodriguez
There is a lot of doom and gloom in the environmental field. There’s a lot of things that you have to learn how to navigate both professionally as well as personally, because we are also experiencing climate change ourselves. But really, what keeps me motivated is the change I am currently seeing is that people who are not experts in this particular field are talking about technical things like urban heat islands. Climate change is coming up a lot because people are experiencing and they’re seeing it a lot more.
I see that those people are really motivated, and they really want to make a difference. They’re investing a lot of their time and efforts in finding solutions as well as partnering with people who do this work at various different levels. I think for me, this is one of the things that keeps me motivated and also gives me hope.
00:17:40 Renée Mazurek
That’s awesome. Thank you so much for sharing. The next question is looking toward the future, like you’re saying, the work that we’re doing today hopefully benefits the future.
What impact would you like to see your organization have in the next few years?
00:17:55 Candida Rodriguez
Yeah, that’s a huge question for me. I would like to see communities that have been more or less left out and disinvested in to have a better quality of life. I would also like to see policies that take climate resilience and mitigation into account across all different sectors of the economy. And I would like to see these policies have a strong emphasis on inclusivity. I think that’s really important. Lastly, I would like to see people being engaged and people caring about their environment and the places that they live and being motivated to act and to empower others as well.
00:18:51 Renée Mazurek
That’s great. It sounds like the work that you’re already doing and seeing the results of. So, I only have one more question.
Do you have any advice to share with others who are engaged in this work?
00:19:06 Candida Rodriguez
I think one of the things that I’ve learned throughout my experiences, both professionally and personally and working in this field is: Involving the voices of people in the in the margins is really important. We have to include those who have been historically left out. Not only historically left out but are currently being left out. In order for any process or any change to be sustainable, involving and engaging the community is really important.
But one thing that’s even more important is actually being intentional about it. Because this not only empowers people but makes them part of the of that process, and it allows them to take ownership of the changes that are going to be carried out or are currently being carried out. I think that’s really important that this happens across the board.
I think for any organization or entity to actually be successful, it is important to have an inclusive process for people to make decisions.
00:20:33 Renée Mazurek
I really want to thank you for being a part of the Urban Waters Learning Network and for sharing your insights and your expertise with us today, Candida.
00:20:42 Candida Rodriguez
Thank you so much for having me. This has been great.
00:20:47 Renée Mazurek
Well, that wraps up my conversation with Candida. I loved hearing about her work with community members in the Task Force, their involvement in the development of the City of Yonkers Climate Action Plan, and the relationships that they’ve been able to build along the way.