by Kelsey Alpaio
As much as we want to dedicate ourselves fully to the causes that we’re passionate about, it’s not always possible. Isaias Hernandez, an environmental educator and creator of Queer Brown Vegan (QBV), knows this feeling well.
- We talked with Isaias about why he built QBV, how he’s been able to balance activism with employment, and his plans for the future.
- He created QBV to provide accessible environmental education and share his narrative as a Queer, Latinx, and Vegan individual in the environmental space.
- His advice to others with the goal of turning their activism into their job: “If you have a passion project and your work doesn’t align with that, start slow. Dedicate maybe one to three hours a week, or time on the weekends, to that project.”
Everything in life is a balancing act. But when we find something we’re passionate about, it can feel impossible to focus on anything else. Especially when that passion involves our rights, the rights of others, or the health of our planet.
Sadly, a lot of us don’t have the choice to pick between our passions and our paychecks. We have bills to pay and jobs to attend to. As much as we want to dedicate ourselves fully to the causes that give us a feeling of deeper purpose, it’s not always possible.
Isaias Hernandez, an environmental educator and creator of Queer Brown Vegan (QBV), knows this feeling well. After graduating from UC Berkley in 2018 with a degree in environmental science, Isaias started working at a creative agency in New York City. But it never felt quite right.
“I have never enjoyed working a traditional nine-to-five day, and the hours drained me,” he said. “The hustle to make money in your early twenties is real and any job — especially one you don’t love — can feel like a means to survival.”
But as he continued to develop his social and marketing skills in this role, he discovered a new opportunity: He could use those skills to help educate others about environmentalism. He went on to build Queer Brown Vegan, an Instagram page and educational site dedicated to spreading environmental knowledge. It tackles everything from composting to intersectional environmentalism, and beyond.
I talked with Isaias about why he built QBV, how he’s been able to balance activism with employment, and his plans for the future.
Kelsey Alpaio: How did you get involved in environmental education and activism?
Isaias Hernandez: It began when I lived in Los Angeles, California. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley area, right next to the Metrolink train that polluted my city. I grew interested in learning more about my surroundings and how they were impacted by that environment. But in high school, I was also afraid to ask how certain systems worked. I never felt experienced or smart enough to talk about the topics that actually mattered to me.
It wasn’t until college, that started to gain confidence. I went to UC Berkeley to study environmental science and I realized how important it is to understand the physical, biological, and social aspects of environmentalism when discussing the climate crisis. These aspects are all interconnected. As we try to improve our Earth-based systems and develop solutions to the crisis, we cannot separate them. Any solution will require an intersectional approach.
At the same time, after graduating, I realized that much of the language used in academia is elitist. No one should have to pay an institution to receive this type of education. That inspired me to think about new ways to create sustainable environmental education.
Tell me about QBV and why you decided to create it.
For so long, I had to hide who I am in certain environmental spaces. In my undergraduate research lab, I had to deal with a homophobic lab mentor who openly talked about his disapproval of LGBTQ+ communities and his belief that BIPOC were not invested in ecological issues. In my environmental justice course, the discussions often excluded BIPOC voices entirely.
With QBV, I wanted to share my narrative and own my identities as a Queer, Latinx, and Vegan individual in the environmental space. I created it because the information I learned in college — about waste management systems, energy resources, and forestry management — play a part in capitalism and how our society operates. They are important factors to consider when discussing the environment and how to improve it. But this information is often inaccessible to most people without a degree and people who, like me, might not feel safe in the academic settings where these lessons are traditionally taught. QBV presents alternative forms of learning and is a positive space where anyone who is curious can engage, unlearn, and learn along with me.
At the time I created QBV, my full-time job was in the creative design industry. The less and less I attended environmental events, the more I began to forget about my own education. This also played a part: I needed to find ways to remember, make environmental education a part of my career, and give back to the community. I started with less than 2,000 followers, and slowly but surely, we have grown.
Can you talk a little bit about intersectional environmentalism and why it’s important?
The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of Law at Columbia University and University of California, Los Angeles. It addresses how various systems fail to recognize prejudice happening at the intersection of gender, race, and beyond.
Similarly, intersectional environmentalism explores the topic through more than just one overarching lens. It looks into a variety of angles, perspectives, and stories that modern environmental movements have ignored or silenced. In doing so, it encourages those involved in the modern movement to build a multi-level coalition of activists, educators, artists, and many more to protect planetary health.
It’s important because it cultivates community and change is made through the community — not through institutions.
You recently graduated from college. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience since graduating? What was it like getting your first job and figuring out your career?
In college, I doubted my intelligence and connected my self-worth to grades — though I struggled to land high marks in my mathematics, science, and economics courses. Right out of school, I didn’t think my voice or message was important and so I did what many new grads do: I focused on making a paycheck. I thought I would land a job as an environmental scientist or work at a nonprofit organization. Oddly, I ended up working at a creative agency in New York City.
The hustle to make money in your early 20s is real and any job — especially one you don’t love — can feel like a means to survival, particularly for many of us first-gen college students. That was the driving factor behind my decision to take that first job. I messaged the creative agency on Instagram, received the founder’s email, and reached out to him personally about my interest in the company.
Finding and navigating that job was scary for me. I have never enjoyed working a traditional nine-to-five day, and the hours drained me. It wasn’t my dream role, but I’m grateful for it because I developed a lot of skills that have helped me launch the career I have today: graphic design, photography, and managing business partnerships — all of which laid the foundation for QBV. Through those skills, I gained confidence and gave up on doubting myself.
This past year, I invested in developing QBV while working full-time at Package Free Shop, a retailer focused on living zero-waste. I can confidently say that I’ll be transitioning to going to full-time freelance in 2021.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to become more involved in the issues they care about (environmental and beyond)?
Start with what you know. Sometimes movements themselves can be gatekeeping. Protesting and activism are not the only paths. For many of us, the right path reveals itself when we are doing what we are most passionate about. You do not need to be an activist to create change. You can be an artist, an educator, an influencer, or all three. Don’t make the mistake of following the crowd without ever thinking about the unique ways you can be productive. For me, being an environmental educator was an act of protest.
How can someone balance what pays the bills with what impact they want to have on the world?
Believing in yourself is the hardest thing to do because, as a society, we’ve ingrained that to be successful, we must work a nine-to-five job, have certain items, and own a house. These days, Millennials and Gen Zers, we don’t just want to survive — we want to live.
I would say if you have a passion project and your work doesn’t align with that, start slow. Dedicate maybe one to three hours a week or time on the weekends to that project. The work I do now wasn’t accomplished in one day. It took time. Remember that you don’t have to rush. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. Be patient as you figure out and start to invest in what you really want to do. If it’s any form of solace, I didn’t start earning funds until six or seven months into QBV.
Some social media tips: Make sure you’re looking into all types of social channels to promote your work, like Pinterest for promoting your blog posts and increasing your web search, Facebook groups for sharing your work, and TikTok for connecting with a whole new audience.
But is it really possible to make activism your “day job?”
It is possible to make your activism a day job if you work towards it. While I am unable to talk on behalf of all activists, I think it varies per person. For myself, I am able to sustain myself because I have a full-time job, but I am currently working towards it.
You need to find ways to network. For me, I found networking groups by joining Slack channels that listed career opportunities I was interested in, going to environmental events at academic institutions, and attending free events advertised on Facebook. Talking to a room of strangers is not easy, but I can promise that you will feel much more motivated to do the work when you start to build a community. Of course, you will have your bad days, but in the long run, be motivated by the belief that it’ll work out.
Some networking tips: If you’re attending an event, greet the people who are presenting, on the panel or in the audience. More often than not, you’ll be surprised to find that people tend to network with the people around them rather than the people talking at the event. With everything going digital, you can attend more online events and have more breakout session groups to get to know people on an individual level. That also might help eliminate the anxiety that sometimes shows up when you are connecting with people in-person.
What if someone is too burnt out from work to be able to make the difference they want? What should they do?
I feel this, and have been feeling it for the past few months. My advice: Take a break. Don’t do anything for a day or two during the weekends. I left my creative agency job when I realized I was overexerting myself to the detriment of my mental health. Your health is the most important thing. Your job should make you happy and if it isn’t, that’s a sign that you need to leave. However, not everyone has the privilege of leaving. If that’s the case, make sure that you are taking the initiative to research different positions, companies, or industries you are curious about. You might find ways to make a paycheck that don’t make you miserable.
Is it okay for people to let their activism work bleed into their “day jobs?” Or should they avoid it?
It depends on how you see it, right? Most people want to keep work strictly professional. Then there are people who want to go into a specific field because they are personally passionate about it. Now that I’m working in the sustainability industry, there’s no way I can hide my activism because it’s probably one of the reasons I got the job. If you feel comfortable bringing your activism into the workplace, then do it. But if you don’t have job security or think your HR department would be against it, then I’d advise not to.
Activism for some people isn’t a choice and neither is having to have a job. What role does privilege play in all of this?
Many of us have different forms of privilege. It’s all a spectrum and so it’s important that when we navigate any of these spaces, we understand who is and is not given the space to talk. If you are someone who has more privilege than others, ask yourself how you can decenter yourself and allow Black and Brown folks to take the spotlight. You can create space for others by giving up your own opportunities to make sure BIPOC have a seat at the table.
If activism is not your passion, but you want to participate, you can also look into supporting organizations or people who are fighting for causes you believe in. Activists need funding and reparations. If you’ve never had to worry about a social issue in your life, the time to wake up is now. You can cause just as much harm by being silent. Injustice has no zip code.
Any last pieces of advice?
If you can’t find a space you feel comfortable in, be intentional about creating one where you feel at your best. Find friends who believe in your mission and stay true to the work you want to do.