by Sharon Chen
There is a small farming village in rural Mexico – like thousands of others that dot the landscape, it is remote and isolated, set in a pristine landscape of natural beauty. Rivers snake into a nearby lake, and the people who live in the village rely on the rolling land for their food. It is beautiful, but life there is also hard: up until recently, there was no electricity, no running water, and education went no higher than the fifth grade. Children worked on farms alongside their parents and went to school when they could.
This is where Dr. Antonio R. Flores, the president and chief executive officer of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), comes from. HACU is one of the nation’s largest education associations and a partner of Solution Generation. Of his childhood, Flores says: “There was no electricity, no running water, no commercially available toys – none of that. So we had to be very creative, in terms of making our own toys and inventing our own games. We also had to work on the farm with different chores at the same time that we were going to school.”
This small village is Flores’ foundation, and in his hometown he finds inspiration and parallels for his work in education and sustainability.
Education Is a Journey
Flores comes from a family of farmers, who, despite their own lack of formal education, hold a deep appreciation for learning. Flores’ parents instilled in him a thirst for knowledge. When he was ten years old, a visiting family of teachers who had been teaching in the village was preparing to return to their city. Having noticed Flores’ aptitude and intelligence, they asked his parents if they could take him with them; the teachers would raise Flores as their own and provide him with the education he could not get in the village. Flores’ parents agreed, allowing their son to leave them to pursue his education. Moving to the city was “a total revelation. I discovered a whole new world of possibilities,” Flores says.
This early experience was a formative one: it helped instill in Flores the belief that obtaining an education is not an individual triumph, but a “collective effort, where family, friends, teachers, and mentors are all a part of the experience and allow you to achieve.”
The family of traveling teachers was the first in a mentorship pattern that would play out for the rest of his life. Flores’ family of teachers became mentors, and he was encouraged to continue his education, apply for scholarships, and eventually emigrate to the United States for graduate degrees. When he left Mexico for Michigan to pursue his master’s degree and PhD, Flores met people who nurtured his passion for learning and talent for working with others; they encouraged him to take up a career in education. These experiences have all impacted the way that Flores views education. As he says, an education is not a “multiplicity of individual victories, but a journey where many people contribute to what you achieve.”
In reflecting on his journey, Flores concludes that the old African adage “‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is exactly my story.”
Leaving a Better World for Those Who Follow
Dr. Flores’ education and career may have led him to the United States, but he has returned home to Mexico for visits. The small village of his childhood now has running water, there is electricity, and the roads are paved. Life is easier, but Flores notices the tolls that these modern conveniences have taken on the land. The rivers and lakes are polluted, children rarely play outside anymore, and farming has become more difficult in the face of a changing climate. For Flores, issues of sustainability have hit home – and this is where sustainability and the environment are intertwined with the work he does in education.
When it comes to the environment, Flores believes: “The main responsibility of every generation is to leave a better world for those who follow. And we’re not doing that.” But through education we can change this; indeed, we must change this. For Flores, addressing sustainability is a mandate; as he says, “the cause of climate change is really the cause of humanity.”
Higher Education’s Role in Climate Solutions
“Higher education is leading the way on climate change issues,” Flores says. He is certain that by applying the power of knowledge to the climate challenge, we will reap big rewards. He lists the following three ways that higher education can lead on climate action.
1. Increase awareness about climate change. “Students are the future leaders of the country, and of the world, and colleges and universities have a great opportunity to really develop a commitment to climate action,” Flores says. “It’s up to us to develop this leadership.”
2. Lead on research and solutions. “As places of learning and discovery, universities are incubators of research. Higher education is innovating best practices for slowing down climate change,” Flores notes.
3. Set an example. As Flores says, “Universities need to be role models for communities.” Through implementing climate and sustainability solutions, colleges can serve as examples to inspire others and show that sustainability is smart and feasible.
“These are all things that I have been pushing for within our own association. I want colleges and universities to get involved with ecoAmerica's initiative, Solution Generation, which is momentous with respect to higher education,” Flores says. “I am honored to serve on the board of ecoAmerica, because I know the cause of ecoAmerica is really the cause of humanity.”
What it Takes to Lead
Flores credits his childhood in the village with teaching him the meaning of hard work and leadership. Growing up in a farming village, working alongside adults in the fields, Flores says that he had to learn “leadership, discipline, teamwork, and time management. All of those things were a big part of my upbringing. By the time I left that little village at the age of eleven, I had already learned so many life skills.”
Flores’ upbringing has also made him especially cognizant of the issues communities of color, and lower income communities, face when it comes to climate change. “From an environmental justice point of view, certain communities have a lot more at stake and they need to heal their communities from past environmental practices,” Flores says. “We need to educate these groups about how severe these gaps in environmental equity are, how to overcome them, and how to move on to a healthier life for future generations.”
He is a strong proponent of culturally sensitive, appropriate language outreach and education. He also believes that higher education needs to collaborate more with other community groups, local healthcare organizations, and religious institutions to reach out to those traditionally ignored by mainstream America. Education, for Flores, is the best way to bring about environmental justice, awareness and change, and to ensure that villages like the one he grew up in are not left out of the climate conversation.
Hope for the Future
"It all comes back to our villages –where we grew up, and the people and places that shaped us." Dr. Flores is most proud of his family. “My children, my grandchildren, my wife, the extended family and friends – they have all made my life so much better, and I hope that I have done the same for them.”
Flores is also proud of the students and higher education institutions with whom he works. Their passion for the issues of the day, and their dedication to making the world a better place, fill him with hope. “What gives me the most hope is knowing that the knowledge base on the issue of climate change is continually growing and becoming more visible – not just to students, but to society as a whole. Students have the special opportunity to empower themselves, and their world, with their learning,” Flores says.