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GreenLatinos organizer Ean Tafoya talks about what he would do if elected mayor of Denver, and what got him to this point in life

 

by Allen Best

Ean Tafoya, who is one of 17 candidates for mayor of Denver, lives in Bear Valley, just off Wadsworth, on the edge of Denver. It was his grandmother’s place, for whom he was a caregiver until her death last year. It’s in a nice neighborhood.

His identity, though, was shaped by his earlier years, when he lived in Denver’s Barnum and Cole neighborhoods, both places abutting industrial areas.

In a sense, Tafoya has spent his life on the borders.

In the last several years he has headed the Colorado division of GreenLatinos, an advocacy group. His tasks, he says, have taken him to nearly all of Colorado’s 64 counties to unite with others impacted by environmental issues.

The interview was conducted just prior to Christmas. It is the second Denver mayoral candidate to be interviewed by Big Pivots, the first being Chris Hansen. The offer was open to any Denver mayor candidate who wanted to talk about what they would do in the context of climate, energy and water.

 

Big Pivots: Why do you want to be mayor of Denver?

Ean Tafoya: We need to bring the people together to protect the planet and those who are the most marginalized in our community.

 

Pivots: What might you do if elected in the realm of energy and climate and perhaps water? 

Tafoya: Water, that’s one of my favorite topics to talk about. Actually, I have a one-world, one-water certificate from Metro State. Water is so fascinating because you have so many pieces: quantity, quality, stormwater management, wastewater management, lead-pipe replacement.

At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is clean water for all. You know, the unhoused in Denver do not have access to the critical public health resources they need, like drinking water or public restroom access. To me, that’s a water issue.

Definitely want to see improvements in our green infrastructure planning and how we manage our stormwater. That’s going to be even more critical with this large Army Corps of Engineers money that was just approved for the city and county of Denver.

We know we have PFAs (per- and polyfluorinated substances) in our water. We know there’s concerns about lead pipes. We need to be working to replace those as fast as possible. We need to be working with our utility providers and the state government to advocate for the strictest and strongest water quality standards possible.

At the end of the day, quantity and quality come down to education of our communities and, in particular, conservation. When you start talking about E. coli, which is one of the largest issues and concerns in the Platte River, that comes back to education as well as infrastructure, right? You have to have an infrastructure to handle your waste appropriately. Public restroom facilities for unhoused, and educating people about picking up their dog poop. I mean, all of those things impact E. coli and stormwater.

The South Platte River flows past downtown Denver and through the Globeville area. Photo/Allen Best

And when you start talking about climate and clean energy, I think we need to be talking about how is Denver going to harness the vast amount of resources that have now been made available from federal and state funding that we’ve advocated for. We make sure it comes home to our communities for businesses and for homeowners and for renters. All that requires financial literacy and education. We need to bolster the programs in the government that actually interface with the public so they understand that they, too, can be a part of this green revolution that we need.

We have to do it ourselves. The government has to lead the way. They have to be working to make sure all government buildings are electrified, that fleets are some of the first to actually electrify.

I want to be clear, electrification isn’t the only answer to energy consumption. The bike lanes, walking, and public transit also play a part in changing the amount of emissions that are coming out from our transportation sector. And we have to acknowledge that just because we electrify doesn’t mean the power plants still aren’t in brown communities. It’s brown air for brown communities around these energy sites. And that needs to change.

 

Pivots: How can you change that in the context of Denver?

Tafoya: Well, the City and County of Denver advocates in a lot of these rulemakings at the Air Quality Control Commission, with ozone state implementation planning, and we talk about Xcel Energy and its resource planning. Denver plays a part in all of that. We need to be using our resources to advocate for the best public health income outcomes for disproportionately impacted communities. They also offer grants through the environmental justice program that communities like mine, the company I work for now, can use to commit more resources to engaging the community in these outcomes.

Let’s be real, Denver is going to have a big decision to make and leverage over Xcel Energy, as the utility’s franchise is about to come up in 2026. Those negotiations are going to begin during this administration. We will have a big conversation about our franchise agreement, about where we want to go.

 

Pivots: Xcel has a reputation of being very much at the vanguard of the nation’s investor-owned utilities. That being said, how would you want to move the needle with Xcel? 

Tafoya: We have to be in conversation with Xcel. For example, through my day job, we’ve negotiated community solar and produced reinvestment in disproportionately impacted communities. But we have to have leverage as a franchise about where we want to see our energy mix, where we want to see it in our communities.

We must work as quickly as possible to transition these gas power plants in southwest Denver, in North Denver, where low-income, predominantly Latino communities are being exposed to pollution. We have to be pushing to bring more renewables and probably make investments ourselves in new technology. We should be a hub here in Denver for new technologies like battery storage.

 

Pivots: Has the existing administration fallen short in any substantial way in this?

Tafoya: I can think of one example. Denver initially supported the continuation of the operation of Comanche 3 or Tower 3 in Pueblo until 2070. That’s simply unacceptable. It’s unacceptable to continue to operate coal facilities for another 40 years that we should not have invested in.

This goes hand in hand against our environmental justice goals that we fought so hard for in Denver. It’s so unfair of us to take the power and expose another community like Pueblo to the air particulate pollution for our own power generation.

Comanche Generating Station, 2014

The Comanche Generating Station in 2014. The emissions stack for Comanche 3 is on the left. Photo/Allen Best

Pivots: I don’t quite understand that. You’re saying that the City of Denver supported continued operation of that plant until 2070? 

Tafoya: They did.

 

Pivots: When was this?

Tafoya: This was in the Xcel electric resource plan. Ultimately they didn’t. We shifted them. I ran a campaign of a hundred days of action on Xcel Energy that included direct action protesting on the headquarters of Xcel in addition to engaging Denver and Boulder. Ultimately they shifted, but initially they were signaling support of the continued operation of this coal power plant. And their feeling, as I recall, was that they were concerned that it may ultimately result in new gas power plants being built. That’s a fight for us to have. When Denver takes the power and Pueblo gets the pollution. That’s not regional leadership.

 

Pivots: Can you explain to me the sites in question.

Tafoya: The Cherokee gas plant is located exactly on the border of Denver and Commerce City. You could actually see it from my mother’s front yard. Grew up looking at it for many years of my life. Former coal facility turned gas-peaker plant.

Another one of them, Arapahoe, is at Ruby Hill, a predominantly Latino community as well.

If we were to just use Tower 3, Arapahoe and Cherokee —they’re all located in communities of color, predominantly Latino communities.

 

Pivots: Tell me a little bit about your personal history. You grew up in Lakewood? 

Tafoya: I grew up in West Denver, in the Barnum neighborhood around First and Federal. My mother was a union phone operator. When you dialed zero on the phone, she answered. When US West was bought by Qwest, my mom lost her job. My mom’s job was automated.

When we have these just-transition conversations with people across the state of Colorado, I firsthand know what it’s like to have your mother go from having a good-paying job to having nothing and having to change your lifestyle.

My mom switched careers, to being a social worker, first at the Denver Housing Authority and then at Mi Casa Resource Center for 15 years. They had non-traditional jobs for women. In the ‘90s they were doing green job deployment and green energy deployment. And so I actually toured facilities of solar panels and things when I was a kid. Today, we’re not nearly going fast enough.

I lived In Barnum until I was 14 years old. Then my mom got a house in the Cole neighborhood (bisected by I-70 northeast of downtown Denver). This is within eyesight of the Cherokee gas plant and across the street from Suncor and so many other kinds of pollution. My mother’s property, the residential property was a cleaned-up Superfund site from the Asarco explosion in the ‘80s.

 Suncor Refinery,Commerce City, April 2022, Photo/Allen Best

The Suncor Refinery is located relatively near several of Denver’s poorer communities. Photo/Allen Best

The first job I ever had was at the Museum of Nature and Science. I was a teacher’s assistant there. And that had a huge impact on my love of science, my love of public health, my understanding of anthropology, and so much more.

I went to Metropolitan State University. I worked my way through college teaching early childhood education and youth summer programs. It all stems from being a teacher’s assistant when I was really young.

I also worked as an electrical apprentice. I spent a couple summers as an electrical apprentice working specifically on government bids at Cherry Creek High School, the Thornton Civic Center, the Olde Town Arvada Library.

I graduated from Metropolitan State with a degree in Political Science & Native American Studies. I’m a horticultural therapist with a certificate from Colorado State University, in addition to my water certificate and certificate in early childhood education. So I have a wide variety of education.

 

Pivots: The certificates?

Tafoya: The horticultural therapy I have is from Colorado State University. Think art therapy or music therapy with plants. So it’s part psychology, part therapy, part horticulture. I did my undergrad research on increasing yields in greenhouses with organic means.

I graduated as the valedictorian of Art and Science from Metro State in 2012, and I went to work in the mayor’s office. There, I first worked on an urban agriculture white paper, and then I was the aide to the Director of Community Affairs.

Then I went to Denver City Council where I worked in legislative services and I worked for all the council members, staffed all the committee meetings, eventually working directly for the executive director of city council and as a secretary of the city council.

At age 28, I made the decision to run for city council in Denver. It was in opposition to the criminalization of homelessness and the I-70 expansion. I saw it as an act of self-defense. That was 2015.

 

Pivots: How did it grow you? 

Tafoya: At 28 years old, rarely are you asked by others and by yourself personally to truly evaluate your opinions on such a wide variety of topics. I felt like I left that process knowing myself and my values and my feelings on issues more than I did before.

I’m writing a book about it. The title is “Jury Duty on Tax Day,” because I got jury duty on tax day. A lot of people were like, “you can’t go to jury duty, you’re too busy. You got a campaign.” And I said, what kind of leader would I be if I get out of jury duty?

I learned a lot about how to not take it personally when people let you down or when expectations aren’t what you expect. I learned a lot about how to manage my time. I learned a lot about how to do positive engagement. You begin to get better by taking that walk. At the end of the day you have to believe in yourself. You need a strong support system.

 

Pivots: What came next?

Tafoya: After that, I started working for myself independently. I worked on campaigns. I worked in media and large events doing community engagement for some of the largest festivals in Colorado. I made a documentary about the drug war, had a television show. I was a radio DJ and talk-show host for many years. I also ran ballot issues during that time.

 

Pivots: I don’t see a closet big enough for all those hats you’ve worn.

Tafoya: I did. I worked on the Denver Green Roof Initiative 2017, Resilient Denver, which was an energy tax that became a climate tax in 2019. Waste No More, a universal zero-waste ordinance. I’ve been working on that one for the last two years. And my company, GreenLatinos, called me four years ago and said, Hey, how would you feel about launching a program in Colorado to advocate for environmental justice?

Pivots: You say it’s a company?

Tafoya: We’re a non-profit national organization founded in Washington DC as the National Latino Coalition on Climate Change  in response to cap-and-trade in 2008. It became GreenLatinos.

 

Pivots: What are three different projects you have worked on with GreenLatinos.

Tafoya: Some of three things that people might know me for through GreenLatinos?

I chaired the State’s Environmental Justice Action Task Force and worked for the passage of the Environmental Justice Act. I think those are both critically interlinked.

I released a report about North Denver, which identified 189 violators of federal environmental laws in four square miles, naming the names of the businesses.

I’m really, really proud that we were the first environmental justice organization to engage in proceedings with the Air Commission, the Public Utilities Commission, and the Water Quality Control Commission. And this year we actually successfully filed for the first ever people-driven rulemaking at the water commission and one to upgrade protections on the Platte River.

 

Pivots: What should we understand about environmental justice?

Tafoya: That’s a really good question. It’s legacy. It goes back a very long time. And what you often see is that people take it personally, right? That they feel the community’s demanding change. We need to recognize that the community and the people working in the government, and often these businesses, weren’t the ones that made those decisions a hundred years ago, but we have the responsibility to do something about it now. We have to be all working collectively to try to right the wrongs, whether that be redlining, whether that be toxic legacy pollution.

 

Pivots: Are you saying that there’s a tendency for defensiveness?

Tafoya: Around environmental justice? Absolutely. Especially I think in the government. Having been a government employee, I can tell you that you don’t always get the nicest calls.

You are also dealing with people who—let’s be real, in environmental justice communities kids are missing school because they’re sick. Your families are dying because of leukemia. You may end up paying higher energy rates. You’re living in a community where you can’t even recreate fairly. By the time you are dealing with a government worker, you maybe aren’t the happiest you’ve ever been. So that interaction can really be a challenge. In my coaching of people around the state I teach them how to work with government workers. Having been one, I definitely think that’s critically important.

 

Pivots: What do you tell them? 

Tafoya: It depends on what their issue is, and how many times have you talked to them? We tell them to remember that these people are empowered to help. It’s better to have a positive relationship with them than a negative relationship. Also, it’s their job. So even if you have a bad interaction with them, that doesn’t mean you can’t repair it and have an improved relationship going forward.

It’s also really important for you to understand what a person’s limitations are and to work with them within those limitations. If that means you have to go above them or talk to another agency, that’s okay. But you need to work with them to understand what their limitations are.

Then you have a responsibility to pivot, to say this isn’t where I’m going to get my resolution. Where else can I go?

Lastly, document your journey to rectifying whatever your problem is so that you can go to the next person and say, well, we did this, this, and this. What’s the next step?

Back to the environmental justice. I think this is a really critical thing. One of the things I’ve learned the most about environmental injustice is it thrives the most in the borderlands, whether that be actual borders between two cities and two counties, because people can point directions on whose responsibility it is. And also if a polluter is in one jurisdiction and you’re in another jurisdiction, you maybe have less leverage over them to do the right thing than the people who are in that jurisdiction. And then that borderlands are not just geographic boundaries, right? It’s also jurisdictional boundaries from, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to say Denver Public Health and Environment. And who ultimately holds the responsibility, who has primacy over issues? Where do local control boundaries end? I think these are things that you’re not taught in school.

I think if you get involved in environmental law, you have to be able to play more than one sport in environmental justice, right? Because the PUC operates differently than the Air Commission operates differently than the Water Commission. They might be similar, like tennis and racquetball are similar, but they’re not the same sport and they have different rules. And part of the Environmental Justice Action Task Force (goal) is to make changes so that you feel like you can interface it with one of them more reasonably without having to have a degree in it.

Allen Best
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